Which game can be Sony's true flagship?
This generation of gaming consoles is the battleground of a massive warfare between fanboys, where PS3 and Xbox 360 fans are the main protagonists. If we had to stigmatize, we'd say that "PS3 has no game and no sales", "Xbox 360 is only for shooter and racers and is against originality" and "Wii is for casual gamers and they have no true game". The fight is hard. It's not the first time fans bash each other to glorify their console of choice, I remember some years ago Dreamcast fans bashing PS2 saying it had no chance to succeed, or that the mini-CD in the GameCube was Nintendo's worst idea against piracy.
The conflicts were hard, but probably not as hard as the current generation of gamers, mainly due to the incredible expansion of Internet. Everyone can now join a forum or create a blog to give their opinion, while it was not that easy 10 or 15 years ago.
The Xbox 360 started this generation in late 2005, providing a graphical and technical quality far beyond what could do previous generation consoles. Gamers had to wait a full year to see the PS3 arriving. In a year, around 70 retail games released on Xbox 360, including titles like Project Gotham Racing 3, Project Dark Zero, Ridge Racer 6, Dead or Alive 4, Oblivion, Tomb Raider Legend, Saints Row, Dead Rising, Splinter Cell Double Agent and Gears of War.
So when the Playstation 3 released a year later with only Resistance, Motorstorm and Genji Days of the Blade, it wasn't hard to foresee those Xbox 360 buyers bashing early PS3 owners for having an expensive console with no game. And this trend seem to have stayed even nearly 3 years after the console release, as alleged journalists keep bashing the PS3. The difficulties that third party developers had with the console, resulting differences between the two console versions, and the lack of software sales in PS3 side could only put oil onto fire.
In September 2007 released Halo 3 on Xbox 360. The game have been, honestly or not, critically acclaimed by the medias and Microsoft's more-than-heavy marketing generated one of the biggest launch in gaming history. In October 2009, Halo 3 sold around 10 millions units worldwide and is still one of the most played games on Xbox Live. In comparison, a very good game hardly reach more than 2 millions units sold.
In Nintendo's case, Wii's success is phenomenal. Nintendo managed to do with Wii and DS what no one could before, appealing as much gamers as non-gamers. Sadly, due to their huge success, Wii and DS are flooded with poor quality games released by companies wanting to benefit of that public. However, the Nintendo franchises still meet major sales when they release, especially if there are "Mario" or "Pokémon" in it. Super Mario Galaxy on Wii sold around 8 millions units and Pokémon series on DS usually sells around 5 millions for each game (Nintendo traditionally releases two Pokémon games at the same time, with different name but same content with some differences).
Square Enix is not a console manufacturer (would it be interesting if they were?) but they have franchises that sell buckets too. Firstly because of Final Fantasy brand name, considered as a quality mark. But also with DraQue games, as Dragon Quest VIII sold nearly 5 millions units and DQ IX sold 4 millions units on DS. Capcom benefits of a great fan base on handheld consoles with Monster Hunter and Street Fighter on consoles. In Sega's case, we cannot talk about a flagship with Sonic because unlike those other companies, Sega can't manage to maintain quality over Sonic titles. Fans no longer blindly follow them because they are dubious about the current quality of the franchise. Can their latest announcement about a 2D Sonic be a message of hope? We'll know soon enough.
And Sony? What franchise is their flagship? For which game every fan would buy it instantly, generating incredible sales and profits? Crash Bandicoot used to be Sony' mascot. I even remember that pic of Sonic grilling some Crash skewer on a BBQ during a game convention. But Naughty Dogs dropped the franchise and started to develop Jak & Daxter series. The three best sales on PS2 are GTA San Andreas, Gran Turismo 3 A-spec and GTA Vice City, followed by GTA III, Gran Turismo 4, Final Fantasy X. It appears that only Gran Turismo series are developed by a second party studio.
And if we look at the 50 most sold games on PS2, only Gran Turismo series, EyeToy Play, Socom series and The Getaway are developed by first or second party studios. Every other top seller games are from third party developers, with a dominance of Square Enix, Electronic Arts and Konami. However, disregard Gran Turismo's high quality, it is hard to believe that the series is sufficient to generate an incredibly huge fanbase like Pokémon, Mario, Monster Hunter or Halo series.
Let's now take a look at PS3 software sales, not to bash but to analyze. Without surprise, PS3 best sold game is GTA IV with around 6 millions units sold, followed by Modern Warfare with 4.5 millions and Metal Gear Solid 4 with 4.2 millions. Exclusive games like MGS4, Killzone 2, LittleBigPlanet or Gran Turismo 5 Prologue indeed generated big hardware and software sales, but not enough to consider there is a huge fanbase behind that wave. Actually, by now that's how work the PS3 market. They are very sensitive to hype, where most PS3 exclusive games are quite much hyped but not enough to pretend a significant boost in sales.
So what is PS3's flagship? What game "every" PS3 gamer would blindly buy? Despite an incredible hype, a critical acclaim and an impressive technical spank, neither LittleBigPlanet neither Killzone 2 managed to sell more than 3 millions. Will Uncharted 2 start a new fanbase with its upcoming release? By now the game gathered great scores among medias and the hype follows. We'll know soon enough, as the game releases in mid-October and is bundled with the PS3 Slim at 350$.
Heavy Rain generates much hype too, but like Fahrenheit (developed by the same studio), I'm afraid it will be a niche game. Heavy Rain will certainly be a reference in terms of graphical quality on consoles but its adventure / investigation genre may not be everyone's cup of tea. God of War 3 then? The series managed to sell between 2 and 3 millions units for each episode, which is probably not enough to talk about a big fanbase, but the hype surrounding God of War 3 may do the difference. Gamers are looking for an epic experience, and whoever played God of War will agree this game is somehow really epic. But a flagship needs to release sequels in order to be profitable, it wouldn't be interesting to promote God of War 3 as the ultimate sale booster if it will be the last of the series.
If we look at Nintendo, the company managed to satisfy its fanbase providing a ton of game on their juicy franchises. Just take a look at the number of Mario and Pokémon games existing since their existence. Since the very beginning, the plumber was Nintendo's big boy and fans followed, seeing Mario as a gaming god. In Sony's case, that's not a good deal as Nintendo promoted its franchise since their beginning in the gaming market, while Sony didn't.
It is actually more interesting to look at Microsoft. While Halo 3 is without a doubt MS flagship, they still managed to adopt a very successful franchise: Gears of War. Not only the game sold incredibly well for a new franchise, but it also started a new fanbase, almost as much ferocious and blind as Halo fans. You can be sure that Xbox 360 owners would instantly buy a Gears of War-tagged game or product, no matter what it is. Honorable mention for Crackdown, that first sold because of Halo 3 beta but gamers figured out it was actually quite good and Mass Effect, that many consider as one of the best RPG of this generation (including myself). Those two games benefit of a rising community and may continue on that path.
So which game can be Sony's true flagship? Which game would do great sales and would be at the origin of a massive fanbase that would blindly buy every iteration of its series? Which franchise can be the Halo, the Mario or the Gears of War of Playstation 3, not in a matter of universe but of sales and popularity? Or will Sony continue what they always have done so far, not counting on a single huge IP but on several big boys with no real big boy?