Later this week, Konami will release Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence for the PlayStation 2. A new online mode, new features, and a reduced price point are all enticements to sign up, but will they be enough to move the market?
In this inaugural edition of the GameSpot Oracle--a close look at an upcoming and significant game release that uses a traditional SWOT analysis approach (we'll look at the game's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats)--GameSpot News combines existing sales data with commentary from industry experts for insight on all the things that might make or break a game's success. Readers are cautioned: The Oracle does not comment on how good a game is; that's reserved for our colleagues on the reviews team.
For Subsistence, our interest starts by looking at the larger trend of which this title is just the latest example: special-edition rereleases.
Expanded "director's cut" rereleases of games are becoming big business. Movie studios realized years ago that they could give a film longer legs at retail by releasing a bare-bones edition of a film, followed by "double dipping" with a deluxe special-edition release a few months down the line. Konami was one of the first companies in the gaming world to pick up on this--it took its popular PlayStation 2 stealth action game Metal Gear Solid 2 and ported it to the Xbox with additional content for Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance.
The company's returning to the well with Subsistence, a special edition of the 2004 hit Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. In addition to the complete original game, the $29.99 Subsistence package features new content in the form of an online mode for up to eight players, two Metal Gear games from the MSX system previously unreleased in the US, new camera angles, new levels for the Snake vs. Monkey mode, and a handful of other extras, like new face paint patterns and a duel mode that pits players against the game's bosses in succession.
Gamers who preordered also received a Metal Gear Saga Volume 1 DVD, which features a 30-minute documentary-style recounting of the series' narrative, produced by series creator Hideo Kojima and directed by Ryan Payton. The disc also includes a series of interviews with Kojima himself.
For those who crave more Metal Gear, a Limited Edition package of the game also goes on sale this week for $39.99. The Limited Edition comes with a third disc with all of the cinematics from Snake Eater (as well as new scenes and narration) cut into a feature-length movie by Kojima himself. While it's no longer available online, gamers can check with their local GameStop, EB Games, or GameCrazy to see if they have any left.
Looking at the relatively short history of special-edition versions of games, NPD Group US sales figures show a range of performance. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind on the Xbox has sold a little more than 550,000 copies since it was released, while the Game of the Year edition with a budget price and a pair of the PC version's expansion packs built in has almost matched that, with more than 500,000 copies sold. And while it isn't fair to compare cumulative sales of Devil May Cry 3 (released early last year) with Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition (released in January), the revised edition averaged half of the original's sales for their respective first month of release.
Unfortunately, direct comparisons between Subsistence and Substance are complicated because the latter not only added special features, but brought the series to the Xbox for the first time. Domestically, Sons of Liberty has sold more than 2 million copies since its 2001 release, while Substance has sold not quite a quarter of that number across its multiplatform 2002 and 2003 releases.
Corey Wade, a partner with the game marketing firm Sandbox Strategies and former senior product manager with Rockstar Games, said Subsistence's biggest strength is obviously the brand power of the Metal Gear Solid franchise.
"Gamers are automatically interested in anything remotely new to do with Metal Gear Solid, and it is a no-brainer getting coverage in the gaming press," Wade said.
Aside from drawing attention in the gaming press, the Metal Gear games rack up huge sales numbers and are consistently among the best-reviewed games in their genre. Almost every Metal Gear game since Sons of Liberty is among the top five third-person shooters on its system, based on aggregate reviews scores from GameRankings.com. The lone exception to this is Metal Gear Acid for the PSP, which isn't on the third-person shooters list because it is instead the top strategy game on the system (although its competition until very recently consisted solely of Lord of the Rings: Tactics). So the brand name is strong, but it isn't Subsistence's only selling point.
"Other than the franchise's reputation, I'd say value is its biggest strength, considering it includes the original Metal Gear games," Wade said. "At this point in the PS2 life cycle, the key is to focus on the less hardcore gamers, the ones who don't spend $50 for a game and don't already own Metal Gear Solid 3. It is very tough to sell a $50 PS2 game right now."
However, Michael Goodman, a game-industry analyst with The Yankee Group, doesn't see the $30 price point as all that compelling a value proposition for the average consumer.
"Konami is almost between a rock and a hard place on how to price it," Goodman said. "You're in no-man's-land. On the one hand, you can't price it as a brand-new, AAA title, because everybody knows it's not. On the other hand, you've invested a bunch of money into this thing to change the game, so you need to earn back the development investment that you made, so you really can't put it at the $19.99 value price point, either."
So Goodman said the challenge for Konami is getting consumers to recognize they are getting something new that is worth the $30 investment. Goodman and Wade agree that the online component is the most significant new aspect of the game, but both have reservations about online PS2 games.
"There are about 4.5-5 million PS2 consoles online globally," Goodman said, "so you're saying that's the absolute maximum number that feature's going to appeal to. Even with that [online play mode], is that enough to get someone to essentially buy the game a second time?"
According to Wade, the number of PS2 gamers who go online has not gone unnoticed in marketing circles. He said some of his colleagues have taken the view that even having the PS2 Online logo on a game's packaging could actually turn off those who don't go online with their systems.
"But I haven't seen any evidence of this, especially with a game as notable as [Subsistence]," Wade said. "Also, you need these kinds of enhancements in order to promote the product through both the PR and marketing efforts."
In the past, taking a franchise online on the PS2 has met with mixed results. Electronic Arts hit the online gridiron for the first time with Madden NFL 2004, and to date that game has beat out its predecessor's US sales figures by more than 700,000 copies. On the other hand, when Sony took the Ratchet & Clank series online with Up Your Arsenal, the game sold slightly fewer copies in America than the previous Ratchet game, Going Commando. And when that series' focus shifted specifically to multiplayer and online play with last year's Ratchet & Clank: Deadlocked, sales slipped more noticeably, selling almost a third fewer copies domestically than Up Your Arsenal in the first four months of release.
As for where those efforts should be directed, Wade said if it were his campaign to run, he would focus squarely on what he calls "Madden gamers."
"You focus on the kinds of gamers who own a PS2 and own maybe a Madden game and one of the Grand Theft Autos, gamers who don't buy games very often, and when they do, it's only the very biggest games," Wade said. "We are talking about a specifically male, mid-to-late-20s console game player who does not read GameSpot every day. People that bought a PS2 relatively recently fit this profile. They have probably heard of Metal Gear Solid, but if they find out a 'new' version has come out and that it is a great deal, they might buy it just so they own it."
However, Wade noted that courting the "Madden gamer" market is expensive, and it means competing with every major game of the last few years that now sits at a value price point, as well as new DVDs, movies, and anything else that would eat into a young American male's entertainment budget. As for ad placement, Wade said he would hit the major gaming sites but devote the majority of his marketing budget toward non-game outlets such as blogs, video sites like YouTube.com, sports sites, and male-focused TV shows, with very little money put toward print ads.
The gaming competition facing Subsistence is much lighter than what Snake Eater had to contend with at release (Halo 2 and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, to name a pair), but that doesn't mean it's the only new release gunning for gamer dollars when it comes out. Currently scheduled to ship on the same day as Subsistence are Sony's PSP platformer Daxter and Atari's Driver: Parallel Lines, with high-profile releases like EA's heavily hyped game adaptation of The Godfather and Bethesda's The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion due next week. As far as competition for Subsistence in its own stealth action genre, Ubisoft's Splinter Cell Essentials for the PSP is due next week.
All things considered, Goodman doesn't have especially high hopes for Subsistence.
"My expectations on [Subsistence] aren't really that great," Goodman said, "The analogy I'll make that did fairly well was when Microsoft did the additional maps for Halo 2." Despite Microsoft's acknowledgement up front that the maps in the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map pack would eventually be downloadable for free, the game still went on to sell almost 400,000 copies in the US with a $19.99 retail price. "What they didn't do is they didn't try to sell you the same game," Goodman said. "Here I very much get the feeling that they're putting a new wrapper on the same product."
As for the trend of double-dipped games, Goodman still considers the sampling of such releases too small to get a bead on how well they can be expected to sell and says the performance of Subsistence will be an important factor in determining how frequently gamers see such packages offered in the future.
"My gut is telling me that the best-case scenario is that this is moderately successful, in which case I don't see too many other people following suit," Goodman said.
Given that the full impact of Konami's marketing campaign won't be visible until after the game launches (and Konami declined to comment for this article), Wade abstained from making any guesses as to Konami's success in marketing the game, but he did leave the door open for another MGS home run.
"Too early to tell," Wade said. "But typically Konami does a great job marketing this franchise, so I can't see why it would be any different this time around."