Do franchises that try to widen their appeal actually gain sales ?

There are basically two ways to manage a game franchise. Either you try to cater to your fan base, by giving them what (you believe) they want, or you try to go out of your “niche” and appeal to what (you think) gamers that were not interested in the first titles want.

What franchises ought to do is a very divisive subject among gamers, with part of the community feeling betrayed or at least misled when they  franchise is trying to appeal to the “casuals”, and other, just as vocal, gamers bashing on what they see as “entitled crybabies”. Hence, why not at least to assess whether or not trying to widen a franchise’s appeal actually helps or hinder subsequent sales.Of course, it is impossible to attributer any causal effect sales-wise to any particular choice that was made by the marketing, publishing or developing team. However, it might be interesting to see what happened to franchises that tried that strategy. After all, contrary to popular wisdom, Action-JRPGs have sold less than Turn Based JRPGs this gen,  so looking at sales can only teach us interresting things.

It’s complicated to know which franchises we should examine, which are the one that tried to “widen their appeal”. To avoid relying on my sole gamer’s experience, I’ve tried to look on forums what franchises were accused of trying to widen their appeal. Here and there, names were named, and I then looked at VgChartz to see what was the verdict of Sales, the God of the Free Market.

There are a lot of title sales I tried to look for, like the original Fallout, Street Fighter III, and so one, but could not find, probably because data are too old to be public. As I already spent a whole article on Kitase’s approach of Final Fantasy, there is no reason for me to dig into that again, but if you see another franchise I should look into, please say so in the comments.

I. Franchises that did not gain or lose any sales by trying to widen their appeal

Mass Effect

Divisive among the divisives, Mass Effect 2 decided to take the franchise closer to Gears of War and further from Bioware’s older titles. Mass Effect 2 sold 2.85 on 360 and 0.26 on PC, while the first episode that was less shooting oriented sold 2.61 on 360 and 0.53 on PC. In the end, removing RPG elements neither hurt nor helped the franchise, eventhought one can make a case that it hurted in the long run since Mass Effect 3 sold lower numbers than 2 on PS3 and 360.

Resident Evil

Resident Evil 4 is famous for having completely reinvented the franchise by adding a strong action element, and, at the same time, dubbing down the survival horror element. Being such a critical success, we can imagine RE4 to have greatly surpassed, sales wise, the titles before it. Well, it’s not the case at all.

Resident Evil 3 on PSX sold 3.72 while Resident Evil 4 on PS2 reached a close equivalent of 3.62. On Gamecube, where Resident Evil 4 first came out, it sold 1.69 million copies, a number that is only 11% higher than what the remake of the original Resident Evil sold on the same console three years before (1.42).

Splinter Cell

I cannot make the direct comparison between Conviction that did away with a lot of the franchises stealth element, and the preceding title as VgChartz does not give any data for sales of Splinter Cell : Double Agent on PS2 and XBOX. However, Splinter Cell Conviction sales on 360 (1.96) is actually in between the original Splinter Cell (3.02 on XBOX) and Pandora Tomorrow (1.48). I’ll let you decide wether or not it is a success.

II. Franchises that lost a significant amount of sales when the tried to widen their appeal

Dragon Age

Dragon Age II has gathered so much criticism that it’s difficult to pinpoint what hurted its sales, but much of the fan’s ire was at least partly directed toward the dumbed down, action oriented combat. On PC, Dragon Age II sold about as much as Dragon Age Origins. However, The franchise lost 60% of its sales on 360 and 57% on PS3.

Ninja Gaiden

Ninja Gaiden 2 on 360 sold close to a million copies (0.96) while Ninja Gaiden 3 on the same system achieved only 10% of this number. On PS3, Sigma 2 sold 0.75 while Ninja Gaiden 3 sold 0.16. In the end, Ninja Gaiden sales went down 84.5% from number 2 to number 3 – a result of loss of quality or of a dumbing down of the game’s notorious difficulty ?

Kickstarter, this is only the beginning

Ah, the Kickstarter nay-sayers… A few month ago, when Tim Schafer managed to fund his point-and-click adventure game in less than 8 hours, the repeating machine that was the internet was screaming that it was not possible to raise more than an indie budget through crowdfunding. A month later, when Tim had raised over 3 million dollars (and still counting, since they are now accepting paypal orders), which is the budget of a HD PS2 game, the internet mass had change to: well it’s Tim Schafer and it’s adventure games but this probably wont happen again.

At that time, there were only 5 or 6 games ever presented on the Kicktarter website. Now, you say ? Its 228! Big names like Carmaggedon, Leisure Suit Larry, Shadowrun are making a comeback. Wasteland 2 raised almost as much money as Double Fine adventure, and of course, dozens of new devs started their small project this way and can now have an opportunity to show what they can do and build a fanbase. And still, this is only the beginning. Most gamers, believe it or not, haven’t ever heard of Kickstarter. I said it before, i’ll say it again: Kickstarter can really be the way to resurrect mid-budget games that where thriving during the last generation. But I’ll even go further than this: I’ll say that in two years you’ll have your first AAA crowdfunded game.

Reasons for this are obvious and I’ve already touched them on another post: crowdfunding is at the same time a way to cut off the middle man (and potentially let the developer earn 100% of what you pay instead of the mere 20 or 30% hey earn nowadays) and to improve gaming as a whole since it is a way to trust authors to realize their vision instead of publishers and marketing departments who are always one step behind. There will be blunder, there will be disappointments (like always), but crowdfunding, in the long run, is really a way for us to have our cake and eat it too.

We are only at the beginning. For example, Japan needs to build a bilingual Kickstarter site. Kickstarter only accepts project from America, and is only in English. But the Japanese game industry is probably the most adapted to the crowdfunding model.

First, Japan’s strength these ten years has been to allow game authors to put themselves forward (while a lot of publishers still prohibit it) and create auteur-driven games. Japan now has this unvaluable capital of game rockstar personas that are known worldwide among gamers: from the most famous like Hideo Kojima and Tetsuya Nomura to more obscure but still revered artistes like Yoko Taro (Nier) or Swery65 (Deadly Premonition), litteraly dozens of loved artists that can create the gathering that you need to make crowdfunding happen.

Second, Japanese gamers and Western Otakus are an avid and dedicated fanbase that will be easier than most other crowd to mobilize, especially with all the colllector editions and stuff you can offer with crowdfunding.

Why I believe Final Fantasy Type-0 will be localized as a HD title

The PSP remasters Sony launched last year are, like the Vita, a promising idea to solve one of the biggest issue faced by Japanese developers: Japanese players like their game portables, whereas in the West, home console games sell much better than their DS or PSP counterpart. In the last 10 months, some, although not much, of the biggest PSP hits have already been remastered (The two God of War, Metal Gear Peace Walker, Monster Hunter 3rd) and the next logical step would be to extend this idea to Square Enix PSP blockbusters: Crisis Core and Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep.

In the meantime, one of the PSP biggest hit is still being silently localized: Final Fantasy Type-0. With no information about it at E3 (Square is starting to be very secretive about everything…), I suspect that the reason why we don’t hear about Type-0 is because it’s going to be released in the West as a HD title.

Let me explain why this is not (only) wishful thinking.

First, PSP remasters (like HD remasters in general) are not that expensive to make. Sony even provided a software for developers to automatize most of the process. Of course, one can expect a few legal issues if Square intends to have a 360 version but, when you look at Final Fantasy sales on all HD platforms (especially the last title, XIII-2, sales) it is not clear if this is worth the tedium.

Second, while HD remasters have never sold in very impressive numbers, I’m pretty sure this is only due to the fact that older titles benefit from less hype (just like all ports). As you may know, I’ve been analyzing JRPGs sales data for a while now : the hype of a fresh, new HD Final Fantasy is still hard to beat sales-wise especially if you consider how much of Final Fantasy sales are Day one sales. What I mean is that the rumored Crisis Core remaster, while probably as expensive to make as the Type-0 remaster (or not way less expensive), would without any doubt in my mind sell less than 25% of a Type-0 remaster.

The only risk for Square is to have some of the PSP version (if this one is going west) cannibalized by the HD version, but if you take a title like Dissidia, 60% of the PSP sales are already in Japan/Asia (whereas for Final Fantasy XIII it’s only 28% if I remember correctly) . As I see it, I’d expect a PSP only version of Type-0 to sell about as much as Dissidia in the West (a little less than a million copies), maybe more since it’s a true RPG, but a HD version could easily double that (and charge a little more – not too much thought). My prediction (I’m playing Michael Patcher here,we’ll see if I’m right) is that the PSP sales would not suffer more than 50% of the sales, making the HD-ification a “must” in business terms – and not much of a gamble anyway. Plus, Japanese love their international versions: give ’em an international HD version!

Finally, Square doesn’t have any big HD announcement for the West in 2012 from their Japan studios. Versus XIII may be shown at TGS, we still have no news of the X remake. Type-0 HD could “fit” in their big name release for the fiscal year.

 

Nier director thoughts on Kickstarter

After being asked if he would try to fund a spiritual sequel to cult RPG Nier through Kickstarter, ex-Cavia employee and Nier director and writer Yoko Taro explained his position on crowdfunding.

I knew about Mr Tim Schafer’s case. That is brave story but I’m afraid to do that. Because Nier isn’t made by only me. I need many people. Producers, designers, programmers, (and also player like you).

May be I need money, team and good timing It’s very difficult But I’ll try to find that:…)

I promise.

Thanks lot again. And I apologize about my poor English.

Yoko Taro

Link to Yoko Taro’s blog (in japanese, but this comment is in english)

Die, publisher, die ! Tim Schafer, Kickstarter and the birth of auteur-driven games

What do David Cage, Sid Meier and Hideo Kojima have in common ? They understood long ago that video games, like any other art form, shall reflect one’s personal vision, like a musician’s album or an author’s book.

Something pretty exciting happened a few days ago. Tim Schafer obtained, though Kickstarter, 1,7mil $ in pledges for an unnammed, unspecified point and click adventure game no one wants to publish or fund. If this picks up as a trend, we will finally see more auteur-driven games instead of publisher-driven ones.  Auteurs like David Jaffe, Tetsuya Takahashi, Swery65, Hidetaka Miyazaki, Yokoo Taro, and such could have what this medium really needs: more creative freedom.

In the Internet age, publishers are less useful than they used to be, but they still take the same share of profit and have the same amount of control on content. I have yet to hear a story where a publisher made a game better. Oh, I am sure that there are some, publishers are not all the devil incarnate and not everything is black and white. But we heard plenty of stories where publishers made a game worse or at least less unique. Publishers don’t want to take to much risk with a project, and that’s why every mid-budget to AAA game tries to emulate what seems to sell at the moment: tacked-on multiplayer, protagonists that all look the same (generic bald guy in the West, generic young emo in Asia), shooting in games that don’t need it (I’m looking at you, Deadly Premonition), online passes, tyrannical deadlines that results in buggy or unfinished games, etc. etc.

But, guess what : in every medium, the publisher is going to have less and less of a role to play: blogs replace book publishers, last.fm replaces music publishers etc. etc. This could be it for videogames. We don’t need publishers anymore to inform us about new games (that’s what google is for), we don’t need them anymore to find out what people want (that’s what Facebook and the like are for) and, thanks to crowd funding, we don’t need them to loan some money to developers at what is the equivalent of a ridiculous interest rate .

While I don’t see all this as a new venue for indie (but indie games are already exploding under the current market), this trends is something that can really resurrect mid-budget games. If pre-orders are directly paid to the developers, they really only need 1/3 of what they would need had they to pay the publisher and retail. And what do they lose ? TV ads ? seriously ? Valve did the TV ads for Portal themselves and I’m pretty sure any intern could do an ad for a videogame better than most of what we see.

How Square Enix could pull off the Final Fantasy VII remake

There is little doubt that Final Fantasy VII is one of the most (if not the most) requested remakes of all time. But Square’s is in kind of a dilemma about it.

First, the production cost of this game would be huge. Sure, the developer would save (some) money on character design, story and art direction – but if you factor in that 95% of video game production cost nowadays go into graphics, and that creating a game while being forced to reproduced given environments instead of optimizing level design according to available technology inflates the cost, you might ask why Square would bother doing this instead of, say, Final Fantasy XV or XVI.

However, there could be a few advantages in remaking the legendary J-RPG. First and foremost, it would convey the feeling that Square listen to its fans, which, from a marketing standpoint, is essential. Second of all, it would bring the series into a more public view (one could easily imagine “most demanded game remake of all time costing 100m$ to produce” in mainstream newspapers). Third, Square could capitalize on the graphics engine and assets developed for the remake to produce a couple of sequels (VII-2 and VII-3) that would in turn probably cost much less to produce than the remake and sell better than XIII-2 and a potential XIII-3. Last but not least, Square could subcontract a significant part (albeit not all) of the remake’s production to a less costly team.

If things were not complicated enough from a financial standpoint, the dilemma really appears as soon as you starting thinking about how Square could handle the remake. If nothing is changed apart from the graphical upgrade, the game will show its age. If too much is changed, the fans will be disappointed.

Take a clue from Pokémon (and Nier)

The best selling RPG series of all time is Pokémon. Do you know what Pokémon does ? It spawns (at least) two versions of each games on Day one. Could Square pull of the Final Fantasy VII remake by making two versions of it ?

Final Fantasy VII – Old school version

The old school version of the remake would essentially be a graphical upgrade and a few gameplay tweaks here and there to make it more player friendly without touching any core mechanics (like an “heal all” option a la Dragon Quest, “suspend”, “fast forward combat” etc.) . The script would be left untouched, and a some gameplay options would be given to the player so that he could enjoy the combat system more to his liking (ATB or completely turn-based a la FFX – which is basically the same as the “wait mode” from the original – difficulty modes for veterans). But essentially, this version would allow Final Fantasy VII most hardcore nostalgic to relive the original game with HD graphics.

Final Fantasy VII – New school version

The new school version could be Square’s chance to show how they can implement new, more modern, gameplay mechanics that would be more fit to the newcomer. Although it has been shown that Japanese turn-based RPGs actually sell better than their action counterparts, this could be the time for Square to show off a new, refined, ultra-responsive gameplay, to edit the script . If Square is afraid that the game hasn’t aged well, this is the version that takes care of this problem.

Square could have its cake and eat it too by increasing the game’s production cost by 5%

Basically both game would share the same graphics and most of the script, which would mean that most of the production cost would serve both version. As I’m pretty sure that a lot of people would actually buy both version (if Nier ‘s and Pokémon‘s experience is to be believed) this could be a great way to pull off the remake.

What are the biggest J-RPGs dev teams from the PS2 Era up to ?

This article is part of a series comparing Japan-made RPGs of the 7th generation to the ones of the PS2 era. Last time, we talked about what features were heavily introduced by 7th gen J-RPGs, such as auto-heal, the restart battle option and the progressive disappearance of random drops. In the future, I would like to compare 7th and 6th gen J-RPGs in terms of sales and of critical reception. But in the meantime, let’s see what the developers of the major RPGs of the PS2 era did in the HD era, and what they are doing right now. Of course, J-RPGs largely migrated from PS2 to portable systems, but our favorite teams still created a lot of great (and some not so great)  titles for HD systems. Next time, we’ll look at newcomers.

1. Square Enix First Production Department

6th generation titles

7th generation HD titles

Apart from the Final Fantasy X remake that the team is handling we know that the team is also starting the development of an UE3 A-RPG, for which only a few concept arts have been released :

2. Cavia

6th generation titles

7th generation HD titles

Nier is pretty different from Drakengard, as it plays more like Zelda than like Dynasty Warriors.  It’s an amazing J-RPG that did very well despite its ridiculously low budget. However, Cavia was disbanded and we have yet to hear from Yosuke Taro.

3. Tri-Ace

6th generation titles

7th generation HD titles

Tri-Ace recently showed off a powerful new graphic engine so it’s reasonable to believe  that, apart from their two new portable titles, a HD-RPG is in development. A partnership with Konami seems the most obvious choice, since the publisher of Suikoden is already bringing Frontier Gate and Beyond the Labyrinth to portable systems.

4. Monolith Soft.

6th generation titles

7th generation home console titles

While Xenoblade had a great reception in Europe, it is still being localized in the US. The team also has an unannounced Wii U title in the works, a title that wants to surprise us but will (unsurprisingly) star giant robots.

5. ATLUS Persona Team

6th generation titles

7th generation HD titles

Everybody knows Persona 5 is coming for HD consoles, the only question is when.

6. Tales Studio

6th generation titles

7th generation HD titles

Grace F is coming to the West in 2012, and there is little doubt Xillia will, at one time or another, be localized too.

7. From Software

6th generation titles

7th generation HD titles

The team is hopefully getting some well deserved RPG rest while polishing Armored Core V, although it has been rumored that Dark Souls DLC was being developed.

8. Sonic Team

6th generation titles

HD titles

With the success of Dark Souls on home consoles, could we expect a PS360 announcement regarding Japan’s other huge online dungeon crawler,  PSO 2 ?

9. Square Enix 2nd Production Department

6th generation titles

7th generation titles

10. Square Enix 3rd Production Department

6th generation titles

HD titles

The reformed team is actually working on Final Fantasy XIV 2.0, a reboot that will also constitute the PS3 version.

11. Square Enix 4th Production Department

6th generation titles

Even though the team as no HD titles announced, it has been speculated that Square Enix 4th Production Department is currently working on Final Fantasy XV.

12. Cyber Connect 2

7th generation HD titles

Yes, Asura’s Wrath probably does not qualify as an RPG but we have yet to play it to know. The unannounced games are Strelka Stories and a new .hack featuring Haseo,  (or a Haseo look alike) : let’s hope at least one of them is a HD title.

13. Level 5

6th generation titles

7th generation titles


14. Gust

6th generation titles

7th generation

After Meruru  that is currently being localized by NISA, GUST is currently working on a mysterious new RPG.

So that’s it, here is what the biggest J-RPGS dev teams of the PS2 era have been doing this generation, and what they are doing right now. Of course, many new teams appeared this gen, like Sakaguchi’s Mistwalker and Tri-crescendo (who collaborated on Baten Kaitos). Let’s tackle those some other time.