Commentary

'GTA'"s Double Take

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.

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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.

3 comments about "'GTA'"s Double Take".
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  1. Jeffrey Burke from Marketing, April 17, 2009 at 2:20 p.m.


    I don't quite understand what you're saying..

    I think The better analogy would be if Coke released a fine wine but then distributed it in a box rather than a bottle.

    No wine drinker would drink boxed wine, no GTA player would buy a DS. it IS the vehicle, far more than the brand. The GTA brand delivered a quality GTA product.. in a form none of the GTA users can use..

    GTA or any video game for that matter is sucessful by it ability to pick up gamers outside its niche.

    And GTA's niche isn't children, and it's niche doesn't use the system it was released on... wasn't a good idea and isn't really a branding issue either. If the had released a really bad, buggy game, under the GTA name, that would be a branding issue.

    Maybe it says the brand isn't strong enough to make their audeince go buy a new system (one generally scoffed at by serious gamers...) but.. that's a really risky assumption to make, that your product will only be successful if you inspire people to go by a 3rd party product they've never shown signs of wanting to buy.

  2. Brian Tarran from Research Magazine, April 20, 2009 at 4:32 a.m.

    Branding, I feel, has very little to do with the sales figures for Chinatown Wars. A little thing called the R4 DS Flash Memory Card is the more likely problem.

    This card has proved massively popular among core gamers, who know where to buy them and know what to do with them - that is, copy illegal ROMs of DS games on to them.

    ROMs of GTA Chinatown Wars started appearing online the week before release. I'd wager that piracy on the DS is second only to PC game piracy.

  3. Brian Murphy, April 20, 2009 at 10:17 a.m.

    It really is about the system so totally dominated as a children's platform and GTA so totally not a children's game. Sometimes a cigar reallyis just a cigar and no deeper meaning is needed.

    Bad management decision to make the game for the platform.

    BJM

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