If Games are Getting Better, Why are Sales Getting Worse?

Sony recently issued a self-congratulatory statement that it had sold more than 2.7 million units of “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” in the game’s first week of release. Read the fine print, however, and you’ll see that this number represents global sales, not North America. Sony pegs the worldwide sales of the PlayStation 4 console at around 40 million. Which means that a mere 6% of PS4 owners purchased a copy of Uncharted 4… arguably the best exclusive title that PlayStation has to offer.  Which means that 94% of PS4 owners did not purchase the game! This begs the question…what are they waiting for?

Sure, not everyone likes the same type of games. Some people just like RPGs, while others only like first-person shooters. There are fans who play Call of Duty or Madden almost exclusively.  But Uncharted 4 is hardly the sort of niche title that is inaccessible to the casual gamer. Indeed, the movie-quality acting and story line should appeal to everyone, and both hardcore and casual gamers can adjust gameplay settings to make the game as much (or as little) of a challenge as they prefer. Add near-unanimous critical praise (screw you, Washington Post!) giving the game a high Metacritic, and there is no good reason why more people shouldn’t be buying this game.

So why aren’t they?

Is it the high cost of games? Sixty dollars isn’t exactly a movie ticket, although if you are taking (and feeding) a family of four, it comes close. Compared to other forms of entertainment such as books and music, however, videogames aren’t exactly a cheap hobby. But, historically, the price of videogames has not gone up with inflation. In the 1980’s, the latest 8-bit Atari 2600 cartridges retailed for $40, and I can remember paying $60 for a SNES cartridge in the 1990’s. On the other hand, there wasn’t a used game market back then, or digital outlets undercutting each other. So, perhaps there are a number of people wanting to play Uncharted 4 who are willing to wait a few months to purchase a used copy for less – or to wait for the inevitable price drop.

Is it the large volume of games available?  The complaint developers have against the Apple Apps Store is that there are so many games available that it is difficult for titles to stand out and get noticed.  The PlayStation Store, with its weekly release of forgettable downloadable titles, is starting to follow that trend. But Uncharted 4 is not an indie, download-only title from a small studio with little or no marketing budget. Indeed, Uncharted 4 commercials are appearing on prime-time television. Given that sales will start to dramatically decline following the first-week, it is likely that Uncharted 4 might end up shipping 4-5 million units.  How does that compare to other titles in recent gaming history?

Naughty Dog’s own Crash Bandicoot titles sold 5, 6 and 7 million units on the original PlayStation. The first Metal Gear Solid on PS One sold around 7 million units, with Final Fantasy VII and Gran Turismo selling over 10 million. These were all console exclusives, released within the first three years of the console’s life-cycle. What about PlayStation 2, the best-selling console in video game history?  Its Gran Turismo games sold 11 and 14 million units, with the first two Grand Theft Auto titles (originally exclusive to PS2, before coming to Xbox) selling 14 and 17 million units.  GTA: San Andreas, the sales leader, moved 27.5 million units. Even the PlayStation 3, which took a while to catch on with the public, managed to sell over 20 million units of GTA V, 11.94 million units of Gran Turismo 5, and 7 million units of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us – the developer’s most recent release prior to Uncharted 4.

In this day and age, 2.7 million unit sales in week one is quite an accomplishment, and Naughty Dog should be congratulated for creating an amazing game.  But the fact remains that success in “this day and age” is a far cry from what it meant just a few hardware generations ago.  While raising a toast to Nathan Drake’s final adventure, the powers that be ought to be concerned that console games are becoming more and more expensive to make while selling fewer and fewer copies – at price points, when adjusted for inflation, that are actually cheaper than games developed thirty years ago!  That’s not a business model at the center of a healthy industry… it is a recipe for disaster.

“Nathan Drake and the Law of Diminishing Returns”












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About The Author
Agent 006
ICGAgent006 is a gaming industry veteran who prefers anonymity. It is like a warm blanket on a cold night that allows for deep undercover investigation and analysis - at least that's what she... oops, we mean "he"... oops... we mean "006" tells us.