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Analyze This: Looking Back at the Year in Gaming 2008

Ending the year, Gamasutra's regular 'Analyze This' column sees analysts from OTX, Wedbush Morgan and EEDAR looking back on the hits and misses of 2008, from Wii Fit to Too Human and beyond.

Howard Wen, Blogger

December 18, 2008

10 Min Read

They are the professional analysts who research, keep track of, advise their clients on, and opine to the news media about the video game business.

In Analyze This, we present a timely question pertaining to the business side of the industry, and then simply let a trio of analysts offer their thoughts directly to you. Each person's opinion is his own.

Nick Williams of OTX Research, Jesse Divnich of Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, and Michael Pachter of Wedbush Morgan Securities considered these questions:

Which game releases in 2008 were for you the surprise hits, and surprise misses, of the year?

Which console platform's performance in the market surprised you the most this year? Conversely, which one(s) disappointed? What about the handhelds?

What do you think are some of the lessons that the industry learned this year... lessons which may carry over into 2009?

Read on for their answers:

Nick Williams, OTX Research:

Hits and misses of 2008...

Many of the big surprise hits of 2008 were brand new intellectual properties. Among the pleasant surprises were Dead Space, Left 4 Dead, Grid and Pure. While well-known franchises will always have the edge during the holidays, the proliferation of review aggregation sites such as Metacritic and GameRankings is making it easier for great new games to find their way to the top. That said, it obviously helps if you have the marketing muscle of the larger publishers to go beyond the enthusiast gamer segment.

Other surprise hits include downloadable games such as Braid for Xbox Live and World of Goo for the Wii. The cult success of these games is proof that you don't need to make a blockbuster game to get in front of millions of eyeballs.

On the other side of the spectrum, the biggest disappointment of 2008 was undoubtedly Too Human. In development for almost 10 years, Too Human was hyped to be one of the defining releases of this console generation.

With such high expectations, it was no surprise that many critics judged the game harshly; the general consensus among gamers was that the game play was highly repetitive and the story fell flat.

Microsoft/Silicon Knights' Too Human

Data from OTX's GamePlan Insights tracking study reflects the disappointment in Too Human. The game quickly went from one of the top-ranked games for positive buzz during the months leading up to launch, to the top-ranked game for negative buzz soon after launch.

How all the platforms performed in the market in 2008...

While the continued momentum for the Wii has certainly been impressive (2 million units in one month is quite a feat), the biggest surprise has to be the Xbox 360. The real battle in this console cycle is for second place, and Microsoft is making all the right moves to ensure that it holds a significant edge over Sony in the U.S.

In the face of a struggling economy, the Xbox team hit just the right tone in the marketplace by dropping the price of the Xbox 360 Arcade to $199.

Sony, on the other hand, decided to stick with the same general price points while adding extra gigabytes to the hard drive. It should come as no surprise that the large majority of consumers are choosing cheaper consoles over more gigabytes.

Lessons learned in 2008 that could change things in 2009...

Despite not being 100-percent recession-proof, the video game industry has proven this year that it is definitely recession-resistant. This is still a growth industry, and there are many outside players trying to figure out how they can get a piece of the proverbial pie.

As the larger publishers begin to focus more and more on generating blockbuster hits, there is a growing contingent of independent developers with their eyes on a different kind of business model.

For a fraction of the cost of developing a fully-loaded $60 game, independent developers can avoid the pitfalls of the traditional retail distribution model and reach gamers directly through the consoles' online services.

While these two approaches could not be more fundamentally different, both will need to rely on the growing number of connected consoles in order to find success in 2009. The release of Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost & Damned in February will be a milestone in the video game industry, one that marks the official shift towards downloadable content as a way to extend the life of a game.

With Xbox Live, Wii Ware and the PlayStation Network, publishers and developers now have an effective weapon to soften the blow of the used games business. Gamers will simply not sell their favorite games right away if they know that there will be quality DLC.

Jesse Divnich, Electronic Entertainment Design and Research:

Hits and misses of 2008...

Wii Fit was one of the most successfully innovative products of 2008. Nintendo took a substantial risk in developing a product that targeted both the casual and core sector of the industry. That risk definitely paid off, as even today, six months after its release, it is one of the hottest items on retail shelves.

Guitar Hero: On Tour was another title that beat the market's expectations. Activision managed to take the Guitar Hero franchise, shrink it, and implement it on the Nintendo DS.

Other surprise hits include Army of Two, Crisis Core, Braid, and World of Goo.

The list of surprise hits is relatively small, but our industry has matured so much over the years that "sleeper" hits are becoming less common. With an endless stream of research available, most publishers can spot, months in advance, if any of their titles are going to out-perform initial expectations.

By the time a game is released, it generally has a marketing budget and the hype to match its sales performance.

2D Boy's World of Goo

In terms of surprise failures. Mirror's Edge certainly did not live up to the hype, but I would not necessarily classify the title as a complete failure. EA is not the first publisher that comes to mind when we think of innovation, but Mirror's Edge is a perfect example of how EA is hoping to change that perception. It certainly was an experiment that failed, but the fact they are experimenting will certainly one day lead to tremendous success in the market.

Guitar Hero: World Tour is another title that failed to deliver to expectations. While it did deliver some new game features and expanded on the original recipe of the Guitar Hero franchise, it is pretty clear that the popularity of the musical instrument sub-genre has reached its peak. Nonetheless, I still expect strong sales from Guitar Hero: World Tour, but sales will be nowhere near that of Guitar Hero III.

Other surprise failures this year include: Shaun White Snowboarding, Too Human, Boom Blox, and de Blob, all of which were new intellectual properties that had a lot of hype and marketing behind them.

How all the platforms performed in the market in 2008...

The Xbox 360's performance in the back-half of 2008 certainly surprised most industry watchers. The Xbox 360 hit a sweet spot with both pricing and promotion in the later months of 2008.

The economic crisis played an equally large role in driving sales as well. With consumers unwilling to give up their right to be entertained, the price cuts in the back-half of 2008 helped position the Xbox 360 as being the best value console for the core gaming market.

The PSP was the console that most disappointed the market in 2008. Its lack of strong third-party support, a non-diversified software library, and a higher price point all played a role in delivering a lackluster sales performance in the U.S.

Lessons learned in 2008 that could change things in 2009...

The biggest lesson learned in 2008 was the ability for AAA titles to perform at holiday sales level during the off-season. Super Smash Bros. Brawl, Wii Fit, Metal Gear Solid 4, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Mario Kart Wii are all prime examples of how a AAA title can be successfully released during the off-season.

Conversely, Dead Space, Far Cry 2, Mirror's Edge, Saints Row 2, Resistance 2, LittleBigPlanet, and Fallout 3 are all examples of what happens when too many AAA titles are congested into two months of the year. Each one of these titles would have sold significantly more if released in an off-season month.

This subject has undoubtedly been a recurring theme since 2005, and I can only hope that the industry has finally realized the risk is minimal for releasing a AAA title during the off-season.

Michael Pachter, Wedbush Morgan Securities:

Hits and misses of 2008...

Surprise hit: Wii Fit. It looked fun but too simple to attract a real base, and it will end up being the best selling game of the year, better than Grand Theft Auto IV. That's remarkable. Surprise failure: Wii Music. Everything they [Nintendo] touch turns to gold. This one didn't.

How all the platforms performed in the market in 2008...

They all surprised me in one way or another. The Wii has sold 8 million units in the U.S. through November, compared to under 5 million through November of last year. That's remarkable, insofar as the Wii will sell more units than in any year in PS2 history.

The PS3 is up by almost the same percentage, but its sales are only 35 percent of Wii sales. In other words, the Wii is outselling the PS3 by almost 3 to 1. The 360 has been out the longest, so it should not have been expected to ramp, and it didn't. Sales are down 2 percent year-over-year.

The DS remains mindbogglingly successful, with year-to-date sales up 15 percent over last year's -- thru November, 6 million units.

It's hard to be "disappointed" in the PSP, which is up 1.5 percent year-over-year.

I suppose that the takeaway is that all of the consoles are doing at least as well as last year, with great strides made by the Wii and the PS3. The notable thing is that the Wii is still at launch price, while the PS3 is cheaper than last year. Imagine what will happen when the Wii is at $149!      

Lessons learned in 2008 that could change things in 2009...

Watch out for crowded release windows. There were a ton of games that were overlooked, and which should have been more successful.

These include Far Cry 2, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Saints Row 2, Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, LittleBigPlanet, and Prince of Persia, all of which came out in a crowded holiday window that included Gears of War 2, Fallout 3, Fable 2, and Call of Duty: World at War.

Midway's Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe

My guess is that many of these would have performed better if launched in January through August, and we may see publishers re-think release windows going forward.

Do you have a business-related question about the video game industry that you would like to suggest for discussion in Analyze This? Are you a professional analyst and would like to take part in this column? Email [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Howard Wen


Howard Wen is a freelance writer who has contributed frequently to O'Reilly Network and written for Salon.com, Playboy.com, and Wired, among others.

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