I am going to begin this article of Console Yourself with a bold, yet surprisingly true statement. The vast majority of video game software releases as classified as commercial failures.
There I said it. Statistically it is estimated that 10% of published games generate 90% of the gaming industry’s annual revenue. This means 90% of games released each year across all platforms make up only 10% of revenue for the industry. more shockingly is that only 3% of PC games and 15% of console games sell more than 100,000 units per year. To summarise, it is estimated that only 20% of gaming releases make a profit.
This is shocking news right? It is well known that some of these failures have caused shockwaves throughout the industry, such as that certain game about a bobbly-looking alien on a certain console created by Atari in the mid 1980’s…
Regardless of these massive issues, let us look at some of the biggest names in commercial failure history, starting with hardware and then moving into software. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of examples so I have had to choose my list wisely.
Hardware commercial failures
Atari have seen several hardware-based commercial failures in their long and rich history. Atari reached the history books with the release of the Atari 2600 and the Atari 5200 was the highly anticipated successor to this. After the Atari 2600 selling over 30 million units the 5200 only sold little over 1 million units. This was put down to an awkward controller and the fact that many games are what are considered ports in modern gaming.
The Atari Jaguar was another commercial failure for the American company, selling less than 250,000 units before being discontinued. The system was dubbed 64-bit (even though it was in fact 32-bit and comprised of two processors which Atari management had decided to “add up”) and competed against the Sega Genesis and Super NES. There was a terrible lack of software available for the platform and the 22-button controller was dubbed confusing and cumbrous.
Commodore was once king of the home computers, leading with circa. 6 million Amiga hardware sales and 17 million Commodore 64 sales – as well as their other hardware units. It comes as a massive shock to realise that the Commodore 64 Games System is classified as the lowest selling console of all time, reaching only 2,000 sales out of the 20,000 units produced. Commodore helped with the commercial failure by using the launch titles (Terminator 2: Judgement Day) unused disks as bundled software for the Commodore 64. This utterly demolished sale attempts for the Commodore 64 Games System and it was decided to recall the hardware to convert them into Commodore 64’s instead.
Commodore CDTV was another flop. The Commodore Dynamic Total Vision (yes I thought it was CD-Television too) had hardware based on the successful Amiga, with a CD-ROM drive in place of the floppy disk drive. It was similar to the Philips CD-i and the 3DO in an attempt to create home entertainment centres. This market never truly emerged and all three consoles ended as commercial failures. The Commodore CDTV sold little over 30,000 units.
In May of 1995 the head of Sega of America accidentally destroyed any prospects the Sega Saturn had with one horrendous decision.
It began after the release of the Sony PlayStation and the Sega Saturn in Japan, and the looming realisation that Sony’s domination was heading for America. The so-called “rift” between Sega of America and Sega of Japan was in fact a difficulty in two entirely different markets. Japanese development was in favour of the Sega Mega Drive as the console was never a large success in their domestic market. Sega of America on the other hand wanted to keep up with the pace of the Sega Genesis as it had taken a vast amount of sales from Nintendo. In America it was thus decided to move ahead with the Sega 32X peripheral add-on for the Sega Genesis. The most surprising aspect of this contradictions in markets is that the order to create the 32X came from Hayao Nakayama of Sega of Japan. He was not concerned about the Sony PlayStation and instead was more focussed on the Atari Jaguar.
The 32X was a huge failure in the American market so Sega of Japan panicked and decided that they needed to push for a Sega Saturn release in America. May 11th came, and the E3 event dawned. Tom Kalinske took the stage to announce that Sega would not be releasing the Sega Saturn early in the US, but it was actually already in stores. The price-tag was to be $399 as opposed to the near $800 American’s were having to pay to import the console from Japan. However Sony hit a hard nail in the coffin of Sega when Steve Race took the stage to merely utter the words “$299” before promptly leaving.
The early US launch, lack of games and Sony’s low price tag crippled both America’s market and Japan’s and caused the failure of not one, but two consoles. The Sega Dreamcast would be Sega’s next attempt to regain traction within the market after learning some harsh lessons from the Sega Saturn fiasco. Unfortunately branding damage had already been caused and the overwhelming popularity of the PlayStation 2, the worlds biggest selling console to-date, crippled the Dreamcast into selling only 9.13 million units compared to the 9.5 million units of the Sega Saturn. Sega soon withdrew from the hardware manufacturing market.
Finnish mobile phone manufacturing Nokia released the N-Gage in 2003. Initial mocking the device game in the form of people stating it looked like a taco. The price plummeted $100 in its first week but marketing continued for the phone/games console hybrid. Even though it was being marketed as a handheld and a competitor of the Game Boy, DS and Sony PSP, there were several issues with the original design.
One major complaint was the fact that the game cartridge slot was underneath the battery, meaning the user had to turn the phone off, remove the back panel, remove the battery and then swap the cartridge. This design error was corrected with the N-Gage QD but the damage to the brand had already been done. The phone sold 3 million units against a projection of 6 million units and was soon announced to cease production by Nokia.
Yes, Sony have had their failures too! the first failure from Sony was in the form of the PlayStation Vita. With a lack of support from Sony, the booming smartphone market and Nintendo’s rival 3DS platform it performed underwhelmingly. The console was released in Japan in 2011, and in December 2011 it saw a 78% drop in sales. The handheld ended its lifespan selling only 15 million units.
One of the top flops of 2018 came in the form of the PlayStation Classic. After the popularity of the microconsole range from Nintendo (the NES Classic Edition and SNES Classic Edition) Sony wanted in on the action. The PlayStation Classic launched with a retail price of $99, and soon received criticism. In the American market the framerates were an issue as nine of the twenty games were PAL version causing a 50Hz clock to contradict the 60Hz clock of American TV’s. Further more, due to intellectual property rights, the selection of games were predominantly from the early days of PlayStation and were not titles that made the original console so popular. Within it’s first month of poor sales the price was lowered to $59 and in April – four months since launch – saw a $30 price tag. In the UK the console was dropped to £16 on the Prime Day of 2019.
It seems virtually impossible for Nintendo to have many flops (get it? virtually). However they first came to flops-ville with the launch of the Virtual Boy. entering a licensing agreement with US company Reflection, Nintendo aimed to create the worlds first console capable of stereoscopic 3D graphics. Over the course of development there were severe health concerns which caused many hardware elements being downgraded and resources being shifted into the Nintendo 64 development. The Virtual Boy entered the market in 1995 in an unfinished state. Due to the high price, unimpressive display (which was monochrome), lack of portability and lingering health concerns it ended its production with 770,000 units sold.
The Nintendo Wii U was Nintendo’s next entry into “Earth’s next top hardware failure” with only 14 million units sold compared to its predecessors 101 million units. The lack of support from Nintendo and third party sellers, coupled with the confusing array of controllers made this console tumble into the precipice of damnation.
From the huge list of other failures such as the Nintendo 64DD, Neo Geo CD, Neo Geo Pocket and PSX there are plenty more hardware failures to choose from, but now let’s look at some software commercial failures.
Software commercial Failures
Duke Nukem Forever
Aptly suffixed Forever this Duke Nukem entry into the franchise took 15 years to develop. It original began development in 1996 using the Quake II Engine and finally released in 2011 under development by Gearbox Software.
Due to the entangled mess of developers over the years it was hard to calculate who lost the most money on this title which only sold 376,000 units in its initial month.
John Romero, one of the developers responsible for the Doom franchise, called his game the next “big thing” in first person shooters.
Unfortunately, due to masses of overspending and some serious delays it is now known as one of the most infamous failures in PC video games, selling only 40,351 copies during its lifespan. To highlight how much of a failure this was, 2.5 million sales were needed to make a profit.
Earthbound was the second instalment in the Mother series of games from Nintendo. Nintendo spent $2 million on marketing to the American audience where it ended up selling only 140,000 copies. The failure was blamed on the high price at the time and the lack of interest in role-playing games in the American market during that era of video games.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
I know – it had to be mentioned yet again! Reportedly coded in just five weeks for a 1982 holiday release, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is often blamed for the video game crash of 1983. Atari were hopeful with the release of this title and had ordered 5 million copies to be produced. The game ended up selling 1.5 million of these which caused a massive financial strain for Atari.
A long running urban myth stated that Atari had buried the excess stock in a landfill site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. This was confirmed in 2014 after a site excavation found 800,000 cartridges, of which E.T was among. Atari had paid $25 million for the license to produce the game which added to their total debt of $536 million dollar, which would equate to $1.45 billion today. Atari was divided and sold in 1984.
There are plenty of other titles, such as Ōkami, Overkill’s The Walking Dead, Psychonauts and Conker’s Bad Fur Day to mention. The truth of the fact is that the gaming industry is a brutal one, with very little room for error. The games that fail probably far outweigh those that survive the hellish environment in which they live.