The strategists at Take-Two have a problem on their hands. They made the best-reviewed game ever for the Nintendo DS. And no one seems to care.
There's a major disconnect here. Take-Two's "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," the newest game in the franchise, was released a month ago for the Nintendo DS. According to numbers released yesterday, the game sold under 90,000 units. For anyone unaware of the nuances of game sales figures, let me translate: the game flopped. Big-time.
What's interesting has been the commentary about why it's flopped. Most are saying it was remiss to release a "GTA" game on a platform primarily targeted at children. However, I'm not so sure I agree. The sheer numbers of DS systems out there suggest at least a few million. If only 20% of the Nintendo DS audience consisted of "core" gamers, that's still an audience of over six million in the U.S. I think the central issue is one of conflicting brands.
Imagine for a moment that Coke went into the wine business and managed to make an incredible wine, which all the tasters considered to be one of the best in the past few years. That wine is still going to tank, purely because the brand characteristics for Coke are nearly the exact opposite of an expensive pinot noir. That's what I suspect is going on here. The fans of the "GTA" series love the open world, the ever increasingly realistic graphics and portrayal of a vivid, breathing city. The series is one of edgy races, high quality writing, and fast-paced shooting action. The Nintendo DS is a system that offers innovative gameplay for light-fare, portable gaming. These two are not a natural fit.
The fact is, had Take-Two dropped the first three letters of the game's name, the title wouldn't have been so easily dismissed by consumers. If the company had built up fresh expectations rather than adopting existing expectations, a different story may have unfolded. The DS release was further injured by the lack of a real ability to demo the game, something that would have further helped to cement purchase confidence. It's possible that continued sales of the DSi will remedy that for future titles.
I worry that the take-away from this release will be that going against the grain isn't a viable decision. I really think the issue may be much more circumstantial than a broad issue of conformity. It's upsetting that the industry has become so comfortable with pigeonholing itself into the "casual" and "core" buckets.