Big games are better than ever, but why aren't sales?

The Division
The Division (Image credit: Ubisoft)

This has undeniably been a busy period for gaming, with dozens of memorable experiences over the past twelve months. Amidst a constant flow of refined sequels, distinctive reboots, and intriguing new properties, change is undeniably on the horizon for games and how we experience them. And yet… amidst all this greatness and hype, sales seem to be faltering.

Single-player shooter campaigns have seen a revival with titles such as DOOM and Titanfall 2 – an element of shooter franchises once neglected in favor of more substantial multiplayer content. Overwatch and Battlefield 1 both managed to deliver refreshing online experiences, with new themes, pacing and gameplay traits that stand out from the competition. Even on the indie front, Firewatch and Inside managed to deliver artistic narrative-driven adventures, which question the standards currently in place for game design.

But with all these triumphs, dwindling sales across the board appear to be at the forefront of discussion. Although many titles are putting forward new ideas and intriguing premises, their inability to meet sale forecasts leaves some franchises without any hope of a successor. Even with a surplus of critically acclaimed releases, could 2016 go by as a forgotten period for gaming?

The holiday rush

When discussing games and sale projections, it's hard not to draw attention to one of most undeservingly neglected titles of this year: Titanfall 2. With a release during the last week of October, the game launched between two hotly anticipated end-of-year behemoths: Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. It's like slotting a sci-fi/fantasty movie between the latest Harry Potter and Star Wars premieres.

The game wasn't off to a great start prior to launch, after a lackluster public technical test that mixed up some of the game's mechanics from its predecessor. Although these negative early impressions will have been a contributing factor toward what was to come, the placement of its release date was far from ideal.

Titanfall 2's 'failure' is an example of a more widespread issue

In the end, Titanfall 2 suffered for its release window, being thrown into the deep end, among a wave of triple-A releases. Hurled into the pack during the most vicious quarter of the year, the game had little chance of emerging successfully from its competition.

Titanfall 2's 'failure' is an example of a more widespread issue, which continues to affect today's triple-A games industry. The fourth quarter of the year is simply too crowded, with brutal rivalry seen between the world's largest publishers. Wanting to be behind the hottest new releases for the holiday season, companies are often left fighting for attention in an excessive noise of marketing.

The idea of later releases only stretches so far, with only a certain amount of cash in the system. Being harder than ever to gain widespread attention from consumers, just a small subset of games can overcome these burdens. Whether publishers start experimenting during quieter portions of the year or the competition keeps growing, smaller titles will continue to suffer from the current model.

Hyped up, let down

A shift can also be seen the buying habits of consumers, with an increasing number of individuals reluctant to invest in new games. This is no surprise — we've seen too many broken games at launch, underwhelming releases, games laden with in-game micro-transactions, and other anti-consumer movements. With this lack of faith in even the largest of publishers, it's tougher than ever to fully commit to a $60 game at launch.

Information prior to launch can be built off far-fetched promises and sugar-coated opinions

This skepticism also appears to lead to a lack of enthusiasm among gamers – with some games passing without any attention from the wider public. Gaming coverage and exposure are quickly moving over to personalities and 'influencers', sometimes limiting exposure to what grabs the attention of these individuals.

A bulk of the gaming industry now feeds off anticipation, using the excitement and flashy showcases to gain the attention of the public. With the media also conforming to this approach, information prior to launch can be built off far-fetched promises and sugar-coated opinions.

While this nothing new in marketing, delivering on promises has proven to rather challenging for some titles. Trying to live up to the expectations of gamers has proven to be challenging and in a time of heightened communication, word travels fast. Gamers may finally be voting with their wallets, even if it is without intention.

Experiences as services

Over the past decade, the rise of online services has been a huge influence in the approach to game design and its goals. While units sold were previously the best measure of a game's success, player retention is quickly becoming a key focus for many business models.

Games now have a longer life span than ever before, with many designed to maintain larger player bases for years on end. With new content being frequently delivered for our favorite experiences, there's often little incentive to move away from your daily gaming routine. In 'Games as a Service', players are being treated for a constant flow of post-launch content, and in many cases, for free. After a single purchase, time can be dedicated solely to one title, with rewards in place for those who show long-term commitment.

There's often little incentive to move away from your daily gaming routine

This also opens routes for monetization, with more dedicated players willing to invest into additional content. Whether refreshed gameplay opportunities or simply bypassing a game's harder portions, consumers are happier to hand over some extra cash for experiences they've invested time into. If players can invest hundreds of hours into an experience they enjoy, there's even less of an incentive to risk both time and money with new games.

In the end, Titanfall 2, like many releases of this year, has suffered due to its competition. Although many of these titles are bringing forward interesting and refreshing ideas, it's becoming harder than ever to establish a presence in the market. Whether this is down to poor timing or simply a lack of appeal, the approach to triple-A games is changing.

Matt Brown

Matt Brown was formerly a Windows Central's Senior Editor, Xbox & PC, at Future. Following over seven years of professional consumer technology and gaming coverage, he’s focused on the world of Microsoft's gaming efforts. You can follow him on Twitter @mattjbrown.