Does the Game Industry Rely Too Much on Multi-Platform Titles?

There’ve been a lot of discussions about exclusive vs. multi-platform games lately. We had the surprise announcement of Bayonetta 2 last year, the Monster Hunter 4 Vita rumors last month, and now the news that Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge and Rayman Legends are no longer Wii U exclusives.

There have been a lot of hurt feelings over these games – either on the side of those who want them for their system, or in the case of Rayman on the side of those who have already invested real dollars in pursuing the original version, but now have to wait for a simultaneous multi-platform release.

And what astounds me most is that this keeps happening, over and over and over. Why is it so hard to make a good old-fashioned exclusive these days?

Bigger Install Base = More $$$

It’s sometimes difficult to remember this, since when we play video games we don’t necessarily feel as though we’re connecting with the publishers, but instead with the development team: the video game “industry” actually is an industry. Games aren’t just made by people who love making them for the sake of making people happy. At the end of the day, it costs money to make games, and that means publishers – the people responsible for getting games from developers’ imaginations to your systems and computers – are under serious pressure to make up those costs.

take-my-moneyThis isn’t just a concern of greedy corporations and executives or out-of-touch shareholders. Even the smallest indie developers need to make a living, after all. And don’t they deserve to, for cranking out stuff that a lot of people enjoy? Let’s face it: the drive for profitability isn’t a bad thing – it’s essential for ensuring that we get to play these games at all.

Given that, one of the biggest motivators behind games going multi-platform makes perfect sense: more platforms means a larger potential install base. Releasing a game to the 90 million Wii userbase isn’t bad; releasing it to the other 100+ million gamers who own other platforms as well is better. It means you have the potential to sell the same content to more people – much more enticing than developing a game for just one of those platforms, or having to work on a different game for each one.

Sounds like a win-win for everybody, right? Not exactly.

More Multi-Platform Games = Fewer Multi-Platform Successes

More multi-platform games does mean that more publishers are able to reach out to more players because the games are available on more platforms, but it also means that the release schedules for those platforms become crowded with lots of different games to choose from. Since none of these games are necessarily “must-have” for any particular platform since they’re not exclusives, this can actually make it even more difficult for specific games to stand out.

gamestop-shelfPublishers already face a difficult choice when it comes to timing their game releases. They can either release their game during a less “crowded” but similarly less “busy” season or target the more prominent but more competitive fall shopping season and put out a strong marketing campaign in the hope that their game will stand out from the pack. Having more games to compete with on every single platform complicates this even more, since more developers have more games coming out year-round, regardless of the system.

The result is often that a game may see better overall sales volume thanks to its presence on multiple platforms… but at the cost of a strong presence on any particular platform. And without a strong presence on any particular platform, it’s a lot easier for the audience on those platforms to actually recede over time instead of growing. It’s a simple case of over-saturating the market with too many games at once, which leads to increased pressure to release new games quickly regardless of their quality in order to prolong a franchise’s product life rather than letting newer games sweep the older ones off the table and into obscurity.

These games may be popular in the short-run, but they’re failing to do something critical: build a long-term relationship with customers.

Exclusivity Means Building Closer Relationships With Platform Owners

If there’s one thing that set Wii apart from the rest last gen, it was its super-selling exclusives – all of which had powerful tail sales that extended for months and even years after launch, and all of which managed to reach more people than even the best-selling multi-platform games, not only in terms of pure sales volume (the overall numbers), but in terms of attach rate (the percentage of the platform audience that went for them).

Game Sales Attach Rate
Wii Sports Resort ~30.14m ~30%
Mario Kart Wii ~32.44m ~32.6%
New Super Mario Bros. Wii ~26.26m ~26.4%
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 360: ~14.81m
PS3: ~12.58m
Wii: ~0.59m
Total: ~28m
360: ~25% (~20%)
PS3: ~21.6% (~17%)
Wii: ~0.5%
Overall: ~12.9% (~11.4%)
Assassin’s Creed II 360: ~5.05m
PS3: ~5.32m
Total: ~10.37m
360: ~8% (~6.8%)
PS3: ~9% (~7.3%)
Overall: ~8.8% (~7%)
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 360: ~7.01m
PS3: ~4.45m
Total: ~11.45m
360: ~11.8% (~9%)
PS3: ~7.7% (~6.1%)
Overall: ~9.8% (~7.8%)

(NOTE: For multi-platform titles, I have assumed an approximately 20% rate of overlapping platform ownership for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 when calculating attach rates. Refer to the percentages in parenthesis for non-adjusted attach rates.)

What is it that made Nintendo’s exclusives so successful? Not only do they reach more customers, they reach a higher percentage of Wii customers than multi-platforms wind up reaching – either for individual platforms or the combined audience. It’s because Nintendo’s games were all based closely on the idea of fostering a long-term relationship with Wii owners, all part of a specialized “Wii catalog” of games designed specifically for the needs and wants of Wii fans.

It’s a very different philosophy than short-term sales of annualized multi-platform games taken by many third-party developers. And Nintendo was all the more successful for it.

That’s Nintendo, though. What about third parties? Let’s use an example.

sonic-colorsDid you know that the best-selling platforms for the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise over the last generation are actually Wii and DS, despite more of the big budget AAA “multi-platform” games hitting PS3 and 360 instead? And while the install base for Sonic has shrunk considerably as the generation has gone on, even the most recent multi-platform games, the series has always been healthier on Wii than on either of the other platforms (i.e. a higher attach rate and higher sales numbers).

Why? Because it has had more presence on Wii than on the other platforms in the form of exclusives.

The association of a multi-platform approach and lower sales isn’t isolated to Sonic. Other franchises, like Just Dance, Final Fantasy, Devil May Cry, and Resident Evil have actually wound up spreading themselves thinner by taking their individual entries multi-platform. In terms of those latter two, it’s gotten so bad for Capcom that they find themselves having to lower their sales forecasts.

While it’s probably true that we’d see sales declines anyway due to current market conditions, it’s clear that the multi-platform phenomenon isn’t really helping matters as much as it should. If anything, it’s more of a band-aid, while it’s the exclusives tend to do well, at least comparatively.

Rayman fans aren’t really “upset” that Legends is going multi-platform per se – at least, not from what I’ve seen. Most of the ones I’ve seen are actually happy that those who enjoyed Origins on PS3 and Xbox 360 get to enjoy. What’s upsetting is that the way the move is being handled does a lot of damage to the game’s image as a “special” game for Wii U owners – one that would have fostered a great relationship between them and the Rayman series.

Before the news of the delay, Rayman Legends stood as the one big Wii U title slated for this month – one that was seriously hyped by the team at Ubisoft, who said they were inspired by Wii U’s features and really wanted to make a game for the platform, and that was hyped by Nintendo, who gave it center-stage presence in Wii U demo kiosks nationwide.

By itself, the news that the game is going multi-platform wouldn’t really have impacted any of that. Coupled with the delay, however, the game no longer has that distinctive identity… It’s shifted from the big Wii U game to anticipate for February to yet another multi-platform game – one that’s less likely to be noticed among everything else coming out at that time, both in terms of multi-platform titles and in terms of Wii U exclusives. It’s the loss of any kind of “special” status that’s the real issue, here.

Personally, I think it would have been better for the game’s health to make it a timed exclusive that would release first on Wii U and on the other platforms later. That way PS3 and 360 fans who aren’t willing to make the leap to Wii U could enjoy it, but Wii U owners who had already attributed it with a “special” relationship to the system’s early library wouldn’t have to give that up.

As I hope I’ve demonstrated, it’s not necessarily “more platforms” that translates to “healthier series” – it’s success at fostering those special relationships with the audience that matters in the end.