Spot On: Going up against GTA

As Iron Man and Mario Kart Wii stare down Rockstar's 800-pound gorilla, top analysts and Secret Level's Jeremy Gordon weigh in on launching alongside the biggest game of the year.

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For nearly 15 months, October 16, 2007 was a no-go area for game publishers. That's because during the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo, Take-Two interactive announced that day would see the release of developer Rockstar North's heavily anticipated Grand Theft Auto IV.

Given the fact that Rockstar had never failed to stick to an announced GTA release date, most publishers quietly shifted their schedules to accommodate the newest entry into the best-selling game series of the 21st Century. Even Microsoft moved up the release of the mighty Halo 3 to late September from its traditional mid-November slot to get a three-week jump on its rival.

Then, after keeping the industry on notice for more than a year, Take-Two did the unthinkable. In August 2007, with a scant 10 weeks remaining before launch, the publisher stunned gamers worldly by delaying GTAIV until 2008. The game's new, broad February-to-April window left publishers with Q1 releases playing a game of Russian Roulette, scheduling their releases with the chance they could be staring down the barrel of a 70 million-unit franchise.

When the chamber ceased its chaotic spin in January, two major games found themselves squarely sighted in Rockstar's reticle: Sega's Iron Man and Nintendo's Mario Kart Wii. With GTAIV staking its claim on Tuesday, April 29, Nintendo took to its traditional major release tack, rolling Mario Kart Wii out on Sunday, April 27. Sega, in turn, would be pushing Iron Man out alongside its big-budget film inspiration on Friday, May 2.

If nothing else, both Nintendo and Sega have star power on their side. If anyone could pull a drive-by and dent GTA sales, it would be Mario Kart and its Mushroom Kingdom cavalcade. Iron Man also has plenty of backup: the support of a major publisher, the story of one of Marvel's most popular comic books, and synergy with a summer blockbuster with a reported budget of $180 million. The film also has the X factor of white-hot advance buzz, thanks to a popular trailer and the talents of director Jon Favreau (Elf) and star Robert Downey Jr. (Zodiac, the upcomingTropic Thunder).

However, with GTAIV's 9.5 million units in potential first-week global sales and $400 million in reported preorders, both Sega and Nintendo must be feeling at least some trepidation about their own releases. While the Mario Factory declined to be interviewed for this feature, Jeremy Gordon, studio director of Iron Man developer Secret Level, was happy to talk about going toe-to-toe with GTA.

"It was late January when [the news] broke, that they were going to do a date change, I think the initial reaction was, 'Cool, GTA!' because we all play games and we're like, 'GTA's going to be awesome,'" noted Gordon. What's more, that enthusiasm never turned to dread or a consideration to attempt to duck the game to a different, less volatile week. "I think it would be naive to say there would be no impact on sales, but I don't think it's the kind of thing where we're like, 'Oh no! We're going to be half or we're going to be dramatically reduced.'"

Sega is casting its net as wide as possible with Iron Man, with versions appearing on the Xbox 360, PS3, PlayStation 2, PlayStation Portable, Nintendo DS, Wii, and PC. According to Gordon, Secret Level has been developing the 360 and PS3 versions of Iron Man for nearly 18 months, with the Sega-owned studio having ramped up its operations to accommodate the project. All versions of the game will be a third-person action adventure, where gamers will have the chance to climb into Tony Stark's machine of war in an open-world environment, wrecking carnage against equally high-tech villains in both land- and air-based combat.

Gordon believes that Iron Man will buck the recurrent trend of shoddy movie tie-ins, thanks in large part to the studio being able to get a jump on development due to its understanding with Sega. "If you're on a movie timeframe, it's super tight, and I think that's one of the contributing factors for why movie games kind of end up being crappy," said Gordon. "One of the acquisition specifications with Secret Level was to have us in the back pocket, so as Sega's heading into negotiations on an IP that they think is going to be really cool, it's not like there's then a horrific search to try to find an in-line developer. Instead, we can really be focused on making super high-quality games and be ready to go."

With Secret Level and Sega on the same page, Gordon says that the tight relationship shared by the dev team and the movie crew will be reflected in the quality of the title. "This is the first time where we actually got to partner up with film makers. We had Favreau playing the game, and we're like, 'OK dude, it's cool, you don't have to play anymore.' And he's like, 'No, no, you should do this and you should do that.' And we had Robert Downey Jr. playing the game, and I didn't even know he played games."

Downey's cowriting of dialogue for the game--and the film, reportedly--was especially important to the game's development, according to Gordon. "For most superhero movies, you're like where's the action, where's the action, let's get past all this boring crap," mused Gordon. "But I think [Downey] makes it just hysterical to watch. He's the glue of the film. And hopefully that's come across in the game. I mean, seriously, game dialogue can be a stretch sometimes. But having him cowrite the dialogue with us and say, 'OK, Tony Stark wouldn't say that. My Tony Stark wouldn't ever say that, he'd say this.' I think people will dig that."

Gordon also isn't worried about the M for Mature-rated GTA overshadowing the T for Teen-rated Iron Man in terms of mindshare. "I think it's interesting just in thinking about how people are going to play GTA over what time period," observed Gordon. "It's almost like the Madden type thing, where people are like, 'Oh, I'm going to get that, of course I'll be playing that.' The appeal that Iron Man has is to a broader audience, I don't think it is the kind of thing where it's either/or. I see it more as, to go back to the Madden analogy, it's like, 'Of course I'll do that.' But then, I think people are going to see the movie and be blown away. I don't think we're a direct GTA competitor."

Whether or not Mario Kart Wii and Iron Man are competitors has been a heavily speculated topic among analysts. Last year Janco Partners' Mike Hickey made headlines for saying Bungie and Microsoft wrecked box office sales for Paramount's Ben Stiller/Farrelly brothers comedy The Heartbreak Kid. Total silver screen sales for the weekend were a paltry $80 million, the worst tally since 1999. Hickey also believes GTAIV "could dampen the theatrical success" of Iron Man this year.

Pacific Crest Securities' Evan Wilson agrees with Hickey--in part. "There will be an impact on Iron Man's box office results because of GTA," Wilson told GameSpot. However, Wilson downplayed exactly how much of an effect the game's launch proximity will have on the film. "With only 14 million US consumers (less than 5 percent of the total population) that even have a 360 or PS3 to play GTA, there is an extremely large opportunity for Iron Man as well." Wilson also noted that Paramount, which carved out Iron Man's May 2 release date before Take-Two setup GTAIV on April 29, made the right decision in not shifting the movie's debut, as it would then have had to compete in a far more competitive environment with other big-screen blockbusters.

Not all analysts agree that Iron Man will feel GTA's heat, however. In fact, Lazard Capital Markets' Colin Sebastian and Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter believe box-office busts being linked to gaming is a dubious correlation at best. "I have a hard time believing that GTA will have more than a limited impact on Iron Man," observed Sebastian.

Pachter went one step further, calling the link "ridiculous," and then proceeded to do the math. "My guess is that Iron Man will do $50 million or more in box office the first weekend," Pachter told GameSpot. "That's 5 million tickets, sold to an adult population of 180 million in the US. Only around 15 million of these people own a PS3 or Xbox 360, or around 8.3 percent. That implies that around 8 percent of the addressable market for Iron Man has the potential to buy GTA, and only around 35 percent of these people will buy GTA. That's 3 percent of the addressable market for Iron Man. Of these, maybe one out of three is a big enough geek that they won't be able to pull themselves away from the game for two hours to go to the movie. That means a 1 percent impact on ticket sales. You won't be able to track this, but the conclusion is that the impact will be imperceptible, and further discussion is really futile."

As for GTA's impact on Mario Kart Wii, Pachter believes the impact will be negligible. "I think that the Mario Kart Wii audience is completely different from the GTA audience," observed Pachter. "Yes, both are hardcore, but the former game is a Wii exclusive, and the latter is a PS3/360 exclusive. Only hardcore gamers with a Wii and one of the other consoles will be affected (this can't be more than a small percentage of the Wii base), and anyone hardcore enough to own two consoles won't be put off by the launch timing of these games."

Sebastian likewise concurred, saying not only that GTA and Mario Kart Wii's differing audiences will make the matchup a nonissue for Nintendo, but also that the release may in fact have a positive impact on sales. "If anything, [Mario Kart Wii] can probably benefit from the additional foot traffic in stores that week, from those gamers who own a Wii in addition to their Xbox or PS3."

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