What Does it Mean for a Game to be Successful?

Dissecting a topic many of us get wrong

What Does it Mean for a Game to be Successful?
Animation by Daan Snels via Dribbble.

Whether a game is successful or not is actually quite a hard thing to quantify. Success can be defined by linear numerical metrics like sales, total player count, concurrent player count, and profit. It can also be measured by other things like engagement, propensity to buy merchandise or sequels, and general critical reception.

This  abundance of variety in regards to what defines 'success', I believe, creates issues within video games criticism and commentary. I feel the lack of understanding as to what successful means or could mean, undermines our ability to fairly talk about a games success. More often then not we see success as a binary where meteoric or viral success, i.e Fortnite is success and everything is unsuccessful.

So let's delve into what 'successful' actually means.

Video games are all niche products

When we talk about a game's level of success we instantly run to some sort of numerical measure. However, we don't all run around with our favorites games exact sales figure in our heads, we approximate and we generalize. This blurs our measurement for success as we tend to just sense check whether a game sold 'lots' (translation: millions) and then we judge everything in relation to that. We then tend to connect the millions of sold titles with the millions of consoles out there and begin to paint an erroneous picture that successful games are bought by most people, tending to believe that successful games are being played by a majority of people. I mean, why wouldn't you believe that when every site you read is talking about it and many people you know are playing it, but its a fallacy.

So my favorite example of this is 2018's God of War on PS4, a game that is wildly considered a very good and very successful game.

As at August 2021, it had sold 19.5 million copies, so successful right?

When you consider its Total Addressable Market (T.A.M, a sales term), i.e who it could have been sold to, we get a different lens on the situation. See around August 2021, there were an estimated ~114 million PS4 consoles and about ~13 million PS5 consoles, doing some rough math and ignoring complications such as some PS5 owners would have owned a PS4, God Of War (2018) a successful game, sold to about ~15% of the total market.

This inherently contextualises the definition of success; if a product universally considered 'successful' only sold to a fraction of the entire market then why does everyone seem to talk about that game and how low do we have to go before something isn't successful?

This isn't an isolated example. Breath of the Wild sold to about 25% of it's TAM, Witcher 3 ~14%, and Elden Ring sold to about ~5% of the total market - the curse of multi-platform.

What fascinates me about this way of looking at sales is that numerically, all video games are niche products selling to niche audiences. This makes sense when you consider that not everyone who owns a PlayStation is interested in the same kind of game.

Nintendo switch player
Photo by Eugene Chystiakov / Unsplash

However, this doesn't line up with games commentary. When the God of War launched it received 118 Metacritic reviews by games media, practically reviewed by every journalistic outlet. Those reviews were seen by tens millions of millions of people, even by people who don't own a PlayStation. For weeks, if not months, it would have been the topic of discussion in podcasts, Twitch streams, forums, and YouTube videos and by the time 2018 was coming to a close it was awarded multiple Game of the Year awards, once again taking up the oxygen in the room.

And yet a fraction of the gaming community bought it.

It's quite easy to see the disconnect here between how something 'feels' successful, especially to someone engrossed in gaming discourse, and the reality of what successful means sales wise.

What doesn't help this disconnect are the stand-out-top-1% of games that just have astronomical sales that skews how people feel about success. For example, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe has sold 53 million copies across 100 million Switches and 13 million Wii U, making its penetration rate about 46% which might actually be the highest saturation rate of any game. Animal Crossing has sold to 38% of all Switch owners - the strength of Nintendo. Then you have games like Fortnite with a claimed 350 million registered players .

These stand outs heavily skew our understanding of what success means.

The reality is, numerical success, i.e how many people bought a game, is always smaller than we all feel.

But because we are not faced with the hard numbers of what that success means and we don’t consider the game in its context, we let the feeling, the noise, and the hype override and drive our understanding of success. This, then by proxy, colours how we look at every other game and unfairly judge them, either by comparing the noise, or by unfairly comparing the raw numbers.

Capturing the bright moments in a dark surrounding field is always worth a shot!
Photo by Julian Hochgesang / Unsplash

When it's not always about sales

In opposition to traditional games like God of War that sell a discrete product once, we have games that either don’t cost anything or have a different sales model.

For free to play games, initial hype is great and all, but what defines them as ‘successful’ are players playing for long periods of time and engaging in the games economy. For your typical free to play success stories like Fortnite, Apex Legends, and Genshin Impact, the explosive popularity at the beginning sets a tone but what success really looks like is loyalty (or lifetime value of the active players). This is the number of players that engage with the game on a regular basis (with the hope that these players regularly spend money).

Take for example Data 2: at its highest point of popularity, over 1.2 million people were playing the game, however the current repeat player base of the game is around 200-400 thousand players. This represents an over 50% drop in initial players and sounds like a recipe for failure, but it’s a red herring, because 200-400 thousand players engaging with the game regularly is a strong indication of success.

For free to play games, success tends to be defined as earning enough revenue to pay for the service, pay the shareholders, and pay for future development of new features and content.

The goal is to reach an equilibrium point and sustain it. From there you hope you can grow your net user base, but ensuring that your player base is always spending the right amount of money.

This of course means that 'unsuccessful' could be defined as a large player base that doesn’t spend enough money OR too small of a player base. It’s all about balance, which is why free to play games rely on big spenders, also known as white whales; in this case, it’s a smaller number of people that return a higher reward allowing you to maintain that balance with less effort.

For those unsure what a white whale is and why it is important I recommend this doco.

Subscription games have a similar definition of success, however what is important to them is time. That is, how long a player stayed subscribed for.

A free to play game can afford to churn large amount of players as long as the profit generation remains in their favour. Less players can mean less platform costs, but if the white whales stick around, it can be still profitable (see Dota’s massive drop in players).

Subscription games need to try and keep as many players as possible paying the monthly fee as they often don’t have micro-transactions to fall back on.

For the subscription model they care about Committed Monthly Revenue (CMR, another sales term), which is a calculation where a company looks at how many subscribers they have now, and project how much revenue they will have in X number of months with the same player base. So for example, a million players, at $10 a month, for six months is a CMR of $60 million dollars. If thats enough to turn a profit thats somewhat a way to define success.

Now, it's never as simple as that; you can’t predict the future, and while you might gain subscribers in six months, you also might loose some. Not to mention monthly subscriptions can be cancelled at any time, and so the reality of your financials might drastically differ month to month. It’s a precarious situation, one where you are forced to invest money and development into new game features to prevent people for unsubscribing in the hopes that it pays off.

There is a reason why subscription games are few and far between, and games that do operate on a model like this try and incentivize you to lock in for longer subscription periods often with a discount or incentive as it will give them stability, something the sales world refers to as ’stickiness’.

For a subscription game, success is not how many people have made an account or are playing at any specific time, it’s more how many people are reliably coming back to your game time and time again.

When the media mentions that Genshin Impact or Final Fantasy XIV have hit X million in players its a different story to the thirty million who bought Call of Duty. In fact, the immediate numbers for these games don't matter; what matters is that they have the same or more players in twelve months time. This is inherently difficult for games commentary to truly wrestle with as commentary tends to represent a specific point in time.

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When it’s not about the money

It’s extremely difficult to separate the success of a game from its financial performance when, at the end of the day, most games are commercial products. But there are other success factors we need to cover.

Fundamentally, many video games are the execution of an artist's vision and so, success could be classified on that basis. A great example of this is Frog Fractions and Frog Fractions 2, which are effectively an elaborate grift executed perfectly by developer Jim Stormdancer. He’s not wanting sales, or fame, or notoriety. What he wanted was for people to experience his humor through his authored experience.

Seriously, if you have not watched the doco on Frog Fractions it's so worth it.

Following on from that, community can also be a definition for success. Titanfall 2 is considered a failure financially, but its fan base has been loud and vocal for years about how good of a game it is and how it got shafted. In a similar vein indie games tend to take on massive communities whilst not necessarily having massive amount of sales. Undertale and its sister Deltarune are perfect examples of community being the marker of success. The fanbase for these games are driven, passionate, and sometimes borderline problematic, but its arguably a better community of fans than any AAA community.

A game's purpose might not be any of the above, but to serve as a vessel for something else. Bethesda’s Fallout Shelter was paid for out of the marketing budget and its purpose was to advertise Fallout 4. As a free to play game it wasn’t launched to make money or sustain itself but to raise the profile of the next Fallout game. This isn’t uncommon either; some games are made to improve the brand, do some marketing for something like a movie, or even just sell more merchandise. Pokémon, Star Wars, and Marvel are the biggest merchandising franchises on the planet. A Marvel or Pokémon game might not be traditionally successful but those games might have enabled another hundred million dollars in merchandise sales that month alone.

Finally, games are part of a studios portfolio of work and how they get more work is predicated on past performance. Many successful studios today started life out as support studios or studios that made ports or mobile games. Bluepoint Games has been steadily porting or remaking games for years for other companies which lead to them getting more and more significant projects to work on. For them, their business model was around being trusted to do the next big job and so while their outputs may not have sold that well, their marker of success was whether or not they got the next big project.

Photo by Joshua Earle / Unsplash

Success is in the eye of the beholder

Success is multifaceted, and can mean different things to different people. Rarely can one game's success be compared to another. However, as an industry that reports on all games all the time, we are encouraging scenarios where all games are stacked up against each other on the same terms, and that's not fair. Looking at NPDs forces us to think of success in month windows, and having the Game Awards forces us to consider success as being something you must achieve within a 12-month window. Anyone who knows anything about Final Fantasy XIV knows its first 12 months were its worst.

Success should be considered through both developer/publisher intent and opportunity. On one hand, do the developers feel proud about their game? Is it a success for them? On the other, did it earn enough money to make another, or allow the studio to continue?

Likewise, commentary should be aligned with clear intent. Let's ignore anyone who wants to talk about success as a way to disparage other games; they are just bad human beings. Instead, let's look at the fans for whom success means they get more games, in that case, they need only care about the factors that enable the development of a successor. For game criticism, that commentary is more focused on the experiences and what the game does to the overall industry. If a game is memorable, does something new, or makes a statement, that becomes worthy of consideration in things like Game of the Year. It also means that future games will follow, and so the shared narrative of video games is potentially changed forever.

Success is hard to talk about in meaningful ways. We are more often than not doing all games a disservice by conflating the various definitions of success and treating all games identically.

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