Let’s do a quick reality check. When a game like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 sells over 24 million copies, it’s foolish to say, “So that means, 24 million hardcore gamers bought the game!” Odds are that of that monstrous number, less than 1/3 of those sales came from people that regularly read game websites and follow game industry news, there simply aren’t THAT many people across the planet that care that much about games. So who are the rest of those tens of millions of people? They’re “mainstream” gamers that only buy and play two or three games a year, and those games usually have words like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, FIFA or Madden in their name somewhere. These gamers just want to kick back, not think too hard and have fun in a safe, familiar environment they’ve been repeatedly visiting for years. Now Activision wants to introduce these people to Destiny. But will it work?
The big problem with the mainstream gamer is the same problem that cinema has with summer film audiences. These are not people intimately familiar with the medium. They’re not looking to challenge their perceptions and broaden their horizons on a regular basis. These are people that want occasional, big, flashy, “forget your troubles for a while and bask in the spectacle” diversions. This year’s latest Transformers movie—and its box office returns—are proof of that. So is the repeated, staggering success of Call of Duty despite not changing its formula much. And this is the problem that Destiny faces. When you have an audience that shuns new things, what chance does a new thing have? Titanfall, after all, was made by no less than the creators of Call of Duty itself, and partially because of no COD branding, the Xbox One exclusive failed to become the COD killer Electronic Arts had been hoping for.
Now it’s Destiny’s turn, and its battle is just as tough. As usual, the curious, the early adopters and the hardcore have already jumped into the beta and the reception has been largely positive. But what happens when a mainstream gamer plays? If anything, the conversation might go something like this:
Hardcore Gamer: So what do you think of Destiny?
Mainstream Gamer: It’s okay, I guess, but they need to make a few changes.
HG: Like what?
MG: Too much rocket science weapons. They need something cool like an M-16, or AK-47. Oh, and the enemy is weird, it needs to be someone cool, like… the Russians. Oh, and the setting is too crazy, it needs to be something else, something cool, something… Modern, maybe with more warfare. Also, I don’t want to worry about my Destiny, I’d rather do something fun, like… answering a call… of… I dunno, duty or something. And I don’t like how you can just go anywhere, that makes my head hurt. Couldn’t they just put me in a corridor and let me shoot at whatever comes at me? If they could do all that, and give me perks in multiplayer, then it would be a cool game. That’s what RPGs, platformers, fighting games, strategy games and simulations all need to do too, just follow that and they’ll all be winners.
HG: Dude, that sounds like you just want every game to be Call of Duty.
MG: Oh yeah, that’s a GREAT game! I’ll go buy that! Good idea, man, I knew you’d give me good shopping advice!
Destiny, like Titanfall is unfamiliar. The mainstream gamer is generally cautious of the unfamiliar, sometimes actively avoids it. Like Titanfall, Destiny is getting a lot of hype right now, but will that hype translate into actual sales? Activision, for once, is taking an unusual risk. While they’re smart enough to not pit both Destiny and the latest COD game in a cannibalizing death match for November, they ARE offering the gaming market an alternative to a formula that has proven so successful for them it’s become one of the best-selling pieces of entertainment in the history of the market. While any business would like to see a repeat of those profits, is it realistic to expect an audience that only wants safe, familiar things every year will take a chance on a game so unusual even marketing can’t properly describe it?
It’s safe to assume Destiny will sell a few million copies spread across four consoles. But can it sell over ten? Can it attract someone other than hardcore gamers looking for a COD alternative?