Super Mario 3D World is great, right? Saunter around the Internet on this fine day and you’ll find that many agree – our very own Adam Cook certainly does – and almost all of those people are happily stamping the game with the official ‘reason to buy a Wii U’ seal of approval. And while I agree that it is a brilliant video game, and I can certainly see it boosting sales for a little bit, Super Mario 3D World will not be the game that will really sell, and indeed save the Wii U.
Why do I think this? Because it’s not multiplayer. Yes, I know you can play the game with four of you at once, I’m not that silly, but it’s not competitive multiplayer. Not truly competitive, anyway. No amount of crowns and score counters can change the fact that you and your friends are all ultimately bouncing/sliding/pouncing for the same cause, and that cause is just a ‘while we’re playing’ thing, there’s no character growth or personal elements.
In my eyes the games that really sell consoles nowadays, the ones that shift them in analyst satisfying numbers, are multiplayer titles.
Sticking to the Nintendo tracks for a minute, let’s look at some past numbers shall we? Roll back to the N64 and you’ll see that Super Mario 64 is the best-selling game on the system, shifting just shy of 12 million copies. That’s single player, sure, but second and third? Mario Kart and Goldeneye with sales in excess of 9 and 8 million respectively. Fourth? Zelda, but the fifth top title was Smash Bros. Thing is, the N64 was a monumental change – Super Mario 64 was the sort of game that made you buy a system because it was so jaw droppingly unbelievable at the time. That game was doing things that were unimaginable on an SNES. It was the sort of generational leap that could only happen the once, and it blew minds. Still, three of the top five were mainly played for their multiplayer…
The Gamecube is more telling. The system launched in America at the tail end of 2001 and by the end of 2003 it had sold more than 6.8 million units in America alone, 3.17 of which were sold by the end of 2002. Best-selling game on the system? Super Smash Bros. Melee, a multiplayer-centric game that was released within the system’s first year and is still played at Fighting Game Championships to this day. Oh, and Mario Kart Double Dash!! was also released by the end of 2003.
Compare those Gamecube numbers to those of the Wii U thus far; in a year the Wii U has sold 1.68 million in the US at a time when gaming is supposedly much more mainstream than it was in 2002. We’re a few weeks short of a direct comparison to that 3.17 number, but it’s only just over half of that total as it is.
Want more numbers? Mario Kart Wii has sold 33.92 million copies to date, and Wii Sports 81.49 million (it was a pack-in, yes, but it was a pack-in that people wanted). Super Mario Galaxy? 10.89 million.
The Xbox 360’s top selling games are predominantly Call of Duty. Same on PS3. Why is Minecraft selling so well on Xbox 360? It’s not because everyone likes skulking around dungeons as Creepers hiss behind them, it’s because their friends are enthusing about their creations, and telling them that they can help out.
I remember helping my sister move in to her uni halls and seeing adverts for a Halo tournament on the community board. Sure, Halo’s AI was great, but Halo multiplayer and the fact you could play LAN was why people needed to get their own Xbox and not just play on their friend’s one. Everyone needed to practise.
Talking about practise, remember when fighting games were advertised as arcade perfect? People would buy these games, and the associated console, just so they could put the hours in at home before heading in and dominating the arcade.
So why is this? I could just lean on the Skinner’s Box theories like I usually do to undermine modern ranking systems, but I’m attempting to trace this concept back to the consoles of the 2000s, so that doesn’t hold up. Instead I’m going to point towards a simple human need for both inclusion and superiority.
Inclusion: multiplayer games are often ‘hot’, in the sense that they’re played by the majority for a limited period before subsiding to a hardcore community. Superiority: people like to be the best at what they do and show off, thus gaining the respect and admiration of their peers in the process. Be honest, you don’t like to lose, or look like a loose wheel, do you?
The more important point in regards to sales is the idea of a game being ‘hot’, as this is what puts pressure on us to buy now rather than later. This is the key differentiating element between games that are predominantly single player, and those that focus on multiplayer.
A single player game is always great, but your enjoyment of said title is completely isolated and not impacted by other people. That’s the Wii U’s biggest issue right now; it has good games, great even, but they’re all predominantly single player. Do you need to buy the system today to enjoy Pikmin 3, The Wonderful 101 or Super Mario 3D World to their full? No, they’ll still be great this time next year and you know that. These titles are notches as to why you want the system, but there’s no urgency to play these games today.
But if Smash Bros 4 was out? That would change things. You’d need the game (and thus the system) now so that you can practise before you go round Graham’s next week, as that’s the current hot multiplayer game that you and your friends are enjoying.
Single player games are good forever, but multiplayer games? You want to be playing them when they’re the in thing.
That’s the Wii U’s predicament, but what about the PS4 and Xbox One? Well just take a look at the game sales – Ghosts and Battlefields rule the day. I initially thought that everyone would buy these games on the systems they already have, but I didn’t factor in friendly peer pressure around the new systems. ‘You gettin’ a PS4 Larry? I is, an’ thas where I’ll be playin’ CoD this year, mate, so you best be gettin’ one an’ all’. Is how I imagine the conversation would have gone? Something like that anyway. Though I don’t think anyone is called Larry anymore.
Microsoft’s decision to focus on Xbox LIVE, profiles that recorded your play history and friend list leaderboards was their smartest move with the Xbox 360, and a savvy reaction to the gamer’s desire to impress. Suddenly people were locked into buying a specific system in order for them to fully engage with their social circle. I saw it time and time again while I was working in a certain video GAME retailer, with many a conversation along the lines of; ‘So you’re buying for your son who likes to create things and watches QI for Stephen Fry’s voice even though he hasn’t the foggiest what’s going on? Sounds like Little Big Planet would be great for him, but all his friends have Xbox 360’s so if he doesn’t want to seem like a crippled social outcast and be excluded from post-school party chat then you’ll need to buy him an Xbox 360.’
I’m fairly confident that there’s at least a pinch of truth in my statement that multiplayer games drive constant console sales. I, for one, believe that while Sony’s Indie push is the moral high-ground, Titanfall is the bigger sales coup. I see a focus on Killer Instinct from Microsoft as a smarter move for the long run than Sony’s concentration on titles like Infamous. Oh and before you accuse me of doing so, I’m not lobbying for more multiplayer games, or more multiplayer in games, I’m simply arguing why great, stand-out multiplayer titles help drive healthy system sales.
Ultimately a lot of people will have chalked up 3D World as ‘that game I’ll play when I get a Wii U’. It will sell well over the console’s life, but if you’re looking for the games that will deliver the constant improvements in sales, then you’re waiting for Mario Kart and Smash. Even if everyone that buys a Wii U for one of those games then goes on to buy 3D World, pushing its sales numbers higher, it will have been the multiplayer game(s) that persuaded them to take the plunge.
Here it is, plain and simple: if everyone else is doing it, watching it, listening to it; then it must be good, right? It’s human nature to want to be part of the crowd, and the multiplayer genre only exemplifies this. And the more people that get into something, the more it snowballs until it’s a phenomenon, and phenomenon’s sell consoles by the skip full (check out the 3DS’s numbers in Japan on Monster Hunter 4 and Pokemon X/Y’s releases). No longer are we simply partaking in the same static media as everyone else, seeing the same things they saw, now we’re competing in it together – it’s live. Now there’s pride at stake, and you’ve got to own the machine to practise to avoid embarrassing yourself next time you play, and in my eyes it’s this that causes these games to tip people over from ‘I’m interested in some games on this system’ to ‘I must own this system now’.