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On Halo 4, disappointing sales and being responsible for some guy’s job

I think the general consensus of Halo 4 is that it is a gorgeous and well-made AAA shooter that long-time Halo fans will love. The multiplayer manages to incorporate a lot of the customization concepts Call of Duty has made the genre standard while still retaining, more or less, that unmistakable Halo feel. The reception to the single player has been more mixed, the campaign dense with lore that punishes you for not reading all of the novels and comics, eerily mirroring similar complaints leveled at another Xbox 360 exclusive, 2011’s Gears of War 3. You might not like Halo at all on a personal level, and you might have wished that Halo 4 was more innovative in certain respects, but it inherently has too much quality to be deemed a bad game by most any practical measure. The green box with the 87 on Metacritic confirms that.

Then there’s the 5.8 in the yellow circle next to it, aggregated from user reviews, and the now-infamous 1/5 score given by Tom Chick in his review for Quarter To Three.

I have not played Halo 4. I am not going to buy and play it. I own a 360 but I just don’t like Halo. This write-up is not about the game or the series as a whole. It’s about this user comment, made on the website Giant Bomb:

“…but goddamn its not a 1/5, and id hate for this to dock their metacritic and possibly make 343 lose a bonus for the game that they worked years on and IS a quality product,” (sic)

Here is the article that contains that comment.

I think games journalism is still reeling from the controversy surrounding Rab Florence, Geoff Keighley, Lauren Wainwright, and a bag of ostentatiously-placed Doritos. I’m not going to provide links because you’ve probably read about the whole thing already. If accusations of “payola,” of games journalists being too cozy with PR reps, is a major concern most gamers have about the business surrounding our favorite hobby, I’m going to posit another, far more serious concern that I have as a gamer and consumer.

Why the fuck do I feel personally responsible for some guy keeping his job?

Look, we live in a consumer capitalist society. We vote with our wallets. It is because of us that the gaming industry is now bigger than Hollywood. It is because of our passion and devotion to the advancement of interactive software that many talented programmers, artists and designers can make a living creating the games we love to play. That’s all well and good.

But, the amount of pressure put on us to purchase product is now officially getting out of hand.

So, let me get this straight. You want me to plunk down $60 six months in advance based on trailers and preview articles? Alright, fine. OK, you want me to drop $80 for a limited edition that includes a 24-page artbook and a soundtrack, and maybe a steelcase? I…guess that’s cool. I see, now you want me to pay $150, nearly the price of the actual console itself, to buy a version of your game that includes the artbook, the soundtrack, the steelcase, and a statue? Um…OK.

But that’s not enough, is it? It’s not enough that I can’t name another fairly-accessible hobby that is as expensive as video games (we’re talking common hobbies here, not collecting condor eggs). Now, we’re talking about Metacritic scores, pre-order numbers, bonuses, and how I am actually responsible for someone’s job. If I don’t buy Halo 4, or if Tom Chick decides to give it his honest low review score, then guess what? We are directly responsible for the jobs of all the people at 343.

Why do we know that this is how the games industry works? Why should we care? Why is the inherently self-interested act of spending our discretionary income on video games being turned into some sort of virtuous act of helping people keep their jobs? Is it my fault that I didn’t buy Blur, which lead to Activision closing the doors of Bizarre Creations? Or is it simply that I was already enjoying Need for Speed, Forza, Gran Turismo, Dirt, Mario Kart, or any of the other racing games already on the market? Did Activision honestly expect a racing game not part of an existing franchise to move 3-4 million copies in the first place? Is it my fault that I didn’t buy Vanquish, further putting Japanese game development in the grave and leading to the departure of Shinji Mikami from Platinum Games? Or was it the fault of the developers and Sega, who decided to make a five-hour score attack game? A modern-day shooter with no multiplayer mode?

For the record, I eventually picked up Vanquish used and thought it was a great game. But I still personally felt that I just wasn’t going to pay $60 for it, period, as is my right as a consumer. It is grotesque, disturbing and wholly unnecessary for the gaming industry, publishers, developers, and yes even journalists, to put so much pressure on us to, well, give them jobs.

Who the hell is out there doing that for us?

The flip-side to this is that, well, it’s nice to know how the industry works, and the idea that 343 would be in trouble if Halo 4 doesn’t sell truckloads and garner a high Metacritic score is unfortunately true. Imagine some sort of nightmare scenario if Halo 4 bombed. Let’s say it only sold 100,000 copies, after we already know that the game is Microsoft’s most expensive to date and probably needs to ultimately sell 4-6 million to turn a profit.

Safe to say that everyone at 343 probably would be out of a job. A scary thought, and one that I should not in any way feel responsible for, just as Tom Chick should not feel responsible for snatching bonuses out of the development team’s hands because he’s part of the reason why that aforementioned green box on Metacritic doesn’t have a 90 inside it.

We’ve been subjected to a lot of sales talk recently and some of it truly boggles the mind. THQ posted a loss because they needed Darksiders II to shift two million units just to break even and it’s only reached 1.4 million with interest in the game waning. Did any real gamer who talks to other real gamers honestly expect Darksiders II to be a smash-hit? If I asked you before its release if you thought the game was going to move two million or more, what would you have said?

Probably. Not.

Square-Enix also posted a loss and Sleeping Dogs appears to be the culprit. The game has only moved about 1.5 million, which was apparently far below their projections. So, let me get this straight. Square-Enix expected a game everyone knew was abandoned by Activison during its True Crime days, a game that used a brand-new IP that isn’t exactly going to win any branding awards anytime soon (the word “sleeping” should probably never be in the title of a AAA video game you want to sell millions of units), to sell, what, 3 million? 4 million? More? Just because we knew it was like Grand Theft Auto doesn’t mean that it is Grand Theft Auto brand-wise. Even though I bought and loved the game, the three casuals I work with who own every GTA game have never even heard of it. So now the industry will take the failure of Sleeping Dogs as proof positive that the Activision model works. That you over-leverage an existing, already-popular IP until you have systematically squeezed all of the value out of it like it’s an orange being juiced for breakfast.

Activision posted profits of $751 million this past quarter and now it all makes sense to me. Even though someone at 343 might get fired because I didn’t buy Halo 4, my six year old, Skylanders-obsessed nephew has paid for the college funds of the kids of 2-3 dudes at Toys for Bob.

I hope he can get into college himself. He’d probably have a much better chance if he wasn’t playing and collecting Skylanders all day.
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About mrdaraparkone of us since 12:06 AM on 09.20.2012

Novelist with a day job and avid gamer.