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Analysis: Was Using Original IP The Best Idea For Sony's PS3 Strategy?

Analysis: Was Using Original IP The Best Idea For Sony's PS3 Strategy? Exclusive

June 26, 2009 | By Matt Matthews

[Using U.S. sales data from the NPD Group, Matt Matthews examines the performance of new Sony properties like Resistance and others -- suggesting a focus on sequels might have been more profitable.]

Sony took a number of substantial risks with the design and launch of its PlayStation 3 console.

Sony bet that its new console would be a key part of winning the war for high-definition media formats. The company also expected that consumers would buy the new system at an extravagant price of $500 or $600. It counted on its momentum coming out of the last generation to overcome the challenges presented by its hardware in the new generation.

While Blu-Ray did win the HD format war, Sony continues to face headwinds with its pricing and developer relations.

On top of all these challenges, Sony added another. Instead of launching the PlayStation 3 with sequels to the franchises it owned - games like Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper and Jak & Daxter - Sony worked with its closest development partners to create a portfolio of original and exclusive franchises.

Given recent third-party discontent with PlayStation 3 sales -- like Activision CEO Bobby Kotick's recent threat to reconsider his company's support of Sony's system, a collection of Sony-controlled properties seems a wise hedge.

What seems less sage in retrospect, given the sales of these titles, is the focus on brand-new properties over established franchises.

New is the Strategy

At the November 2006 launch of the PlayStation 3 practically every other launch title was overshadowed by Resistance: Fall of Man, a dark first-person shooter set in an alternate history where humanity is threatened by a mysterious alien plague. There are two key points here.

First, Sony did not launch the PlayStation 2 with quite the same hands-on software approach. The only Sony-branded game available when the PS2 launched in the United States was FantaVision, a rather abstract puzzle game fused with a fireworks simulator.

Second, instead of building on its recognizable and popular Ratchet & Clank series, developer Insomniac Games and Sony chose to start from scratch with Resistance. At the time, Sony's intent was not clear, but we now see that several of its key developers were also given license to create all-new franchises for the nascent PlayStation 3.

Those key partners included the aforementioned Insomniac Games and Sucker Punch Productions, both independent developers whose titles have been almost exclusively published by Sony. Other developers, like Naughty Dog and Evolution Studios, have been bought by Sony and are considered internal studios.

In the case of Naughty Dog, the developer stepped away from its high profile Jak & Daxter series, popular on the PlayStation 2, and built a realistic adventure game for the PlayStation 3. Uncharted: Drake's Fortune tells the story of Nathan Drake, a wise-cracking explorer, and his quest for the treasure of his ancestor, Sir Francis Drake. That game was released in November 2007 and a sequel, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, is slated for release in late 2009.

Evolution Studios cooperated with Sony to produce and promote Motorstorm, a new offroad racing series whose concept demos impressed many in the industry when footage leaked in March 2006. Previously Evolution had been known for its licensed World Rally Championship series on the PlayStation 2, and while Motorstorm shares an exciting racing motif, it is a far different game from WRC. In September 2007, after the March release of Motorstorm in the U.S., Evolution was acquired by Sony. By October 2008 Evolution had released a sequel, Motorstorm: Pacific Rift.

The Sly Cooper games by Sucker Punch were exclusive and well-known on the PlayStation 2. For its inaugural title on the PlayStation 3, however, Sony and the veteran Sly developer worked together on inFamous, a superhero/supervillain action game set in a city gone amok.

The pattern is clear: instead of relying on established properties these key Sony partners were granted the opportunity to create completely new, top-tier franchises for the PlayStation 3. These were games the competition could never have, ones exclusively owned by Sony. These were the games heavily promoted by Sony across the media, from television to multiple features on its PlayStation blog. These were, one suspects, the games Sony hoped would be system-sellers.

Fruits of the Labor

Unfortunately for Sony and the developers involved, these games have not sold nearly as well as one might have expected given their prominence in Sony's plans.

According to U.S. figures provided by the NPD Group, which partners with retailers and publishers to track videogame sales, only one title out of Sony's new properties has broken a million units: the original Resistance: Fall of Man, at 1.1 million units as of April 2009. (The data provided by the NPD Group does not include units of software bundled with hardware.)

Outside of the titles already mentioned, there are other titles Sony has promoted as top-tier exclusives even though they are arguably more third-party than those by Insomniac, Naughty Dog, et al. These include games like Heavenly Sword by Ninja Theory and LittleBigPlanet by Media Molecule.

There are also true sequels to key franchises from prior PlayStation generations. Among these we count Gran Turismo 5: Prologue (by Polyphony Digital), Hot Shots Golf: Out of Bounds (by Clap Hanz), Killzone 2 (by Guerilla), and Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction (Insomniac's second PS3 game, launched in late 2007).

For reference we have listed all these titles together in the chart below, grouped by unit sales through April 2009.

Given the effort and money that Sony and its developers have poured into these exclusive games, the sales figures above have to be seen as somewhat disappointing.

The original Resistance sold well in part because it was the most polished and technically impressive game when the system launched. It reached a significant fraction of the userbase in its first few months. However later games have not proven to have the same kind of system-selling power.

For example, one of the key games at Sony's E3 2009 press conference was Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, yet the original game itself isn't close to breaking the 750,000 unit mark in the United States. According to Jack Tretton, CEO of SCEA, Uncharted has sold more than 2.6 million copies worldwide, however many of those are copies bundled with PS3 systems (which are not counted here), not software directly off store shelves.

One could also look at Resistance 2 which has sold less than 750,000 units in six months on the market, to a userbase of 6 to 7 million owners. For a game promoted as the latest and best on the platform, opening month sales of 385,000 units seems exceptionally weak.

We could, for example, compare to Gears of War on the Xbox 360. The original Gears of War, exclusive to the Xbox 360, racked up a cool million units in its first month on a userbase of only 2.9 million users. By the end of the second month, December 2006, sales were over 1.8 million units.

The sequel, Gears of War 2, launched with sales of 1.56 million units in its first month to an audience of 12.4 million users. By the end of its second month, December 2008, it hit the 2.3 million mark. For both Gears of War and its sequel, sales were far stronger than Sony managed with Resistance and its sequel, even when taking the relative sizes of the userbases into account.

We could also look at a multiplatform action game sequel on the PS3 like Call of Duty: World at War, which just happens to have launched around the same time as Resistance 2. World at War sold over 1.1 million units during the last two months of 2008 while Sony's shooter moved just over 500,000 units.

Sequels Do Well

The games that have sold well on the PlayStation 3 are almost all sequels.

Consider, for example, that Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots - both sequels to franchises popularized on Sony systems - launched to sales better than any of the Sony-published games listed in the table above. To date, GTA4 has sold at least 1.7 million copies on the PS3 while MGS4 has sold in the neighborhood of 1.1 million.

Then there are annually-released games like Madden NFL (from Electronic Arts) and the aforementioned Call of Duty (from Activision). The latest version of the football franchise, Madden NFL 09, has probably sold over a million copies so far. Combined, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: World at War have sold an estimated 3 million copies on the PlayStation 3 (in the U.S.).

The five games listed above are probably a good estimation of the top five games on the PlayStation 3 (at least in the United States, measured in units not dollars) and each of them is a sequel. For all of the effort Sony has put into creating its own original hits, those new properties are simply not producing the kind of sales that sequels are generating on the same platform.

(There is one interesting counterexample: Assassin's Creed from Ubisoft. With sales over 1 million units on the PlayStation 3 in the United States, it's certainly an example of a new property that has performed well on Sony's system.)

Microsoft has managed to hit gold with its software strategy on the Xbox 360. Halo 3, by far Microsoft's best first-party effort, reached nearly 50% of all Xbox 360 owners in its first week and moved 4.8 million units between its September launch and the last week in December 2007. Even in the first half of 2009, Halo 3 continues to sell well enough to reach into the monthly top 20 software titles, exhibiting the kind of long-term sales that a first-party game should ideally demonstrate.

And Microsoft has unabashedly pursued third-party sequels, cornering exclusive deals with third-parties for games like Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3, both of which enjoyed exclusivity deals for downloadable content. Those sequels have performed well on the Xbox 360.

The Nintendo Wii has also had its share of successful franchise sequels. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, continuing a series that began on the Nintendo 64, sold 4.2 million units in 9 months during 2008. Mario Kart Wii has reached over 6 million units since its April 2008 launch and continues to sell in the top 10 each month even through mid-2009.

One could say that comparing Microsoft's and Nintendo's biggest hits to Sony's games is unfair. However, the issue is quite simple: Of Sony's biggest software ventures of the past three years, which have been as successful as Microsoft's on the Xbox 360 or Nintendo's on the Wii? Even adjusting for the installed bases, Sony's hits on the PlayStation 3 simply aren't of the same magnitude as those of its competition on their respective platforms.

It is notable that Sony's biggest first-party property, Gran Turismo, still is not officially out on the PlayStation 3. The version that is out - Gran Turismo 5: Prologue - is a introductory version that is not considered a full successor to the last game, Gran Turismo 4 on the PlayStation 2. Once GT5 and God of War 3 are released, presumably sometime in 2010, Sony will have migrated its biggest franchises to the PS3 more than three years after it launched the system.

Surely, there are flaws in these comparisons - marketing has been neglected here - but they provide some context for what one might expect a Sony-backed, well-funded game to sell on the PlayStation 3.

What If...?

Sony isn't the only big publisher to bet on new properties recently. In 2008 Electronic Arts also put significant resources into brand new ventures, most notably Dead Space and Mirror's Edge.

Despite EA's significant promotion efforts and strong positive internet buzz, both of these games fell flat in sales. Electronic Arts has said it is committed to continuing to develop these franchises and that it has learned how better to launch new games.

One does wonder what Sony (or EA) would say if they had it to do all over again. Would Sony set aside the franchises it had already paid for on the PlayStation 2 and spend its software treasury on so many new ones - Resistance, Uncharted, Motorstorm, inFAMOUS? It seems possible, even probable, that Sony might have achieved software sales just as strong with its established franchises instead of building new ones from scratch.

Regardless, Sony has promoted and published some fine software, according to critics and fans. All the Sony-published titles in the table above, with the exception of one, have Metacritic ratings between 81 and 95. (Heavenly Sword is the odd one out, with an aggregate score of 79.) These games, even if they aren't system-sellers, are certainly the games that define Sony's platform this generation.

But the question remains: Was it worth it?

[Acknowledgments: Thanks to the NPD Group, and David Riley in particular, for their assistance with this work. Thanks also to two colleagues for their helpful criticism: Simon Carless and donny2112 (of NeoGAF).]

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