Pint-sized champ
Game trumps story

Pint-sized bomb?


You've probably already heard that GTA: Chinatown Wars appears to be a flop. On the same day I praised the game as a "pint-sized champ," Ben Fritz broke the news that its NPD sales figures fell well below expectations: "a pathetic 89,000 units in its first two weeks on sale...despite stellar reviews, a major marketing campaign and one of the biggest brand names in video games."

I rarely focus on sales figures or the business side of games, but this news intrigues me, and I think it raises a few interesting questions.

First, a bit of perspective. Those 89,000 units account for only the last two weeks of March (GTA:CW was released in North America on March 17), and March is traditionally one of the lightest months for game sales. Easter fell in April this year, and according to NPD, Easter accounted for $121 million in sales last year. Finally, the entire industry is down from the same period last year, with sales of games down 17% and consoles down 18%.[1]

It's also worth noting that certain DS titles have legs, and first-month numbers may not accurately predict future sales. Professor Layton and the Curious Village moved only 91,000 units in its first month (February 2008), but has gone on to sell nearly 3 million copies, two-thirds of its sales coming from outside Japan. GTA:CW hasn't yet appeared in Japan, where the DS rules supreme (and where, it must be said, the GTA series has never really caught on). It's also possible the new, pricier DSi will attract older buyers more likely to consider purchasing GTA:CW.

Nevertheless, 89,000 is a dreadfully low number, especially for a high-quality original GTA game released for a system that's sold over 26 million units in the U.S. alone. And solace is hard to find when you consider that Pokémon Platinum, a slightly modified rehash of a game released more than two years ago, sold 805,000 copies in the same month, despite appearing a week later. Nobody expected GTA:CW to outsell Pokémon, but a 10:1 ratio is hard to fathom.

All this gloom has led some people to predict the death of mature games on the DS, and I understand why. But I'm less concerned about the availability of mature content on the DS than in the potential demise of big, ambitious, fully-realized games on the system. I don't mean to dismiss the slew of RPGs, puzzle games, and "lifestyle" titles on the DS (hey, I like Retro Game Challenge as much as anybody); but GTA:CW represents a major commitment by a premier developer to custom-build a big new game for a system many of us thought could never accommodate it.

As a proof-of-concept of sorts, GTA:CW sends the clear message that if you know what you're doing, you actually can squeeze an artful, content-rich sandbox game into the fun little device with the hinge. But if nobody buys it, that sends a message too.

Missing in all the talk about a naughty Rockstar game appearing on the sweet little DS is proper recognition for Rockstar Leeds' ingenuity in leveraging the system's hardware. I can't think of a game that more effectively integrates the DS's stylus and two screens. Gameplay / menus / interface all mesh intuitively and reinforce the game's stylish aesthetic. Nor can I think of a game that pushes the DS's graphical prowess harder or to better effect. When you're being chased all over Liberty City by cops, it's easy to miss all the little details and activity occurring in the game. I did a double take the first time an elevated train thundered by above me. The weather effects are similarly surprising, as is the sheer size of the world, full of nooks and crannies to explore.

Frankly, playing Pokémon Platinum after playing GTA:CW makes me wonder why Nintendo is willing to settle for so little. I realize Pokémon games have never been about graphics, but why should a brand-new full-priced game look this bad? Charming retro is one thing, but this game makes almost no effort at all. Don't get me wrong. I'm not whining about lack of innovation. Pokémon is what it is, and I've loved it for years. But must it look (and sound!) so bad on a system capable of much more? When your sales numbers beat the ones posted by your more clever and ambitious competitor TEN to ONE, apparently the answer is yes.

So what does it all mean? I'm not sure, but I do have a few pertinent questions. If you have a take on any of them, I'd love to hear from you. I should mention none of these are rhetorical. They're earnest questions prompted by the curiously meager sales of a terrific game on an immensely popular system.

  1. Is the large fanbase for GTA games uninterested in playing an old-school top-down version of the game? Now that players have visited Liberty City in high-detail 3D, is there simply no going back?

  2. Does the DS audience today comprise enough people who want to play a GTA game on their handheld? Did Rockstar overestimate the size of this segment of DS owners? Did Rockstar wrongly assume the game would be a system-seller for "hardcore" gamers who don't own a DS?

  3. Are we simply GTA'd out? Coming so closely on the heels of GTA IV, are fans less excited by the arrival of a new GTA game?

  4. Do current DS owners see GTA:CW as a Grand Theft Auto game they won't know how to play? In other words, is the game unlikely to bring new players into the GTA fold because it's perceived to be a spin-off of a next-gen console game they've never played?

  5. Is an M-rated game on a Nintendo platform simply too incongruous to succeed beyond minor niche hits like No More Heroes?

  6. Could Rockstar have done anything differently? Did their choice to deliver a full-on, unfiltered GTA game seal their doom? Should we salute their integrity or question their business accumen?

See how I squeezed about a dozen questions into those six? Sort of like Rockstar crammed GTA: Chinatown Wars full of genius. Sort of.