On December 13th the November console sales figures for North America were released by NPD. In November, Playstation 4 outsold Xbox One by around 20%, Halo 5: Guardians dropped to the 9th on the monthly game chart, and Crystal Dynamic's Rise of the Tomb Raider sold only around 200,000 copies.
Microsoft has touted their big AAA title lineup for this fall as Xbox's best lineup ever, Halo 5, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, and Forza 6, all reviewed very well. Yet, Halo is not setting the blockbuster numbers it used to; Crystal Dynamic likely expected more than 200,000 copies of Rise of the Tomb Raider to move; and Forza 6 never charted in the top ten. And most importantly, these titles failed to convince the public to choose Microsoft's Xbox One over Sony's Playstation 4. Thus, I raise the question, is the console killer app dead? Are these killer apps no longer innovative enough to drive sales?
To be clear, I am not suggesting the Xbox One is the better console, nor that Microsoft deserves higher sales figures. I could raise this same question using all the excellent Wii U games as my example. I just ask, are the mechanics behind big budget first party exclusives driving sales a day of the past?
It doesn't seem like exclusives are making as much of a difference as they used to. Back when there were fewer games released cross platform, and console libraries were more contained, the exclusives were certainly the main selling point. Nintendo for example, had to rely on Mario to drive consoles, Sony had to reply on the likes of Metal Gear Solid, God of War, and Uncharted, while Microsoft has traditionally looked to Halo and Gears of War to move units.
Have these series ever been really successful in driving sales? Of course. Nobody can deny the way Mario has moved units for Nintendo for the past 30 years. The highest selling game series of all time has to be credited partially with the success of Nintendo. Of course, with the sheer number of Mario games on the market it could make it difficult to see how effective certain Mario entries have been in driving sales. Halo on the other hand, can clearly be proven as driving sales of the original Xbox. Halo 2, in particular, not only can be driven to console sales but also helped Microsoft solidify Xbox Live as a platform of the future. Metal Gear Solid may be the quintessential version of the killer app in my mind, no other game has driven sales, changed gaming, and showed what a console can do any better than Metal Gear Solid.
Why is the idea of the killer app dying on the new generation of consoles? In the 1990's, gamers had to make a distinct decision when they went to the marketplace and choose between the Nintendo 64 and Sony's Playstation. Back then, choosing a console was more akin to choosing which amusement park to visit on vacation, both had rides you wanted to go on but you knew that each were very distinct, different experiences. Now in 2015, when choosing between the Xbox One and Playstation 4 the better comparison would be choosing which grocery store to do your shopping at. You know both offer largely similar options and experiences, you just choose which audience you choose to shop and enjoy the experiences with.
The issue with the new generation of games, in my opinion, is that they do nothing new. These new games are all sequels to existing franchises that were established in the last generation (or in Halo's case, the generation before). These newer titles do not improve upon the formula that made the franchises successful beforehand. The newer games just give us the same experiences in a prettier skin. All these titles that Microsoft has relied on to move their new console, could easily be produced on their last generation console.
Never forget, the idea of the killer app could also be tied to the brevity of the game in mind. I can guarantee that if Grand Theft Auto VI is exclusive on one of the consoles, you can bet that people will buy consoles specifically for Grand Theft Auto. Can one say the same about other titles? What other series carries the same weight as Grand Theft Auto? Call of Duty would be a strong exclusive for one of the consoles but Activision would never skip out on those projected sales. Other third party series could induce these sales numbers, but would any publisher be willing to give up the projected sales numbers of being a third party title for the guaranteed payment from Sony or Microsoft in exchange for exclusivity? One could only speculate.
So finally I ask readers to ask themselves, is the killer app dead? I, myself, believe the killer app as a singular title is dead, but I also think a body of exclusives is what drives sales. Frankly, Microsoft's first-party studios don't excite me much, I recognize their talent, but they haven't really produced games I enjoy. Sunset Overdrive was definitely a killer app for me, but I don't think I can say that about the rest of the public. If I didn't have to own an Xbox One to be able to write and discuss it I likely would not have been such an early adopter of the console. I was an early adopter for Playstation 4 because I know that those first party games are going to be there, and I have to be there as well when each one launches.