EA’s Tough Sell

by Steve Bowler on December 28, 2008 · 12 comments

in general

Awhile back, while I was living under a bus, I saw an article on Joystiq which pointed to a much larger article on Gamasutra, which in essence, said “new IP for EA fails.”

They’re referring of course to the less than stellar launch of EA’s new IP this quarter of Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space.  While both articles seem to paint the failing economy and the consumer’s lack of faith in spending money they might not have combined with the fact that “new IP is hard to sell” as the culprits, I think they’re missing the larger point as to why they fell short.

I’m pretty sure it isn’t the fact that they’re new IP.  New IP is certainly difficult to get people to buy, if you compare it to selling a sequel, such as Madden, as the graph above (liberally stolen from Joystiq who stole it from Gamasutra) implies.  But the problem is that a blanket statement like that is patently false, and pretty easy to shoot holes in.  Left 4 Dead sold pretty well (450k on Xbox 360 alone, and Valve never releases the Steam sales #s, so who knows how much better it did there).  Spore has sold upwards of two million units.  Both are new IP, so we can see that EA doesn’t have much of a problem publishing new IP or getting consumer traction with them.  If we look to previous years IP, we can see that Gears of War (the original) sold what, three million units?  Assassin’s Creed sold something like six million units.  Even lame duck new IPs like Kane and Lynch sold well over a million.

So it’s probably not that they’re new IP.  Mirror’s Edge was marketed out the wazoo, what with multiple comic books, flash animated web trailers, ads everywhere, and I’m sure their internet “buzz” rating was high considering all of the pieces written about the main character and the first person nature of the parkouring.  Dead Space had a pretty high anticipation rate, at least in the quick straw poll amongst my friends and co-workers, so, why didn’t people buy it?

The problem with this notion, is that I think people did buy them.  They bought them both used.  My team in particular grabbed Dead Space for competitive analysis used a mere four days after it had launched.  This is pretty much a death knell for any title, as the vast majority of your sales occurs within the first two weeks following launch.  To have those numbers crippled by used sales is horrible, but there’s a reason why it happened.

Both games are relatively short single player games.  Sure, sure, there’s some time trial business in Mirror’s Edge, but I don’t think that’s a big draw for a lot of folks who bought it.  There is no great value to a repeat playthrough, especially since there is little to no branching content in either title, and it’s my opinion that neither title was particularly innovative, either (I’m going to suffer the slings and arrows for this opinion, but I’ll elaborate in a later piece).  So, I don’t think there was a very large retention rate amongst consumers who didbuy it new.  They probably burned through the game in a two or three night playthrough, felt it wasn’t worth the $64 they paid for it, traded them in and got something else for their money while the title still retained a high trade-in value, and moved on.  Meanwhile, people who missed out on the launch bandwagon were able to buy the title used less than a week after it hit the shelves.

While I would like to turn this into a hit piece on why used games are bad for the industry, I’m instead going to take the route that I can impact and point out that we as developers need to deliver content that’s worth keeping.  This means a single player campaign that lasts significantly longer than 6-10 hours, if there isn’t any multiplayer content.  Games like Spore and Fallout3 do this quite amicably, with something in the neighborhood of 25-50 hours of content.  Both titles also have a decently high replay rate, as it’s nearly impossible to explore all of the game’s content on a single playthrough.

Other Q4 titles such as Gears 2 or CoD:WaW have a high consumer retention value due to the extensive multiplayer aspects of the titles (and the fact that they’re sequels to highly successful franchises goes a long way to boot), so there isn’t a ton of used titles to be found, especially during the critical first month of sales.

There’s some kind of secret formula here, one that should hopefully keep your title out of the hands of the used stockpiles, and while oversimplified, it goes something like this:

  • Single Player Content ~ 12 hours
  • Co-op or other networked non-competitive online play
  • Rich compelling multiplayer content, append-able with DLC

That’s pretty much the CoD/Gears/Halo/L4D formula up there.  The Spore/Fallout/Oblivion/Final Fantasy example is much more simplistic:

  • Single Player Content > 25 hours

I’m not saying I’m any kind of rocket scienctist for throwing these formulas up here; tons of people are already rolling their eyes at them.

The point here is that you just can’t release a game that takes 6 hours to play and expect people to throw out $64 for it.  I’m sure both titles are at a reduced price now, but they launched at full retail price.  I don’t care how new and innovative you think your IP is (and let’s be honest, neither Dead Space nor Mirror’s Edge was horribly innovative or changed the game space we play or develop in), if you don’t deliver the consumer “their money’s worth” they’re going to not give you all of their money, or worse, they’re going to make sure you don’t make it (intentionally or no) by returning your game as a used title and buying something else.

Consumers wouldn’t accept a movie that cost $10 to get into but only lasted for 40 minutes.  Why should we expect gamers to latch onto a retail model that delivers a similar value?

New IP here isn’t the problem.  A small value per dollar is.

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