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Analysis: The  Gears of War  Franchise - Behind The Data
Analysis: The Gears of War Franchise - Behind The Data
January 22, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

January 22, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC

[The eight most-played Xbox Live games of the holiday season were all sequels, according to gaming social network GamerDNA -- and the first part of this Gamasutra-exclusive data analysis reveals player usage trends around both titles in the Gears of War franchise.]

The NPD recently revealed sales numbers for the biggest titles of year's end, showing significant sales for games including Gears of War 2, Call of Duty: World at War, and Nintendo's stalwart Wii favorites.

But sales are only a small part of a title's real success -- in which actual playtime and engagement plays a role much harder to quantify.

Gaming social network GamerDNA, which lets users track and share play time, progress and achievements on networked titles, also acts as a database that studies player trends for the benefit of developers.

GamerDNA polled some 150,000 Xbox Live users to find out which games were the most popular over the holiday season, and found that some of the most-played titles within its userbase were sales chart-toppers -- and yet some of them weren't.

The top eight titles among Xbox Live users on the site were:

1. Call of Duty: World At War (Activision)
2. Fable 2 (Microsoft)
3. Saints Row 2 (THQ)
4. Fallout 3 (Bethesda)
5. NHL 09 (Electronic Arts)
6. Rock Band 2 (MTV/Harmonix)
7. Guitar Hero: World Tour (Activision)
8. Gears of War 2 (Microsoft)

A clear pattern emerges -- all of the most-played titles of the holiday season were sequels, with a debut original IP title not to be seen among the top ten.

"People moan about derivative garbage, but when their hind ends hit the couch, they want something they already know they’re going to enjoy," says GamerDNA community analyst Sanya Weathers.

But the stats bear closer inspection -- is the popularity of sequels driven by brand recognition or by their authenticity compared to their predecessors? Can they continue to gain market share?

Using the GamerDNA membership database, analyst Weathers took a closer look at four "gaming powerhouse" franchises over time -- Call of Duty, Gears of War, Guitar Hero and Rock Band to see what insights she could glean about sequels, and Gamasutra will be exclusively publishing insights from her results.

Gears 2 Less Played Than Original?

"First, we looked at a traditional shooter and sequel scenario," says Weathers. "Gears of War was a well-reviewed, well-received game with solid sales numbers -– it hit five million copies sold in September of 2008. Since its launch in November of 2006, 77 percent of GamerDNA’s Xbox 360 owners have played it. It offered a multiplayer component, which served to keep the title fresh in the minds of the playing community."

"Gears 2 was designed and executed by the same studio that designed the first one, and launched exactly two years after its predecessor. With only two months of data, it’s a bit early to call any trends," she says. "But it was as well reviewed as the first one, and had the power of being a known franchise boosting early numbers."

Weathers pulled data on both Gears titles on the 54th day after the sequel's launch and found that 43.4 percent of the sample had tried the new title.

But by day 54 of the original Gears' lifespan, 74 percent of the study population had played it. Weathers characterizes the GamerDNA audience as "early adopters" as one possible explanation for the stronger response to the franchise when it was new.

DLC Wellspring Not Limitless

Notably, the following line graph shows the number of members playing per day since release:

"The peaks all coincide with releases of downloadable content," says Weathers. Surprisingly, she finds that the DLC provided diminishing returns, and that the engagement wellspring DLC promises can run dry over time: "The peaks got smaller, and the boosts lasted for less time each time that bucket went to the well," she says.

"Furthermore, the first map pack for Gears 2 does not seem to have had any effect on play time at all," adds Weathers.

The Sequel Effect

As is to be expected, Gears 2 took a big chunk out of its predecessor's usage. Also very notable is the launch of Halo 3 in September 2007, according to Weathers -- an anomalous dip in March 2007 was due to an Xbox Live crash, and not reflective of the game.

Looking more closely, Weathers says 12 percent of the sampled audience who played Gears 2 never played the first one. And just slightly more than 50 percent of original Gears players haven't yet tried the sequel.

Is there anything to learn from players who've bought and played both titles? "Well, we can definitely put them into two groups -- people who played the first Gears Of War title all the way up to the release of the sequel, and those who did not," Weathers notes.

In fact, 76 percent of the GamerDNA membership who played the first Gears were no longer actively playing it at the time the second one launched.

"We can’t know the reasons, although we can fairly speculate that many of them had played the single player game, finished it for their purposes, and moved on to other games," Weathers suggests.

"Since we’re talking about a group that liked the first one well enough to buy the second one, this lack of engagement is not a problem for the game’s publisher."

The second group includes those still actively playing the first Gears when the second one launched.

As the chart shows, more than 85 percent of players who logged into the original Gears Of War all the way up to the sequel's launch date have left the original in the past -- only a little more than 5 percent ever went back. Just 10 percent of players play both titles.

In our next Gamasutra-exclusive installment, Weathers and GamerDNA will examine the Call of Duty franchise -- specifically the transition from the fourth to the fifth installment -- to see how the franchise's playing habits have changed over the past couple of years.

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The reasons DLC has bad returns is the same reason that I would never even think about returning to EverQuest or EverQuest 2. With more DLC (expansions) comes a separation in people. Sure, I could go pop in EQ and start playing from the main continent, but I would be alone because everyone else would be playing the new content. Same goes for an FPS with a map pack, I'll only be able to play the original maps while others will be trying out the new maps. There is a separation in the community when that happens; you don't know who has what maps. It really is enough to make some players just say "oh well, I'll go play another game where I know everyone is even."

As you can see I'm not a fan of payed DLC for multiplayer games because it separates the community and eventually loses players. Multiplayer games in my opinion don't need new maps. If the MP game is fun then the shipped maps should be more than enough for its entire life cycle. Just look at Counter-Strike, how many times have you played de_dust? de_dust2? italy? office? I know I played each of those maps too many times to count, and I really didn't care because the game was fun.

Payed DLC should be single player only or non essential multiplayer things like models/skins.

Also at some points in the article it sounds like it is assumed that if the person played GoW2 that they bought it when they could have just as easily rented it.

Eric Carr
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You're right about the splintering that happens when new maps are put out. Yet at the same time new maps are nice, especially for a matured property, and we can't expect new maps to be made for free on a console.

I think that Bungie had it right with making the maps free after a certain time has passed. I wonder what the play graphs for that would look like though.

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@ Eric

Yea I didn't know Bungie did that with the free after a certain time frame thing. That is pretty cool, and could work well to bring in those that will just pass the game up if there are too many content packs available.

I think FPS games should come with a map editor like FarCry 2 then there would be no reason to have these map packs. Also when you see how easy it is when a solution like the FarCry 2 map editor is in place there really is no reason they shouldn't be able to put out free map packs. I've made a lot of maps for various games and while it takes time of course to create maps, for a professional the time is drastically cut down with the right tools. All I'm saying it shouldn't be out of the question to release map packs for free.

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I'd like to add that the big difference with Counter-Strike and Gears of War 2 is that the maps for CS are free. In the first GoW, I had purchased the new maps (before they were free) but yet I found myself playing on the original maps anyway because my friends didn't want to pay. As BN said, splintered.

Also, as humans, the more choices we have the more difficult it is for us to arrive at a decision... universally. CS is a great example. The staple maps for that game were Dust, Office, Aztec and Italy. The other maps were played but those 4 were played much more often. Even with only 4 good ones I remember disagreements would break out quite often.

Now there is a Gears of War game that comes with many maps. I would love to know the ratio of new maps played to old maps. I'd bet that the old maps account for 1/3 of the total games played. We are creatures of habit. The more choices we have the more difficult it is to make a decision.

If Epic wanted to really do the community a favor they'd release FUEL DEPOT and RAVEN DOWN free of charge and include in the flashback mix.

Edin Burgh
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This is such a great entry. Thanks for sharing this essay. I love gears of war.