Game Column: Square Game, Round Console

Gaming is big business and, as such, it is any developer’s, publisher’s or console maker’s main goal to sell as much of whatever they are putting out there as possible. Because of this, sometimes they overplay their hand and try and sell things to people who simply don’t want them. This is most true about some publisher’s decisions to put certain games out on the biggest selling consoles despite the fact that console’s user base is not their target audience. This week, with the release of the March NPD numbers, we saw two prime examples of mismatched games and consoles resulting in terrible sales.

Let’s take one of the most well known and well received franchises of all-time and release the newest game in the series on the most prolific current generation console on the planet. That sounds like a great idea, right? Wrong. Last month, Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars on the Nintendo DS and it flopped to the tune of 89K units sold. But why?

It seems that the most obvious reasons are the correct ones in this case. The DS’ runaway success has been built upon games like Brain Age, Professor Layton and the Curious Village and Nintendogs. Of course there are longer form, more traditional games in the handheld’s library but the smaller games that can be played a few minutes at a time have really expanded the audience for Nintendo. And who is that new audience? They are generally younger kids and adults who generally don’t play as many games as your typical hardcore gamer. Much of that group, especially women, which Nintendo has gone out of their way to cater to with commercials featuring Carrie Underwood and Liv Tyler, are not very interested in a portable Grand Theft Auto game or, if the child’s parents are reasonably responsible, won’t be allowed to play.

Of course there are hardcore gamers, like myself and you reading this, who have a Nintendo DS. Why didn’t they purchase the game? Because they already have two GTA titles on their home consoles that they can play on their HD TVs. No matter how great the game is, given the choice between playing a few moments of GTA at a time while on a bus or train or being able to sit down and enjoy a few hours of well played-out storyline at home, the choice is pretty simple for most gamers.

To the best of my knowledge, the outcry for a GTA game on the Nintendo DS was not that loud or strong. What has been a long time complaint from gamers has been the pleads for hardcore games to come to Nintendo’s other mega-popular console, the Wii. Since the consoles launch, gamers have wondered where the third party hardcore titles were. Once Nintendo launched most of its most hardcore-friendly titles, the core has clamoring for games of just as high a quality from someone other than Nintendo.

Despite the claims from the core that they wanted third party hardcore titles, games like Zak & Wiki and No More Heroes failed. This was chalked up to the games being of lesser quality than the Nintendo-made titles. The rallying cry then began to turn toward the want for good, third party, hardcore titles. Fast forward to last month and enter Madworld.

Platinum Games’ highly stylized, super violent game about a future sport very much akin to Roman gladiators with weapons from Home Depot seemed like the perfect title to satiate the Wii’s core gamers. Both the game’s makers as well as the very vocal online community made it known this, along with The Conduit, both of which are Sega published, seemed to be the beginning of a whole new wave of great third party titles. Then we saw how much it sold.

Only 66K gamers felt it was worth their money to play a very mature, hardcore title on their Wii. Despite their claims that this is what they wanted, it was not. And it is not like gamers did not spend money on their Wii games last month. 541K more gamers purchased the $89.99 Wii Fit. Sega says they are pleased with the seemingly terrible sales but I am sure they hoped their game would do much better than this.

These two most recent examples are not the only ones that come to mind. A game like Viva Pinata would be amazing with a more kid friendly atmosphere and mouse-like control scheme on the Wii. There are also a slew of EA Sports titles which have been re-branded to try and work on the Wii but sales seem to indicate that the audience is just not interested, which has lead to NCAA Football 10 being cancelled on the Wii. These are but a few examples of how some titles should be delivered on the right system, despite the size of the user base of the console or perceived overarching popularity of the games.

People vote with their wallets, not their mouths and they have spoken pretty loudly. Game developers, publishers and platform holders, listen up. Despite what they say, gamers do not really want a square peg crammed into a round hole.