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Setting Proper Publisher Expectations

Within the last couple of weeks there’s really only one game the media is talking about: Bioshock Infinite.  With a unique story, colorful world, and addicting nature there’s no reason why Ken Levine and the fine people over at developer Irrational Games shouldn’t be pleased.  Not only that, the game has garnered some much deserved praise in the press, including on our very own show, that has some claiming Game of the Year in April and others boldly claiming it’s game of the generation.  That is all fine and good, but over at publisher 2K there’s probably a different story that hides behind closed doors.  Bioshock Infinite had better sell, otherwise Levine and his crew will find themselves on the outside of shuttered doors.  Why?  Publisher projected sales goals.  These are the numbers that few of us hear about, and in the case of Infinite I was unable to confirm a solid number, that decide if the game is a success or a failure.  In the case of Bioshock Infinite the goal may very well be astronomical, so much so that there’s no rational way to hit it.  New York Times claimed the budget of the title was around $200 million, although Levine was quick to deny that claim without retorting the actual budget, on top of a $100 million marketing budget means that Bioshock Infinite would have to sell a staggering 8.3 million copies just to break even. 

Bioshock Infinite vs. its sales goals

Bioshock Infinite vs. its sales goals

This isn’t anything new, the sad fact is that many of the most praised titles we know are plagued by poor performance when compared to the overall budget, resulting in amazing projects from talented studios bankrupting companies and leaving almost everyone unemployed.  This is because the overwhelming production budgets of today’s AAA games requires proper time, project, and resource management.  It can be a scary risk in many cases because an unfinished project that gets canceled results in a complete wash, but a rushed project can offer the mess that is Duke Nukem Forever (including various iterations of the title, not simply the polished Gearbox version).  It’s a tough balance because most of the brightest and best titles in history could have quickly been big failures with tons of delays, company-closing budgets, and crazy gambles that paid off.  Not every title can be Resident Evil 4 and most importantly, publishers need to realize that no one is going to hit Call of Duty numbers these days, not even Call of Duty

You said we'd sell how many?

You said we’d sell how many?

Square Enix has probably the biggest problem with this right now with all of the recent great titles coming from that publisher considered “failures” due to inappropriate projected sales.  Sleeping Dogs is a game that shouldn’t even be out, but here it is and it has moved 1.75 million, which I view as a true achievement.  Square Enix on the other hand told its investors that it would sell 2 million units minimum, which anyone who tracks game sales figures, especially right now, would tell you is insane.  Same can be said for Hitman Absolution, which had mixed opinions and managed to sell 3.6 million units, amazing.  Tomb Raider, a more familiar reboot but somewhat scary past came out of the gates swinging and knocked 3.4 million units out of the park already, go developer Crystal Dynamics.  Wait, what?  Square Enix told its investors that Hitman and Tomb Raider would move 5 million units minimum?  Careless projections like that result in Crystal Dynamics, who should be celebrating its fastest and best-selling title of all time, potentially facing layoffs, closure, or in the least risk the possibility of a sequel.  5 million is higher than most of the best-selling games of all time and best-selling games of this generation, why in the world would these titles be able to hit that.  Uncharted 2 didn’t hit 5 million, Gear of War barely hit it, and no title aside from console exclusives (typically first party) or the Call of Duty phenomenon has even come close lately.  From what I could tell Bioshock Infinite is geared to sell a more logical 3 million units, which would support a budget of nearly half of the New York Times number, and I still think that’s a higher sales goal than either of its predecessors. 

Burning-MoneyWe talk on the B-Team all the time about how there are countless reasons to support the games and developers you like to help ensure that there’s a future for these experiences.  Well I’m sorry, at a 5 million unit sales goal I ponder the question, “what’s the point.”  I contemplated calling this article “pull your heads out of your collective asses” because that’s exactly what these publishers are doing and if they aren’t careful, the concept of another game crash and a world where social games rule supreme is dangerously close.  We as consumers have a responsibility to purchase games that we enjoy and appreciate to keep the market alive, but this responsibility is also reciprocal to the developers to properly manage the development teams so that they don’t fail anyway.  I remember hearing that Heavenly Sword sold more than 1.5 million copies in the rough PS3 near-launch window and it impressed me.  I later found out that Ninja Theory considered it an absolute failure because they didn’t recover their funds.  This is unacceptable and I’m tired of reading about companies like ThatGameCompany going bankrupt while developing Journey, a digital title so profound it got a tangible release.  Publishers need to be more realistic about projected sales and, if need be, rope in risky developers.  An unreleased game, even if it’s the greatest work of code the world has ever seen, is nothing more than a useless waste of time and money.

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