The videogame industry has had its ups and downs, but one thing remains constant – there are successes and there are failures. Failure is subjective when it comes to quality, but in terms of quantity, you often have hard facts and figures to prove something’s worth. Unfortunately the two don’t always correlate that easily; good games can sell poorly and bad games can sell in the millions.
These games are a few examples that speak to me, as they lived by their review scores and fan reception, but died by their lack of performance in sales.
5. Kingdoms or Amalur: Reckoning
KIngdoms of Amalur had all the ingredients of a fantastic franchise, making this story all the more tragic
Released in 2012, this third person action RPG featured a combat system reminiscent of God of War with all the depth of a traditional RPG as well. With an interesting story about fate and destiny vs. free will and independence, and with a stunning amount of talent behind it things were looking up for 38 Studios. The positive reviews came in and we almost saw the birth of a new franchise.
Unfortunately, a new, highly detailed fantasy IP in the difficult year of 2012 couldn’t set the world on fire. Sales figures for the game did not meet the number required to break even, and 38 Studios were eventually made bankrupt. It’s a sad tale, but one that happens all too frequently in the gaming business. If things were different, perhaps we’d have seen a sequel by now, or maybe even an entry on PS4 and Xbox One.
4. SSX 2012
SSX featured many of the hallmarks of the original PS2 series, but apparently not enough
Fans of the classic PS2 snowboarding series were amazed when SSX was announced in 2010, with the title Deadly Descents. The game went under the radar for some time, but eventually we saw the gameplay footage and the sight of the characters performing the insane tricks. The game was re-titled to simply SSX and finally saw its release in March 2012.
The first thing to mention is that here in the UK, GAME – one of the UK’s largest games specialist retailers – didn’t sell it. The situation at the time was so bad for the company that EA wouldn’t supply copies of SSX. I can only speak for the UK, but for many over here it became difficult to buy a new copy of the game. When you factor in that this was the height of the Online Pass era made it very awkward to access SSX’s multiplayer, which, by the way, was 100% asynchronous, and formed the backbone of the game.
Some fans were disappointed at the lack of any real multiplayer, and by the real-world setting of the game. DLC was released which showed the potential for the series, in the form of a fictional mountain that featured all the hallmarks of the classic SSX series – loops, fireworks, crazy-stupid jumps, endless rails, and a sense of humour that many thought the full game was lacking. SSX is still a good game, a stronger entry than SSX On Tour, but had it performed better in the market or had it released in a different environment, we might have seen a more Trickier sequel by now.
3. Legacy of Kain: Defiance
These two clashed over the course of the series, and Defiance finally let you play as both.
In 1999, people saw the intro movie to Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver and were mesmerized. The game then continued to hook people with its intriguing storyline, puzzles and exploration. A sequel, Soul Reaver 2, was released in 2001, and featured a time-travelling conundrum as well a continuation of the third-person gameplay and puzzle-solving. Things were moving along nicely for the series and for the team at Crystal Dynamics, which then featured Amy Hennig and Richard Lemarchand, co-creators of Uncharted.
The Legacy of Kain franchise is made up of two storylines, the Blood Omen series and the Soul Reaver series. Defiance joined the two together and allows players to play as both protagonists, Raziel and Kain. The gameplay evolved from a Tomb Raider-style third person action adventure into a fixed-camera, Devil May Cry-esque action game. The story also came to a head, featuring a stellar twist and more of Amy Hennig’s writing and direction, which fans were pleased to see.
But if you weren’t a fan, you probably got lost, and unfortunately, this would become the last in the series. Less than stellar reviews, which criticised the gameplay and cited the story (which by now was very lore-heavy and complex) as the only reason to play, also hurt sales figures. A new game was about to go into production and continue the series past its cliffhanger ending, but it was cancelled. Hennig and Lemarchand left for Naughty Dog, Crystal Dynamics acquired the rights to Tomb Raider and that was that. Sales of Defiance were ultimately not the kind that publisher Eidos (now known as Square Enix Europe) were hoping for, and so the plug was pulled on the next game, as well as every attempt to make a game in the series since then.
However, ten years later we have the immensely fun shooter Nosgoth, which should hopefully reignite gamers’ interest in the Legacy of Kain series.
Raz’s adventures into the mind went largely unplayed for the vast majority of gamers.
Psychonauts has every right to be a multi-million-selling franchise. The humour of PC adventure games combined with innovative platforming and a mind-bending story set within character’s minds, this had all the ingredients of a strong entry in the Xbox lineup in 2005.
Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions delivered a game that received critical acclaim. Psychonauts went on to win a number of end-of-year awards from a ton of outlets, including Best Screenplay at the 2006 British Academy Video Games Awards.
So, what happened?
Psychonauts was a commercial flop. The game took a year to come out across the pond and by the end of 2005 the game had sold less than 100,000 units, causing publisher Majesco to stop publishing altogether. It’s a shame, because imagine how different the landscape of gaming would have been.
Tim Schafer, instead of being seen by execs as someone made good games that would never sell, could have become a superstar auteur with millions of dollars and huge teams at his command. Instead, Tim Schafer had trouble getting his next game, Brutal Legend, off the ground for ages, and had a public legal battle with Activision that resulted in EA taking over the reigns as publisher.
There is a silver lining to this dark cloud, however, in that Psychonauts has become a cult hit, to the point where word-of-mouth influence and frequent rereleases on services like Steam and GOG.com resulted in Psychonauts making most of its money in 2012, becoming popular and finally finding its audience.
Shenmue was apparently so over-budget that in order to break even, everyone who bought it had to have bought it twice.
The Dreamcast had several killer apps, including Sonic Adventure and Soul Calibur, but the killer among killers was to be Yu Suzuki’s incredibly ambitious action RPG, Shenmue. Shenmue told the story of Ryo Hazuki, a Japanese teenager who returns home from school one day in 1986 to find his father murdered at the hands of a mysterious Chinese assassin named Lan Di.
Shenmue was a third-person action game, but it also possessed many things that we take for granted in gaming today. This was one of the first game worlds that felt alive; you could explore mid-80’s Yokosuka at your leisure, play actual arcade games in the arcade, go into any shop, buy a cassette player and tapes, talk to anyone, anywhere, at any time (all of which was fully voice-acted) and open almost any door and drawer in the game. When things got tough, Ryo had an arsenal of martial-arts moves at his disposal, each with fighting-game style commands and button sequences.
The gameplay, story, then-amazing graphics, music, freedom and attention to detail all helped Shenmue become a cult classic.
But Sega needed more than a cult classic. Sega needed a system seller, something that would make the world forget about the PS2 altogether, and Shenmue wasn’t it. Shenmue was the most expensive game ever made at the time, and the lack of Dreamcasts out there made it literally impossible for the game to break even. The Dreamcast, despite a phenomenally successful launch and a string of well-reviewed, classic games, couldn’t compete with the idea that the PS2 was a coming and it had a DVD player built in (despite the Dreamcast featuring online play, and a host of features that the PS2 didn’t have that we take for granted now).
These are the more notable examples of games that should have been exposed to more people. It’s heartbreaking as a fan of a game series to see them go nowhere or to disappear completely, especially since players tend to grow attached to them due to the long hours spent playing. Unfortunately, it’s the marketplace that decides what does and doesn’t make the cut, with franchises ending far too early and developers’ efforts going unrewarded.