According to a Google-translated-so-oddly-worded article, Funcom’s The Secret World (TSW) is a flop. It has sold only about half the number of boxes that Age of Conan (AoC) did – historically it appears that around 1 million AoC boxes were shipped at launch for sales of around 800k. So: 400k sold, and no idea how many copies were shipped. (According to Funcom’s Q1 2012 Financial Presentation, page 17, the “Conan-like” scenario was 1m+ client sales in the first year, about 280k active subscribers and revenue of US$100m. Right now Funcom say they are tracking to only half those targets.)
This is a big blow for Funcom, given how long TSW has been in development – the idea has been percolating since 2002, with proper development kicking off in 2006. Since they are publicly traded, Funcom’s share price is seeing shareholders react to the news by dumping their stock, which reportedly has halved in value. Funcom is talking about “restructuring”, which of course means “a group of people here aren’t going to have jobs anymore”.
What Went Wrong – Early Speculator’s Edition
So why did TSW’s sales tank?
Lum pointed at TSW’s Metacritic score and particularly how a review by Quarter To Three’s Tom Chick was responsible “in large part” for pulling that score down due to his low two-star / 40% review. That’s incorrect. I’ve spreadsheeted the 43 professional critic scores – at the time of writing the Metacritic score is 72 and the straight mean of the scores is 73, so close enough. If you remove Chick’s review score as an outlier, the mean score goes up less than a point (+0.786, if you want to be more precise). The median score remains at 75 with or without Chick’s review. Looking at the other scores, there is a large range in score distribution. Only Chick’s is truly negative, but a large portion are mixed / middle of the road scores, in that 60 to 79 range that points to a game that might be fun but also has flaws.
I don’t want to get into the whole “what value is a review score, anyway?” argument at this point; all I’m saying is that TSW hasn’t flopped because of one rogue review score. The TSW’s review score is good enough, but not great, and that’s the result of all the reviews there. Funcom keeps saying that the comments it got from its beta testers meant that they expected external review scores to be much higher, but then they probably should have considered the biasing effect that paying for beta access might have had on player attitudes as well.
So what are the other reasons for this failure? I can’t talk for anyone else, but I honestly thought that TSW was going to have another terrible Funcom launch and a transition into a F2P in relatively short order. If this is going to happen, what it the point of paying full price for a box copy and have to deal with launch issues AND then the F2P transition? So I didn’t get it. Reports are that TSW’s launch was actually very good, but I’m guessing right now the F2P transition is certainly on the cards. It’s possible a lot of potentially interested players also held back, awaiting the F2P announcement.
The subscription model plus cash shop payment model wouldn’t have won Funcom many friends either by deterring the ‘subscription fee-only or GTFO’ MMO player group (who may or may not be very big – no-one knows – but they sure are vocal).
TSW was also probably swamped in marketing terms by EA’s Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWOR). SWOR has had a huge hold on the MMO market since it launched in December 2011, although usually not for the reasons that EA would want. In contrast, it looked like TSW went a bit low key with its launch, perhaps expecting high review scores and word of mouth to promote sales. That obviously hasn’t happened.
Then there’s the issue that TSW may have been too different. Players say that they want innovation, want new things, but the titles that sell the most often end up being iterations on the familiar. TSW was a dark modern MMO, complete with deck-building approach to skills and lots of in-game narrative. This may have been just too much for a large proportion of players to accept sight unseen. So they’ve waited to read the reviews and… well, here we are. Reading through a number of reviews it seems that TSW requires a bit of time to settle in, while MMO players are no doubt reacting with a “once bitten, eighth-time shy” mentality, meaning if beta wasn’t immediately fun, then they’d be put off TSW.
TSW could still make a comeback, if the quality is actually there in the title. But it’s obviously a hard time for Funcom, who must have felt that this time they’d gotten it mostly right.
I’m quite sanguine about TSW. AoC had great box sales then everyone left. At the time that counfounded the models of player behaviour in MMOs, it had almost never happened before on any scale. So that’s why it’s a failure – it, and shortly after WAR, invented the WOW Tourist phenomenon by being worth buying but not worth playing.
TSW is the other way around. Less people are buying it. It’s outside what people are used to, more daring, about weird obscure stuff. Plus it launched between SWTOR and GW2. However it is worth playing and I think it will maintain a solid sub base for as long as it stays subbed and do about as well as DDO if it goes F2P. Which unless development costs were horrendous should be perfectly adequate.
TSW’s setting isn’t my thing but I tried their free weekend awhile back and so much of the game is excellent (though the combat is pretty meh, the storytelling is very strong). I really hope it does well because it’s different both in setting and mechanics and more variety in the MMO environment can only be a good thing imo.
TSW seems to have generated a lot of positive goodwill, but being between SWOR and Guild Wars 2 (which I should have mentioned above) may mean it is overlooked – one of those ‘good’ games that not enough people play.
Unless that goodwill ends up building its active player base under either a sub or RMT payment system, Funcom is going to hurt due to TSW’s development costs.
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