GI Game Changers: Celebrating the people making the industry a better place
We look at the data and pick out the key games and products that could make 2023 a special year
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There is a level of anxiety around the video games market at the moment.
Last year’s results were a mixed bag. Console sales fell in some markets sharply, mostly due to stock shortages for PlayStation 5.
Console and PC software sales fell, too, although primarily due to legacy games (titles released from previous years). Games like GTA 5 and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe declined, coming down from that lockdown high. Meanwhile the performance of 2021’s Call of Duty game also hurt the figures.
Across Europe, sales of new games spiked up by 16%. This was driven by strong launches for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Elden Ring, LEGO Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, Pokémon and God of War Ragnarok.
Yet scratch beneath the surface, and there were some relatively big budget titles that missed their targets and struggled to chart. And recent reports from the likes of Ubisoft suggests there’s a softness in the market for anything outside of the mega franchises.
Are subscriptions hurting the performance of these games? Are consumers being more selective due to the cost of living crisis? Have rising game prices put off certain customers? And how is this likely to play out in 2023?
It’s not all limited to console and PC. Mobile is facing some real challenges around user acquisition and its ability to target ads. With marketing budgets likely to fall in 2023, there is some real uncertainty around the smartphone sector, which is unusual.
The anxiety is understandable. Yet there are many reasons as to why 2023 should prove to be a landmark year for the video games business, albeit not for everyone.
Looking at previous data and trends, we’ve put together six reasons why 2023 could be incredible… and six reasons why you might be right to be cautious.
To use an F1 metaphor, ever since the new Xbox and PlayStation launched in November 2020, they’ve been stuck behind a saftey car. Their success has been limited by manufacturing, with ongoing component shortages considerably holding back both platforms.
For the majority of 2022, Xbox and PlayStation could not supply the demand. A drop in stock across Europe meant that PS5 hardware sales were down 35% last year compared with the year before.
That’s over now. Last week, PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan declared that PS5 is coming into free supply. A huge increase in stock during December caused a spike in sales in major markets. There is still work to do, particularly in Europe, but the days of buying PS5 off eBay is at an end. The saftey car has been removed. Off we go.
PlayStation has delivered some big games since the launch of PS5, and you don’t get much bigger than last year’s God of War Ragnarok, which ended the year as one of the world’s biggest console games.
In 2023, the big PS5 game is Spider-Man 2, and it looks destined to be a major title. The first game was one of the fastest-selling PlayStation titles in history. The mini-sequel, Spider-Man Miles Morales, was PS5’s headline act at the console’s launch. Over 33 million people have played those games, which have recently expanded to the PC market. The game’s developer, Insomniac, is also one of the most consistently excellent big budget game developers.
Could it arrive in the September release slot like its predecessor? Or after God of War Ragnarok’s triumphant debut, could Sony aim for a Christmas launch? If it does, I can see it being the game that plugs the gap left by Call of Duty. This one is as close to a guaranteed smash hit as you can get.
Bethesda Games Studios is a hit generator. Fallout and Elder Scrolls are mega franchises and every time the studio turns out a new game, it finds itself near the top of the best-seller charts.
Starfield is a little different to those games. It’s a new IP, for one. And it’s not coming to PS5, the market-leading console. It varies by country, but around 40% to 45% of Fallout 4’s sales came on PS4 in major markets.
But it will be part of Game Pass on both PC and console, making it an affordable proposition compared with the other big launches of the year. Outside of hardware, this is looking like the biggest Xbox launch since the heyday of the Halo series. Expect Starfield to have more players at launch than any previous Bethesda game.
Starfield is the headline act, but there other key games from Microsoft, including the awaited return of Forza Motorsport and another new Bethesda IP: Redfall. After a quiet 2022, Xbox is looking considerably stronger in 2023.
Zelda is an icon of a franchise. Yet before Breath of the Wild came along, no Zelda game had ever broken 10 million sales. In fact, the previous best-seller was Twilight Princess on Wii and GameCube, which sold just shy of nine million copies.
Breath of the Wild has changed things. Its sales are currently more than three times bigger than Twilight Princess. It is sitting above games it previously looked up at, including Super Mario and Pokémon. It was a launch title for Nintendo Switch, and during its first month, more people bought copies of the game than the number of Switch consoles out there.
Breath of the Wild’s sales took place over many years, and some of that audience may have drifted away. Looking at historical data when there were two Zelda games launched on a single platform, we witnessed a severe drop in players for the second game. Ocarina of Time’s 7.6 million sales on N64 was followed by Majora’s Mask, which managed 3.4 million. Twilight Princess’ 8.7 million was succeeded by Skyward Sword, which achieved just 3.7 million.
However, those comparisons were for Zelda games from a different era, and on platforms that were in very different places when those second Zelda games arrived. Yet even if the ratio continues, and Tears of the Kingdom manages less than half the sales of Breath of the Wild, it will still be the second biggest Zelda game of all time, and by a big margin.
Plus, the sheer fact there are now 120 million Switch owners out there (and not three million) almost guarantees that Tears of the Kingdom will be the biggest Zelda game launch of all time.
Last year, Nintendo Switch was comfortably the biggest games console worldwide. Even in countries where the platfrom has shown more heavy declines, like the UK, it was still the market leader. What’s more, Nintendo recently revealed that over 100 million people had accessed a Switch in the twelve months leading up to September 2022.
A closer look at the hardware numbers show that although Switch sales are in decline, in many markets it’s still selling better than it was pre-lockdown. In other words, talk of a Switch 2 is somewhat premature.
We focused on the big three console exclusives above, but the year is awash with big titles, for both PC and console. These include the Resident Evil 4 Remake, Suicide Squad, Diablo IV, Street Fighter 6, Dead Island 2, Minecraft Legends… and that’s just the first half of the year.
There are a few third-party blockbusters, too. Ubisoft has a new Assassin’s Creed (Mirage) set for 2023; this is a more focused title than previous games, so it’s not entirely clear how big the publisher plans to go with it. In March, EA is bringing its next big single-player Star Wars game to market in Star Wars: Jedi Survivor. And in June, we have the next numbered entry in the Final Fantasy series.
One game to watch is Hogwarts Legacy. Harry Potter games have, historically, been hugely popular with a wider audience. The RPG has its challenges, particularly due to the ongoing arguments around Harry Potter creator JK Rowling and her views on trans rights. It’s also a staggered launch, beginning with the PS5 and Xbox Series versions before coming to Switch and older console a little later in the year. Yet it’s still getting plenty of buzz, with an influencer-focused PR and marketing campaign to drive awareness. If it delivers on the quality, expect it to be one of the year’s biggest games.
There’s this notion that video games benefit from recessions. The idea is that when people tighten their belts, it’s holidays, cinema trips and meals out that get cut back, whereas games offer far better value for money in terms of entertainment.
This is based on what happened during the last recession, which coincided with the success of Xbox 360, Wii, DS, Call of Duty, Guitar Hero and more. But things are different now. The Wii and Xbox 360 didn’t have to compete with as many free games, or TV services like Netflix, which arguably offer even better value. And are consumers going to be as willing to give up their holidays so soon after the lockdown years?
If you look at the data from the last recession, you can see a lot of big selling games overall. But things were tough for titles outside of the really big brands. Consumers may well turn to games for entertainment in 2023, but they will still be selective over where they’ll spend their money.
During COVID-19, work from home orders had a significant impact on the development schedules of games, particularly those still in relatively early stages of development. The pace has picked up as some studios become accustomed to the new way of working, and find a happy medium between working from home and being back in the office. Yet some teams are still finding progress slower than before. In other words, expect delays to keep happening in 2023, although hopefully fewer of them.
Switch remains a powerful platform, but it is definitely entering the latter stages of its life. Nintendo’s console will remain a key player in the year ahead, but hardware sales will be lower, and software performance will depend on what else the company has outside of Zelda.
Call of Duty is such a major seller that it can almost make or break a year. The disappointing sales of Call of Duty: Vanguard had a significant impact on the overall market performace at the tail end of 2021.
This year, Activision’s plans around Call of Duty involves a plethora of digital content for Modern Warfare 2 and Warzone. It means that, although the franchise will have a presence in the market, there isn’t that big single title launch to drive the market this Christmas.
This might be the first year in a decade when the words ‘Call of Duty’ and ‘FIFA’ won’t top the European charts. Of course, FIFA is simply being rebranded EA Sports FC, and as it retains all the other licences (teams, leagues, stadiums and players), it’ll be this year’s best-selling game.
Without any real competition, EA doesn’t really have too much to fear form losing the FIFA brand identity. However, the loss of the name ‘FIFA’ will require some serious messaging and there’s an element of uncertainty over what this might mean for the iconic football game, at least in the short term.
Rising inflation, the need to deliver on heavy investment and the rising costs of games development has already seen game prices rise. Microsoft has already indicated it will have to follow in rising the price of its titles, too. Things certainly won’t be getting any cheaper in 2023.
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Head of Games B2B
Chris is a 15-year media veteran specialising in the business of video games. And, erm, Doctor Who
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