If you haven’t gathered by the new awards it receives every day, the heaps of fan praise or the critical fawning, let me be the first to inform you that The Last of Us is kind of a big deal.
Exactly how big of a deal it is was made a little more clear recently when Naughty Dog revealed that the title has now sold over six million copies worldwide. That’s no small number, and no small feat.
While the success of such a great game may have seem pre-determined, that’s pretty far from the truth. In reality, The Last of Us is a unique entrant into the world of Triple-A gaming for several reasons, and its resounding success has a few things to teach us about the state of the industry today.
What things? Well, lessons like:
Naughty Dog is the Top Dog
While this statement is essentially an opinion at heart, it’s hard to deny Naughty Dog their current status as a candidate for the top developer in the world at this moment, if you go off the metrics of: sales figures, fan reception, critical reception and game quality.
But what truly sets them apart is consistency. With the possible exception of Jak X: Combat Racing, Naughty Dog has been on a hot streak of truly great games since 1996’s Crash Bandicoot, and has been keeping that streak alive over the course of a few different franchises.
That’s a level of consistent creative ability with few equals in any entertainment medium. As a result, there is an association of quality with the Naught Dog name that can move a million units (at the least) automatically.
Which segues nicely into…
Franchises Sell Independent Properties
Publishers are scared to back independent properties in Triple-A gaming (especially if said property doesn’t plan on becoming a franchise), and that’s understandable. That corner of the industry is financially shaky, and is not currently fertile ground for bold new ideas to sprout from.
That being said, the success of The Last of Us, and to an extent, Naughty Dog, teaches us the important lesson that established franchise success (such as the success Uncharted experienced) does justify the investment for a major company to pursue projects that may be off the beaten path to huge sales figures.
This may sound obvious, but too often there is a tendency for companies to hold on to a franchise until its squeezed to death. Hopefully the success of games like The Last of Us will convince more major studios to trust that the market is willing to accept a new property, if it’s from a quality source.
Exclusive Games are Good, but Exclusive Studios Are Better
I do believe that games can be system sellers, but I also think there have been very few true system sellers throughout history. The ones that have qualified as true system sellers (Super Mario Bros., Final Fantasy VII, Halo, Uncharted/The Last of Us) all carry the same distinction of not only being great games that were exclusive to one major system, but were made by studios that were exclusive to those systems (at the time, at least) as well.
To me, that’s the most important factor. While a one-off success will move units, historically speaking its the cases of a developer remaining exclusive that truly justifies system purchases for otherwise hesitant buyers. After all, if a game will potentially make its way to your console of choice, the urge for that impulse buy of another system to experience it “right damn now” isn’t quite as strong.
Great individual games do matter. However, they have nothing on the power that a truly great developer’s entire library can wield.
Smart Marketing/Word of Mouth Matter
When a game like Grand Theft Auto comes out, you see it everywhere. I guarantee you that of that game’s $265 million dollar budget, almost half of it went to promotion and marketing, because mass saturation of the media for your video game absolutely matters, if you are aiming for that level of financial success.
The Last of Us took a different approach. It wasn’t quite as heavily advertised as a title like GTA: V, but it chose its advertisements smartly, by buying up time in relevant slots like AMC’s The Walking Dead. More importantly, the positive word of mouth from both users and critics helped the game eventually double its initial sales, as The Last of Us has taken the Titanic approach of stretching its “box-office” success over a long period of time, rather than relying on a big up-front payday solely.
The lesson there is that games are far different from films, and user feedback does absolutely matter, unless you’re a series like Call of Duty or the like which is essentially on fiscal cruise control. As such, if you lack an established property, or the ability to plaster the property you do have absolutely everywhere, you need to be able to pick your ad-spots wisely, and can not dismiss the importance that user feedback will have on long-term success.
Non-Mass Appeal Games Have a Sales Cap
Not to kill the mood, but as great as the success of The Last of Us is, it should also serve as a cautionary tale that these types of ventures have realistic sales caps.
The Last of Us is a narrative and stealth based, console exclusive original property. As such, it was never going to sell as many units as a game like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty, as it doesn’t carry the attributes that make it as appealing, or accessible, to the masses like those titles do, regardless of how great the game may be.
Between stories like the success of The Last of Us, and seemingly successful games like Tomb Raider being viewed as failures of a sort by their publishers, it’s important that all future publishers keep in mind that there is a realistic sales cap to consider for all but a select few properties, regardless of how great the game may be.