Posted by: seanmalstrom | July 29, 2014

Different contextual era sales cannot be compared

I have a riddle for the reader. PONG sold several million copies. Halo, however, sold many more than several million copies. Therefore, is Halo a more popular game than PONG? Did Halo have more impact than PONG?

This question is very important because a similar question led every analyst into Wrong Land at the dawn on the Seventh Generation which caused them to miss the DS/Wii landslide completely. The analysts, in their great wisdom, would compare the sales of all the game consoles of all generations. PS1 and PS2 had very high sales. Therefore, PS3 would also have very high sales, and it meant that console gaming was growing faster than ever. After all, the modern consoles were selling more than PONG machines and even the Atari 2600. They were selling more than the NES. Certainly that meant this form of gaming was more popular then, right? All the analysts believed this.

You cannot take a sales number at face value especially when you are comparing times as vast as decades. One big error the analysts missed was the trend of population growth. An area, like the United States, will create more sales over time (barring recession and depression) because of increased population growth. This is why real estate in growing areas tends to rise in value. Another error the analysts made was not taking in account markets available. Globalization was not always around especially in the early 1990s. The 1980s was still dominated by the Cold War. Much of the console growth has been riding these trends.

But was console gaming actually becoming MORE popular? We know that there was more money being spent. However, this is easily observed by young gamers coming of age with considerable disposable income that they are spending for gaming.  In terms of social penetration, gaming wasn’t really growing.

One thing I have never seen an analyst do is to detail how exactly the gaming market was born. To them, the gaming market was ‘always there’ and anything before the PS1 is considered ‘Land Before Time’. When a product expands its market, that market is called a Cold Market. It is not used to the product and must be explained what it is. When the market is used to the product, it is a Warm Market. In sales and marketing, it is much harder to sell to Cold Markets than to Warm Markets.

When PONG came out, was it selling to a Cold Market or to a Warm Market? It could only sell to a Cold Market. Aside from a few Space Wars nerds, no one knew what a video game was. Everything had to be explained to people. Aside from less population and available markets, PONG could never sell as much as a modern video game because of the massive Cold Market. Despite that, it is what makes PONG such a landmark game. Turning the Cold Market warm is what Great Products do. Anyone can sell to an already warm market. This is why PONG is considered the more popular and impactful game than Halo. PONG grew the market.

When we come to the Second Generation, we have consoles that have the innovation of ‘cartridges’ or change-able games. The Atari 2600 is considered extremely popular and impactful because, like PONG, it GREW the market. Gaming penetrated more and more of society because of it. The Famicom in Japan also holds that appeal (in Japan). The NES, most uniquely, revived a Crashed Market (and it was crashed) and grew the market further. There was a reason why there was so much Mario Mania and Nintendo mania at the time.

From this time onward, gaming never grew more into society. Gaming got bigger with growing populations and emerging markets as the Cold War faded. Young gamers grew up and would buy multiple game consoles. Gaming, essentially, wasn’t going anywhere and, should the macro-economic trends reverse, gaming would see utter decline. This was already beginning to occur in Japan.

This was the philosophy behind the Nintendo DS and Wii. There is no such thing as Casual Gaming. Casual Gaming is what people say because they cannot or are unwilling to understand the above. Video games have always been casual. It is ludicrous and message forum poppycock to think gaming has always been ‘hardcore’ until the Wii made its appearance.

The analysts did not understand this. They did not understand the social phenomenons of the PONG, Atari 2600, and to a lesser extent, the NES. To those that did, it was easy to recognize Wii’s explosive market power before it launched.

Lately, I’ve been talking about Nintendo First Party software quality and the decisions of what games are made. It is easy to look at the Mario games and to see a slam-dunk argument of 2d Mario sales far, far outpacing 3d Mario sales. It is not that the 2d Mario sales were greater than 3d Mario. It is that 2d Mario was a phenomenon and 3d Mario, aside from Mario 64’s launch, never has been and never will be. The market greeted 2d Mario’s return with ridiculous software and hardware sales with NSMB DS and NSMB Wii. NSMB Wii’s release caused the Wii selling 4 million in December 2009 which exceeds any month by any console ever. It won’t be broken for a long time.

Metroid also is fairly simple. The best selling Metroids are Metroid Prime and the original. Those two also coincide when Metroid was a mini-phenomenon.

Zelda becomes trickier. Some people are going through Zelda sales and declaring, “No matter what the console, Zelda consistently sells 3.5 million units. There is no decline there.” Including population growth? Including new markets? It is not decline but serious decline.

There is also the error of the pre-Fifth Generation sales. There was no NPD back then. What were the sales? Nintendo isn’t giving out the data. We don’t really know.

It is humorous to note that the people looking at the Zelda sales and declaring ‘there is no decline’ are making the same exact mistake the analysts made about the console market before the Wii launched. Population growth, new markets, and even kids growing up with disposable money are conveniently ‘forgotten’ because that would be some critical thinking. People don’t want to think. They want to just post a sales chart, spanning decades, and hit people over the head with it declaring that sales from a Cold War era where much of Europe was out of reach is the same context in a globalized era with generations growing with the gaming habit and disposing high income at it. It is also making the tragic mistake of comparing Cold Markets to Warm Markets.

The original Legend of Zelda was a Cold Market game. The same can arguably be said of Zelda 2. Zelda 1 and, especially 2, get the unique honor of being severely supply constrained. There was that microprocessor shortage of the late 1980s making games like Zelda 2 and SMB 2 sell for $100 at some places as people drove from state to state to get them. Zelda was definitely a phenomenon then. Not as big as the Mario phenomenon but nothing really has been.

Further illustration of how strong Classic Zelda sales were was how much greater competition there was back then. Aside from Zelda 1 and 2 competing against each other, there were so many great adventure games back then. Crystalis, Battle of Olympus, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game, Ultima IV, Ultima V, Ultima VI, Guardian Legend, Blaster Master, Faxanadu, Shadowgate, Goonies II, Maniac Mansion, Nightshade, Pool of Radiance, Prince of Persia, Rygar, Star Tropics I and II, Willow and this doesn’t include other RPGs such as the Dragon Quest games or Final Fantasy. There were MANY adventure games for the NES that Zelda I and II had to compete against. Link to the Past might have had even more challenging competition. Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia, Addams Family, Equinox, Pocky and Rocky I and II, Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, Shadowrun, Bart’s Nightmare, and that doesn’t include the RPGs such as Final Fantasy IV or VI or Chrono Trigger. SNES was home to some of the best adventure games. LTTP had tough competition. The N64 is a barren wasteland for adventure games. Gamecube, the same.

“But Malstrom, what about other consoles?” What should be noted is how much more difficult it was to make an adventure game due to rising production costs. It certainly was more expensive than 8-bit and 16-bit eras. How many companies could make something like Ocarina of Time? Not many.You might have the Grand Theft Autos, Elder Scroll games, and Fallouts, but let us remember that those are sequels to PC games. Zelda has never been a competitor to PC games or PC-like games. Zelda is also not competing against smartphone games or pinball games.

What comes next is my favorite Nintendo fallacy: “The reason why the sales are low is because it came out on a console with a low install base.” If this reasoning was ever true, then Nintendo should cancel the Zelda series as well as any other Nintendo series that uses such reasoning. The reason why is because the purpose of First Party games is to create the hardware install base. A First Party game ‘riding’ the hardware install base is a worthless First Party title. Ocarina of Time had no problems selling very strong on a small install base. Pokemon had no problem selling strong on an aging hardware platform. Blaming the install base or the hardware for the software’s sales is someone who doesn’t want to admit that the game may not have been good.

Big budget adventure games are rare. There is no reason why Zelda shouldn’t be putting in Ocarina of Time numbers all the time. I believe Twilight Princess sales demonstrate what the normal Zelda sales range should be given increase of population growth, additional markets, etc. Zelda sales languish in the three to four million because something is scaring people away from the game. The NES Zeldas had microprocessor shortages, a Cold Market, less population and markets to sell to, and much, much more intense competition. Modern Zelda should be selling three times what the NES Zeldas did by removal of those challenges. Instead, people are acting that it is ‘fine’ that Zelda is selling at 3-4 million. Yet, has Zelda ever been a social phenomenon since Ocarina of Time? No. Fan response from each game has been nothing but a string of disappointments.

What is most fascinating, and should be focused on, is Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. People say Twilight Princess sold merely due to the excitement of the Wii. But why would Wii Sports purchasers want Zelda? They certainly didn’t carry over to other games. And why would they not buy Skyward Sword if they all bought Twilight Princess? We know the Zelda fans are there. Skyward Sword had a much larger install base to sell to than Twilight Princess did. “But the Wii was on the way out.” So was the Gamecube. A more likely explanation is that people liked Twilight Princess but didn’t like Skyward Sword.

And to those who keep insisting that Zelda sales are ‘stable’, consider profitability. It is costing more and more to make a Zelda game. If Zelda games keep selling at a similar trend (despite population growth, despite new markets), Zelda’s costs will eventually overcome any and all profitability. Change has to come eventually.

So yes, Zelda the game series is in sales decline. I doubt Aonuma is the one who can turn it around. After all, he’s been behind seven Zeldas and the only time the series did anything was with Twilight Princess which was Aonuma designing against his personal inclinations (which should tell us he is the wrong man for the job).

So the lesson for today is that sales numbers are not equal especially when the sales are decades apart. They cannot be equal due to…

-Different population sizes.

-Different number of markets.

-Lack of Warm Markets.

-Different Macro-economics.

-Used much more finite supply of cartridges.

-Much more intense competition.

No one is asking for a remake of Zelda 2 or early Zelda game. What people are asking for is a Zelda game that is made in the same blockbuster style and spirit of the early games. It’s obvious Nintendo has been designing Zelda games with the intention of them not to be very popular. Nintendo knows the Wind Waker art style is intensely unpopular, but they returned to it and keep shoving it in our faces. Nintendo knows Zelda’s gameplay does not revolve around puzzles, yet they keep injecting more and more into the games.

Recently, I had my 14 year old nephew play Link to the Past. He has already played Twilight Princess, Wind Waker, Link Between Worlds, and Ocarina of Time. I just sat back and watched him. He played on an emulator on my computer where the controls weren’t all that good (they never are without the original hardware). Despite that and no influence from me, he was playing LTTP like crack and couldn’t get away from it. His brothers were amazed at how into the game he was. Unlike the NES games, LTTP still is very accessible.

What’s going on here is that LTTP has aged well and is a high quality game. It was a high quality game when it was released. No one really has anything bad to say about this game (except for me which I think it is too easy. LTTP is so easy that even Reggie Fils-Aime can beat it!). LTTP is consistently fun. You don’t really hit walls of boredom in the game.

I do not want more LTTP. What I want is Zelda games made with similar quality. We’re not getting that from modern Zeldas for whatever reason. Zelda games were popular and remained intensely popular among players. I can’t find anyone who regrets buying Zelda games at the time. Today, all I hear is buyer’s remorse over purchase of a Zelda game. This is very sad.

Zelda should be making GTA level or Skyrim level sales today. So why isn’t it?

Those who played and loved Classic Zelda know why it was good. But those who didn’t play and love it then will be at a loss and constantly confused. Aonuma is not a fan of Classic Zelda. Even with  LTTP, he only liked that he could ‘cut grass’ with the game. Aonuma is someone who does not understand Zelda’s appeal. This is why I target him specifically in the criticism.

Why did Nintendo put someone in charge of Zelda who was never a fan of the game? THAT is the question that needs to be answered.


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