Why Doesn’t Different Sell?

In The Escapist last week, Shannon Drake’s article Vision Doesn’t Sell Copies: The Short Life of Clover Studios talked about the development group within Capcom responsible for the games Viewtiful Joe 2, Okami, and God Hand. Clover Studios was created to “bring more originality to [Capcom’s] products, thus leading to higher profits and better brand recognition.”

I own Viewtiful Joe 2 for the GameCube. I haven’t played either Okami or God Hand, but they received some great reviews and awards.

It turned out that good reviews and awards don’t sell games. Or at least not “enough” games.

Capcom also made Dead Rising, which sold a million titles on a single platform, the Xbox 360. Viewtiful Joe 2 sold 61,000 copies on the GameCube and and 18,000 copies on the PS 2. If your business was making and selling games, which games would you direct your resources towards?

If you’ve played Viewtiful Joe 2, you would probably be as surprised as I was at these sales figures. Who hasn’t played it? Well, apparently a lot of people haven’t. I think the Dead Rising sales figures might have more to do with a lack of Xbox 360 games than with anything else. After all, the N64 had almost all of its launch titles sell over a million copies. The PS 2 has a lot of competition, and the GameCube has less. Still, selling thousands instead of millions can be disheartening.

Similarly, a number of people were surprised at the sales figures for Gish, Chronic Logic’s IGF Grand Prize-winning game about a ball of tar saving his girlfriend. It was innovative, it was fun, and yet it sold only a few thousand copies, most within the first two years of its release.

On the one hand, it is surprising that the game didn’t sell much better. With all of the publicity from the IGF awards, more people should have paid for a chance to see what an indie could do.

On the other hand, who could play it? I remember telling my friends about the game, making sure to note that it runs on Gnu/Linux. One of them complained that he couldn’t get it to run. It was jerky and slow. After talking to him over the phone, I found out that he had a very underpowered machine. “Oh, sorry. I just assumed a simple side-scroller wouldn’t require a lot of horsepower to run.”

A similar thing was happening with Dirk Dashing when a Gnu/Linux client was announced. A number of people complained on Gnu/Linux game sites about the need for hardware acceleration for what appears to be a simple side-scrolling platformer.

While those are problems of perception from players, and specifically people who don’t have modern, moderately powerful hardware for their Gnu/Linux machines, I’m sure that the hardware requirements couldn’t have hurt. Pretty much anyone meets the requirements for Bejeweled or Spiderweb Software’s games. Perhaps Gish was hurt because people couldn’t even run it. While the developers claim in their postmortem that leeches are “too smart” to pay for games, I am not so sure that you can pin a lot of blame on them. There are two benefits for the customer when you offer a demo. First, they can find out if they would even like the game. Some people didn’t like Gish, claiming it was too clunky to play. Second, they can find out if they can even play the game on their machines. If you’re still running a sub-1GHz processor, you’re out of luck.

It doesn’t explain what was wrong with Viewtiful Joe 2. You could walk into a store, pick up a copy of the game, and know that it will run on your console the way it was meant to be played. It received many more awards than Gish, including quite a few that the general gaming public would hear about. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. And yet it is considered a failure.

Tadhg Kelly of particleblog wrote that perhaps games cost too much to make. Hundreds of thousands of copies should be good, and in other industries those kinds of numbers would be great. Of course, when one game about zombies sells millions, why don’t these original games sell better?

What happened to the “contrary to conventional wisdom” revelation that profitable games are not just clones and more-of-the-same? Wasn’t it something of a news item a year or two back that the most profitable games were original properties? Is it a problem of marketing? Perhaps Dead Rising and Lost Planet received much heavier support than Viewtiful Joe 2 or Okami from Capcom?

I’ve heard a few indies complain about the lack of sales for their innovative games as compared to their clone games or sequels to clone games. Almost always, I’ve looked at the innovative game and thought, “Yeah, it’s innovative, but it’s not very fun.”

I think there are a number of variables in play. Marketing may be lacking or even wrong, telling the players something that they don’t expect when they sit down to play the game. Perhaps the price isn’t right. Maybe the game itself isn’t as good as the players would like. But I have a hard time believing that players don’t like different or new in preference to clones and prettier versions of older games.

I guess a better question is, “Why haven’t I bought Gish yet?” I’m a potential customer, and I think it is fun. I know it runs on my machine just fine. So what is stopping me from pulling out my credit card and purchasing it?

I don’t know why I didn’t do so when it first came out. I remember playing the demo, and it was fun. Heck, multiplayer was fun, and I find it funny that you don’t hear more about that aspect of the game. More importantly, out of all of the games out there, it actually runs on Gnu/Linux. I review a lot of Windows-only games for Game Tunnel, so playing a game on my preferred OS, one of the reasons I want to make games myself, is ideal. There is no reason for me not to purchase it.

So I did. It is technically my first purchase of an indie title.

Maybe there is more to the customer’s inertia involved in a sale than I thought.

8 comments to Why Doesn’t Different Sell?

  • I bought Gish 2 years back or so… (more?)

    Beware… it gets pretty hard in the later levels! AAAHHHH Nightmares.

    -T

  • Heh, thanks for the tip! I’m looking forward to the unlocked multiplayer games, too.

  • I played Gish. The controls at the time didn’t seem very intuitive to me, on top of that the subject matter isn’t all that great. It didn’t give me neat-to-look-at graphics as well as innovative play. I think I gave it about 10 minutes before removing it from my computer.

    Dead Rising sold because it’s about zombies. Zombies are popular for some odd reason within the last 10 years.

    What I don’t understand is why do people think you have to be original and innovative. The public knows what it likes, and sometimes it likes the same old gameplay packaged differently. This is why there are tons of movie sequels. People like the familiar, so if you can give them familiar then they’ll play, read, or watch it.

  • “What I don’t understand is why do people think you have to be original and innovative.”

    People would like to see video games become something more than what they already are. It’s growth. Just because people like the same-old, same-old, it doesn’t mean that we can’t explore what else can be done with the medium.

    No one was excited about filming plays and musicals on stage. What else can you do with film? It turns out, plenty. A lot of people watch comedies and action movies, but it turns out that you can do a lot more than those, too.

  • “Just because people like the same-old, same-old, it doesn’t mean that we can’t explore what else can be done with the medium.”

    Absolutely! Make the games YOU want to play and to hell with targeting a market. If your not having fun its not worth it. If your in it for the money you can make more selling your junk on ebay or cutting grass on the side. If they sell, they sell…

  • PoV

    I bought Gish the day it launched, only because the demo wasn’t available yet. That demonstration video was a powerful selling feature for me. So powerful, when I couldn’t download a demo, I forked over the cash.

    As for Viewtiful Joe 2, I played Viewtiful Joe #1, which told me everything I needed to know. I do intend to pick up the sequels, when I find them cheap used though.

  • Different may be good, but it’s also risky. Studios (game and movie and music) avoid taking risk because they have to figure out how to do something new that may not pay off in the end. Gamers do the same.

    Sure I could spend the time to learn the funky new concepts and game controls of Different Game: The Revenge, but what if I don’t like it? That’s a lot of time I just spent learning the concepts that is now a waste. By contrast, a gamer with even a passing familiarity at any FPS out there can pick up any FPS title and be killing *insert enemy drones here* in 5 minutes flat, because the basic primitives (move in 2D, aim weapon, press fire, watch gib) are already well understood.

    Sure, I could do this web application I’ve been hired to build in Ruby on Rails. RoR may be the best tool for the job. But I don’t know Ruby’s idoms. I can quote PHP’s nuances in my sleep, though, so I’ll write it in PHP, and in the end probably do a better job (have more fun) than if I had struggled through learning Ruby and Rails at the same time I was writing the program. It’s the same logic.

    When all you have is a hammer, games that don’t involve driving nails are simply not interesting. 🙂

    I also buy very few games because I have very little time to play them. Why be experimental with something when odds are I won’t get more than 5 hours play time in the next month, and may not even like it? I know I liked Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy, though, so if another Jedi game comes out (I SO want to see one using the Doom 3 engine…) I’m more likely to buy it because I know the basic game primitives, I know the setting, and I know Raven has done good work in the past. Likelihood of enjoyment: High.

  • I’m not saying you can’t try new things if you want. But we don’t *have* to have “new” or “innovative”.

    “People would like to see video games become something more than what they already are.”

    Obviously that’s not entirely the case as evidenced by the title of your post 😉

    Also you seem to forget that there’s usually innovations to be made even in established genres.

    In fact I was recently pointed to this gamasutra article, which might shed more light on the subject:
    http://www.gamasutra.com/features/20070515/cook_01.shtml

Twitter: gbgames