Much like the big Hollywood movies, triple-A games have become all about the opening weekend.
Sales and marketing experts are focusing their efforts on those first few days. Midnight launches – our version of a film premiere – are becoming increasingly extravagant. We’ve had tanks driving down Oxford Street and absailers delivering stock of Call of Duty.
As a result, many of this year’s sequels – Saints Row 3, Uncharted 3, Gears of War 3, Forza 4, Battlefield 3 – have smashed the week one performances of their predecessors.
Yet these figures mask the truth that, by the time week two arrives, sales drop off. Severely.
Just look at two of those aforementioned sequels. Sales of Uncharted 3 dropped 72 per cent in its second week, while Foza 4’s dip was 52 per cent.
By comparison, in 2009 Uncharted 2’s week two drop off was 53 per cent, while Forza 3 lost just 23 per cent in sales.
“Week two volumes on new releases are dropping off more quickly,” admits GAME CEO Ian Shepherd.
“There’s a core consumer who is coming out very early to buy. But then the wave of customers that might be coming in week two or three are more cautious, maybe they’re waiting for Christmas.”
WHY THE DROP?
So is the week two drop all down to consumer caution? THQ’s European marketing director Jon Rooke says that the propensity to focus on day one sales and pre-orders is having an impact.
“More than ever, retailers base their initial orders on pre-orders, which forces us to engage customers earlier and offer pre-order incentives,” says Rooke.
“As a result we are marketing earlier. It’s been all about creating that blockbuster event weekend.
“And more than ever we now know how to really pin-point our audience. Whereas before it would take a five week media campaign, today smart marketers can be hitting 80 to 90 per cent of a target audience before launch and certainly within the first 10 days.”
Another reason cited for week two sales falls is the sheer quantity of games. It only takes a week before the latest hit becomes old news.
“Gamers are coming out but their wallet is concentrated on fewer titles and they’re spoilt for choice,” explains Codemasters chief Rod Cousens.
“The volumes on FIFA, Battlefield, Skyrim and CoD illustrate that. With the intensity of releases in a narrow time frame, users move on very quickly.”
This rapid release of blockbuster games is aided by the pre-owned sector. Retailers are letting consumers buy the latest titles for just £5 if they trade-in last week’s big release. It means new games are appearing on the second-hand shelves faster.
“Two years ago I remember seeing data that showed it would take until week four or five before sales of used games overtook the sales of its mint counterpart,” adds Rooke. “Now with pre-owned a much larger component of the retail mix, I would argue that happens much quicker, maybe after three weeks, even two for some titles.
“Walk into HMV or GAME today and you will find games that release only a week ago already on the pre-owned shelves.“If you were to add mint and pre-owned together, you probably wouldn’t see such a sharp sales drop-off after the first week.”
Of course, Chart-Track’s data only goes so far. By week five, your typical triple-A may not be performing well at retail, but what about the DLC that was released just a few weeks after launch? Just because a retailer isn’t making any more money off a four-week-old game, doesn’t mean a publisher isn’t.
“Buying patterns for consumers have migrated towards digital offerings and there is no widespread tracking as yet,” adds Cousens. “The bigger picture needs to be measured.”
Rooke agrees: “People are buying into franchises in different ways. Through DLC, micro-transactions, consumables and companion titles. The data we have doesn’t show the full picture of a transitioning industry.”
Not all games are suffering from an ever-shortening retail lifespan. The casual and kids games are still growing week-on-week. Take Activision’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. It didn’t enjoy a spectacular launch but sales have grown each and every week since it came out in October.
So it is triple-A that’s suffering. But if the big blockbusters are posting huge week one numbers, does it matter that week two is declining so fiercely?
“Matter? If you’re hitting massive day one figures, then no, I guess not,” says a senior UK publishing boss. “But if you limp out of the gate, then you’re fucked. It becomes almost impossible to recover.”