Days Gone has resurfaced in the press, much to the astonishment of many. Not the game itself, mind you, but Sony’s handling of it. The nearly three-year-old PS4 game, which follows a moustachioed biker across a zombie-infested America, may appear to be a no-brainer: the game’s initial release was met with little fanfare, critical response was positive but mixed, and last year’s PC port finally presented the game in its best state yet.
You might consider that a reasonable success. Nothing to write home about, but a solid addition to the backlog. But it’s that success that’s become a matter of conversation. Days Gone co-director Jeff Ross took advantage of a joyous announcement earlier this week that Sucker Punch’s Ghost of Tsushima had sold more than eight million copies to talk about his game’s handling.
It, too, had reportedly sold over eight million copies at a similar time in its post-launch run, but Sony didn’t lavish it with accolades. “Local studio management always made us feel like it was a major failure,” Ross recalled, underlining that it was Days Gone’s sales, not its review scores, that disappointed the higher-ups. Ghost of Tsushima hasn’t gotten the corporate pat on the back and social media adoration that Ghost of Tsushima has.
It’s a pain in the neck for any developer to have their work treated unfairly, but it hurts much more when it comes from your own publisher. Despite all the discussion of auteurism and artistry in the video game industry, it remains a commercial environment that is designed to reward financial success. If a game does well and the creative team remains together, you can expect a sequel in the future. But, according to Ross, it wasn’t in the cards for Days Gone.
Ross’ reaction, in my opinion, says more about the relevance of sales data in general than it does about why Days Gone was shelved. Perhaps Sony didn’t think the game’s setting would last long enough, or the game didn’t lend itself to adaptation (remember, a Ghost of Tsushima movie is on the way). It’s easy to speculate on the game’s fate, but one thing is certain: video game sales are rarely a reliable barometer of success.
I’m referring to true success. The kind that’s important. The kind that has gamers raving about a game years after its console generation has passed, or attempting to remake and duplicate it in future decades after its original technology has fallen into the ill-fated region of’retro.’ It’s a lot of fun to speak about Grand Theft Auto 5’s outrageous sales figures, Minecraft’s world-eating commercial monster, or the amusing notion that Tetris can still hold its own against modern triple-A blockbusters. However, such data frequently fall short of portraying the entire picture.
“What the debate over Ghost of Tsushima and Days Gone demonstrates is that how people react to sales figures can reveal more about a game than the numbers itself.”
Take, for example, Tim Schafer’s acclaimed mind-jumping platformer Psychonauts. It’s now regarded as a cult classic for embracing the ridiculousness of its themes and the sheer stupidity of its characters in a way that few 3D platformers had done before. Its long-awaited sequel, which came out last year, made the gaming world wonder why we ever let Razputin get away for so long. However, the original Psychonauts, released in 2005, told a very different storey. Despite being a critical favourite, it only sold 100,000 copies, prompting the publisher’s CEO to leave. From a purely business standpoint, Psychonauts appears to be an embarrassing flop, but we all know that the game is fantastic.
A similar plot may be found in System Shock 2, which was released in 1999. A groundbreaking immersive sim that expertly blended RPG progression, wide exploration, and narrative flavour, despite its opponents resembling lumps of playdough rather than the corporeal monstrosities they’re supposed to portray. It served as the spiritual heir to a little-known game called BioShock eight years later, but it spent most of its life with low sales and was mired in protracted legal wranglings over its intellectual property rights.
There are, of course, more recent releases to mention. Anthem, Bioware’s exosuit-clad third-person shooter, was one of the year’s best-selling games. However, you won’t find many people playing it today, and even fewer prepared to testify to their affection for its arduous grind, which quickly drove gamers off. Despite the numerous controversies that plagued its launch, Cyberpunk 2077 has also achieved record-breaking sales.
Beyond Good & Evil, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, kami, and Kingdoms of Amalur are just a few examples. Pick your poison.
A well-deserved welcome
All of this may appear insignificant. It’s easy to see how economic success and critical acclaim don’t always coincide, or how popular perception might differ drastically from both. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and critics’ effect tends to fade as time passes. Games, like any other media, are influenced by the cultural zeitgeist, and are designed to cater to changing consumer trends and aesthetic styles.
However, the debate over Ghost of Tsushima and Days Gone highlights the fact that how people react to sales figures frequently speaks more about a game than the numbers itself. Do the players and management applaud the developers for their hard work? Do they bemoan the game’s shockingly low sales for such a popular title? Do they all agree that the commercial response was exactly what they expected? A year after a game’s release, the public opinion on it will most likely have been formed. The most important factor in determining whether a game is regarded a success is if the publisher, developer, or gamers feel compelled to celebrate that consensus and the game’s creators’ accomplishments.
Days Gone received a lukewarm response from the audience. It didn’t earn the same level of appreciation as Ghost of Tsushima, nor did it amass the same number of devoted fans. Commercially, it deserved a lot more credit than the suits above gave it, but critically, not so much. After all, sales figures have never been a reliable indicator of true success.
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