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Sales Story

Article A Sales Story | E12 | Cities: Skylines

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An inventive, original game is released into the world by a creative and highly-motivated studio. Through critical acclaim and gradual word of mouth, said game proceeds to become a hit franchise, eventually inspiring spin-offs, copycats, and heralding an entirely new genre. But some of these franchises lose their way leaving a hole in the industry. Recognizing the opportunity to fill this hole, an enterprising team of independent developers begins work on its own game, intended as a spiritual successor to capture the magic of the original.

It's a tale as old as video games themselves, and is also the story of SimCity and Cities: Skylines.

For those unaware, Cities: Skylines is by far the most popular city-building game ever to have existed. It has held this record since 2015, and no other game in the genre has ever come close to matching its sales. However, for Cities: Skylines to exist in the first place, it required the rise and fall of SimCity, one of the most unique and influential franchises in the history of video games.

The Birth and Death of SimCity

Released in 1989, SimCity was a city-building game developed by game designer Will Wright at Maxis. It began as a level editor for another game he was working on and it grew into a city-builder and created our modern understanding of the genre. Despite doubts about its potential, SimCity became a huge commercial and critical success. The first game sold extremely well on both PC and console selling a total of 1.98 million on the SNES, with 900,000 of those sales coming from Japan.

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An image of the original SimCity showing what would be iconic features such as the zoning system and traffic management.

Over the next decade, the franchise continued to receive games that built upon the success of the first, with SimCity 2000 released in 1993, selling 3.4 million copies. SimCity 3000 was released a few years later in 1999 and sold 5 million units, with SimCity 4 following in 2003. But after that the franchise took an extended leave of absence, and outside of a handful of spin-offs and smaller games for other platforms, a period of quiet ensued for SimCity.

In 2012, after nearly a decade of silence, it was leaked and then announced that Maxis Emeryville was developing a new game titled simply "SimCity". The game was presented as a return to form, and an E3 2012 gameplay trailer that showed off actual footage was generally well received. But, some noted a curious feature that was being advertised: SimCity was going to be an online game and require a persistent Internet connection to play. This led to concerns about access to the game and how the online DRM mechanism might impact the user experience. For its part, Maxis assured fans and industry watchers that the online component was necessary for the game to function, and attempted to assuage concerns.

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SimCity with its modern UI and visuals, as well as its small map, which would be a major complaint about the game.

This new SimCity launched in March 2013, despite concerns over the stability of Maxis's servers, in what would become one of the most infamous online launch disasters in the history of video games. So overloaded were the servers for the title that media publications couldn’t even access the game to review it. And once they could, SimCity's systems and design were heavily criticized, leading to a firestorm that would torpedo any chance of success. The game continued to limp along, with post-launch support fixing some of its issues, and received one last update in 2014, which finally added an option to play offline. Unfortunately, this was too little too late, and while SimCity did end up managing to sell 2 million units over the course of its life, this was far below the franchise's prior heights and Maxis Emeryville was shut down in 2015.

However, just a week after Maxis Emeryville was shut down, an entirely new city-building game was released into the world—one that would rise from the ashes of SimCity to achieve what it had failed to do and it began in the most unlikely of places.

The Road to Cities: Skylines

Colossal Order is a Finnish studio that was relatively unknown in the early 2000s. The company was founded in 2009, largely by mobile game developers, and began development on its first game, Cities in Motion. Colossal's early projects were smaller-scale games focused specifically on designing transportation systems within a city. While they contained some of the features that define city-building games, they weren't nearly as complex as a feature-complete city-builder.

While developing Cities in Motion, Colossal Order required a publisher and ended up partnering with Paradox Interactive, a company best known for grand strategy games. Paradox was still a small company, with their newest game being Victoria II, and Crusader Kings II coming out in 2012 between the two Cities in Motion games. Around this time Paradox had begun to expand its publishing business and would publish other successful games like Mount & Blade and Magicka. The Cities in Motion games fit well into Paradox's catalog as another PC game built around strategy and simulation, and while the first Cities in Motion didn’t have a particularly notable launch in 2011, peaking at only 1,170 users on Steam and a Metacritic score of 70, the small team and modest development budget meant that it was enough for a sequel to be greenlit.

Cities in Motion 2 fared slightly better with 1,783 peak concurrent users and a 72 on Metacritic, but this modest growth compelled Colossal Order to aim higher with its next project. This is where the story of SimCity intersects with Colossal Order's.

Just a month before Cities in Motion 2, the 2013 SimCity released, and its failure sunk the franchise, leaving a significant hole in the market for a new city-builder to take its place. In an interview, the CEO of Colossal Order, Mariina Hallikainen, discussed how the studio had wanted to make a city-builder previously, but that Paradox Interactive had been concerned about having to compete with the juggernaut that was SimCity. As luck would have it, after SimCity's failure, Paradox did see the potential to address a gap in the market, and Cities: Skylines was greenlit for development.

Launching Cities: Skylines

After a year of development, Cities: Skylines was revealed in August 2014 with a trailer at Gamescom that showed off a game similar to SimCity but advertised a major change in the ability to play offline—a clear swipe at the competition. The trailer amassed an impressive 629,000 views on Paradox’s YouTube channel—more than the trailer for Europa Universalis IV and far more than any trailer for Cities in Motion.

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This screenshot shows Cities: Skylines' strong similarities to SimCity as well as one of its defining new features, districts.

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also benefited from effective marketing on Paradox Interactive's part. The publisher had grown a fair bit since its early days, and the success of Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV would work to the advantage of Cities: Skylines. (As an aside, both Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV would also establish the famous—and sometimes infamous—DLC model that Paradox is now known for and which would later be applied to Cities: Skylines).

Following its release in March 2015, Cities: Skylines was an immediate smash hit. It peaked at 60,386 users on Steam and sold 250,00 units on its first day on the market; a new record for Paradox Interactive. Sales only continued to grow, doubling to 500,000 by the end of the week and doubling again to one million a month after release, making it by far the fastest-selling game that Paradox has ever published.

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Cities: Skylines far outdid Colossal Order's previous games on Steam.

Strong reviews contributed to these incredible numbers, with the game receiving an 85 on Metacritic and an excellent user reception. Cities: Skylines was praised for being a true successor to SimCity while also bringing new ideas to the table. The game also had a strong impact on Paradox’s financials with them reporting a 241% increase in revenue and 442% increase in profits in 2015, and Cities: Skylines being credited as a major contributor to that increase. Such jaw-dropping numbers seem to have contributed to Paradox’s decision to go public in 2016 as in their IPO brochure they featured a graph demonstrating just how much they had grown in the past year, in part due to Cities: Skylines, and these remarkable results were only just getting started as Colossal Order continued to work on additional content.

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Paradox’s financials show the dramatic impact of Cities: Skylines.

Long-Term Sales and Support

Since this was a game published by Paradox Interactive, the launch was just the beginning. Over the following years, Cities: Skylines would continue to receive numerous pieces of DLC that added meaningful new content to the game, including new features, mechanics, objects, and more. Mod support played a role in its success, too, with user mods featuring everything from original assets to major overhauls of the game's traffic system, keeping a passionate community engaged and happy. After an already impressive launch, both official and unofficial improvements and additions to Cities: Skylines helped the game maintain strong momentum, resulting in it selling 2 million units by the end of its first year on the market, surpassing the SimCity reboot, and eventually growing to 3.5 million units by its second anniversary in 2017. These numbers put it far above Paradox’s other successful games at the time with other games not even coming close. Despite being released a year earlier Europa Universalis IV had only sold 1 million copies by its third anniversary with Crusader Kings II taking two years to reach the 1 million milestone. Even newer games like Stellaris and Crusader Kings III needed 4 and 3 years respectively to reach 3 million copies, which was still far slower than Cities: Skylines.

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Cities: Skylines and all its major expansion packs (the dozens of smaller cosmetic DLC are not pictured).

The game also received console ports from Tantalus around this time with an Xbox One version released in April 2017 and a PlayStation 4 and Switch version following a year later. While the console versions appear to have had minimal impact on sales (the next milestone announced was 5 million units on PC alone and 6 million units on all platforms a year after), Cities: Skylines eventually grew to sales of an astonishing 12 million units sold across all platforms in 2022, which puts it far ahead of any other city-builder. An especially remarkable feat if you pause to consider the relatively small development team and the amount of DLC that has been purchased.

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Cities: Skylines sales milestones, showing its incredible consistency in sales over time.

Conclusion

Games that try to follow in the footsteps of a more popular and established franchise often fail, but Cities: Skylines is one of a handful of exceptions where an "imitator" has far surpassed the original.

Ironically, the success of Cities: Skylines is now what would make it difficult for SimCity to ever attempt a meaningful comeback, due to just how dominant it has become in the market. Even more interesting is the fact that in March 2023, Paradox Interactive announced Paralives, a life-sim game not unlike The Sims, which itself spun out of SimCity back in the day. The announcement was also accompanied by the reveal of Cities: Skylines II, a game that saw its debut in October and, despite a rough launch, enjoyed an all-time peak of 104,697 concurrent users on Steam cemented the future of the franchise for many more years to come.

Article A Sales Story | E11 | Donkey Konga

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As an executive, I hated Donkey Konga[...] The first game actually sold reasonably well, but boy was I not a fan.
—Reggie Fils-Aimé​

I'm going to take you back to the past. To a past in which the combined top 30 software charts in Japan would routinely sell over 400,000 units even with no major releases, and in which Nintendo were not nearly as ubiquitious as they are now. Yes my friend, the world was different then.

The year is 2003. The headlines about Nintendo in the press feature the GameCube and the GBA. The Nitro (codename of the Nintendo DS) and the Revolution (codename of the Wii) are products in development. Sony Playstation 2 dominates the charts in Japan and the Xbox is quickly becoming a powerhouse in the West. Super Mario Sunshine failed to light up the charts and so did The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. More than ever, Nintendo is #3 in the video game market. Enter now Donkey Konga.

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Donkey Konga is a rhythm game and the first Nintendo game that took advantage of the conga accessories, used also in Donkey Kong Jungle Beat (the first game produced by the Super Mario Galaxy team). These are two drums that you plug into your GameCube and which allow for a few basic actions.

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Front shot of the congas. Pay attention to the Start button in the middle part.

Though limited in scope, this control scheme is quite effective to reinforce immersion. In particular, the team behind Donkey Kong Jungle Beat found ingenious ways to adapt its gameplay to the controller. Go play the game if you haven't.

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The passing icons indicate which bongo (left, right, both) and position (center, rim) you should hit with your hand.

Not many could predict the evolution of Donkey Konga's sales when it hit Japan in December. It was supposed to be a product of its time, which back then, meant a game that would be gobbled up by the Nintendo loyal, and no one else. And that's what happened.

However, what sets apart Donkey Konga's sales from other games of that period is its trajectory; launched on Dec, 12th, it had a respectable debut of 61k which was enough to reach spot #9 on its launch week, while 14 other new releases charted as well (I told you the world was different then).

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Top 10 during the launch week of Donkey Konga (Famitsu weekly sales for Wk. 50 in 2003 - credit: Nichebarrier.com)

At that time, there were no sign yet that Donkey Konga would eventually become one of the stars of the holiday period. Back then (much like today), any newly released game would rapidly decrease in sales and exit the charts after just a few weeks. However, our game would not follow the norm. The next week, its sales increased and reached 79k. That was good enough to climb two places to now be #7.

Charting above the game is another title that should be familar to most here: Taiko no Tatsujin on the PS2, which, like Donkey Konga, also saw its sales increase compared to the week prio. A juggernaut, it had a life-to-date tally of 357,000 units at that point, while Donkey Konga would stand at 141,000. There was no contest as to which was the more popular game.

However, things would begin to change the week after. While Donkey Konga managed to increase its sales again, topping 97k, Taiko no Tatsujin's weekly sales dropped by 4%. And while Donkey Konga's weekly sales did finally begin to decrease in its fourth week in the market (but by merely 10%), it was clear to observers that the game was the surprise of the year. With a total tally of more than 400,000 units, it eventually landed not too far from Taiko (about 580k), which occupied the same niche on a much more popular console.

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Donkey Konga weekly sales in Japan (credit: Nichebarrier.com, Famitsu figures)

The game's encouraging sales prompted Nintendo to release a sequel only eight months later. Unfortunately, Donkey Konga 2 didn't make as much of an impression on the charts and only reached a quarter of its predecessor's total sales—a result that could be largely attributed to the GameCube's rapid decline in Japan, as well as to a fatigue effect due to coming so soon after the first game. A dual pack 'Donkey Konga 1+2' was released at the same time as the sequel and added 27k copies to DK1's LTD tally. A third game, Donkey Konga 3: Tabehōdai! Haru Mogitate 50 Kyoku, a Japan-only title, sold even less. And so, like many Nintendo series, Donkey Konga eventually got shelved.

As far as reptrospectives go, Donkey Konga was also (infamously) remembered for not having its best tracks featured in the Western releases; in particular, the absence of 'Ambitious Japan!' in Donkey Konga 2 hurt fans badly (well me, at least). This is just one example. Many forums voiced their concerns with each installement released, and that certainly didn't help with the popularity of the series overseas.

But still. Globally, Donkey Konga went on to sell 1.18 million, enough to beat Metroid Prime 2. It earned its place in the top 25 most-sold Nintendo-published games on the GameCube. And while it is a largely obscure game as far as the sales community is concerned, I felt its sales trajectory was striking enough to be deserving of its own feature.

I hope you enjoyed this piece, and that it brought back memories from a time when being a Nintendo fan was anything but easy. Thank you.

Article A Sales Story | E10 | Breath of the Wild

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The year is 1998. Ocarina of Time has been released to critical acclaim and the highest sales in the Zelda series since Zelda 1 on the NES. It is considered something of a groundbreaking game for both Nintendo and the games industry. However, while Zelda is seeing a temporary resurgence in popularity from its move to three dimensions, the years ahead will see it suffer an identity crisis that lasts for well over a decade.

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• Ocarina of Time’s popularity isn’t improving the state of the Nintendo 64, whose sales remain weak on the whole. Years of uneasy relations between Nintendo and third-party publishers, combined with the innovations of the PlayStation, have made it difficult for Nintendo to compete, putting them in a distant second place behind PlayStation hardware and software sales.

• Nintendo’s upper management has seen the writing on the wall. The company tasks its producers with putting out a large amount of software with short development cycles to help offset their lower unit sales on the Nintendo 64. This is the point at which Nintendo—under the guidance of Hiroshi Yamauchi and Shigeru Miyamoto—changes its approach to game development. Instead of competing directly with other hardware and software makers, Nintendo wishes to side-step the competition entirely, emphasizing innovation on smaller budgets as opposed to expansive blockbuster games. The thinking is that releasing a large number of smaller games is a safer approach to development, and that it also increases your chances of happening upon the next big hit.

• A quote from Miyamoto, just months prior to Ocarina of Time’s release: “I feel there is a bad atmosphere that you can't do something new at Nintendo these days. I never thought things like this before. So now we are changing ourselves to an organization that allows people to do new things and energize ourselves. I'm saying to my people that from now on let's go for the game that can be developed within six months and sell a million copies. If you want to finish a game within six months, you have to make it within two months because you need to polish it for another four months. If someone asks me who can make such a thing, I'd tell them that I used to do it. It isn't a great thing to take three years. [Ocarina of Time] would have been finished in a much shorter period if we had cut some parts.”

• This leads to projects like 1080° Snowboarding and PilotWings 64, which are completed within the span of a year and go on to sell upward of a million units. This philosophy is also applied to Zelda, and Eiji Aonuma is put in charge of directing the next Zelda game and completing it in a year. This leads to the development and release of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

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• The year is 2000. The Nintendo GameCube is being prepared for release, and coming off the Nintendo 64 there is pressure on the new console and its accompanying software to turn Nintendo’s fortunes around.

• Having completed Ocarina of Time and then taking something of a detour with Majora’s Mask, the Zelda team isn’t entirely certain what direction to take with its next game. As part of Nintendo’s new approach to software development, the company’s employees are encouraged to find an innovative gameplay hook for each game they work on whilst keeping budgets under control and development timelines as short as possible. In the absence of robust third-party support, this is meant to allow Nintendo to release a large amount of software to support its platforms.

• This ultimately leads to the development of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Unable to conceptualize new innovative gameplay ideas, the Zelda team decides to innovate visually instead. Thus, Toon Link and the super-deformed cel-shaded style of The Wind Waker are created, and active development begins on the game. Once the project has made enough progress, Nintendo shows it off at the company’s SpaceWorld event in 2001.

• Reception to The Wind Waker’s visual style is poor, as the audience for Zelda games is primarily young adults who want to see the series continue on in the style of Ocarina of Time, with more realistically-proportioned characters and a less “childish” look. This feedback is conveyed to the Zelda team, but at this point the game is already too far along.

• Following an extremely short development cycle, The Wind Waker is released in late 2002 in Japan and early 2003 in the west. The game is well-received by critics, and receives an award for "Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction" from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. However, sales in the west are weak owing to the game’s super-deformed character designs, which alienate the series’ young-adult audience. Meanwhile, sales in Japan are also weak owing to the Japanese video game market having begun to decline, particularly in the case of home consoles. Nintendo dubs this phenomenon in Japan “gamer drift”.

• The weak sales of The Wind Waker, combined with failed experiments like The Legends of Zelda: Four Swords and Four Swords Adventures, leaves the Zelda brand with a major hurdle to overcome—finding relevance in a world where fewer and fewer people are playing Zelda games. Unless the Zelda team can find a way to turn things around with the next game, the series is at risk of being put on ice.

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• The year is 2003. The GameCube is not doing particularly well, nor is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Whatever form the next Zelda takes, it needs to turn the brand’s fortunes around, or it could mean the end of the franchise.

• A sequel to The Wind Waker is presently in development, and this time the game is intended to take place on land, with Link riding on horseback to help set it apart from its predecessor. However, progress on this game has been slow, as the development team is not feeling particularly inspired. Meanwhile, series director Eiji Aonuma himself feels that another Wind Waker-esque game will not address the problems the series faces.

• Instead, Aonuma, with the help of Nintendo of America and its ability to assess the western market, has determined that three things are necessary for a Zelda title to find mainstream appeal:
  1. A cool, realistically-proportioned Link that gives the game a greater sense of realism
  2. A vast fantasy world to explore
  3. The ability to explore this world on horseback, giving the player a sense of adventure

• Aonuma convinces Miyamoto that this is the need of the hour and the Wind Waker 2 project is rebooted into The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess—a bigger, more ambitious game targeted at the series’ much larger western audience. Excited by the new direction, the Zelda team begins development on the new title, and once enough progress has been made, a trailer for the game (edited by Aonuma and NOA) is shown at E3 2004. Audience reception is extremely positive, letting the team know they are on the right track.

• As development continues, Twilight Princess ends up becoming one of the largest projects Nintendo has ever worked on up until this point, with a great deal of effort going into its world-building, story, characters, and exploration-heavy gameplay. The game features a large Hyrule Field that allows the player to engage in combat on horseback, while Link’s animation and the animation of his horse are more detailed than ever, to allow the player to better connect with the game. Additionally, the concept of “open-air dungeons” is explored, with several of Twilight Princess’s dungeons and puzzle-heavy segments taking place in outdoor environments that are exposed. This is intended to blur the line between the game’s open fields and dungeons, giving Twilight Princess’s Hyrule a greater sense of place.

• Unfortunately, because it is the Zelda team’s first time attempting a project of this scale, the game’s scope and development quickly balloon out of control. The project subsequently has to be de-scoped to get it back on track, and a number of ideas intended for Twilight Princess are cut back.

• Meanwhile, Nintendo’s hardware business has seen a major resurgence with the Nintendo DS. The company is now fully convinced that its new approach to making games—where they do not compete directly with the rest of the industry, but sidestep the competition with innovative ideas and new control schemes—is the path forward, and these same principles are being applied to its upcoming Wii console, which uses a TV remote-like controller to simplify the interface between user and software.

• The Zelda team is asked to port Twilight Princess to the Wii, to take advantage of growing excitement for the platform and its intuitive motion controls. This complicates the game’s arduous development cycle even further. A great deal of trial-and-error is required to make the game compatible with the Wii Remote, which features a button layout that is very different from traditional controllers.

• The effort is ultimately worth it. Twilight Princess is released in late 2006 alongside the Wii console, and is purchased by 87% of Wii buyers during its first month in North America, representing the highest attach rate for any game since Super Mario 64. In 2007, it wins an award for “Outstanding Achievement in Story and Character Development” from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences. The game’s moody visual style, tone, exploration-heavy gameplay, and intuitive motion controls lead to it becoming something of a modest “evergreen” title, and it goes on to sell nearly 9 million units in the years ahead, making it the best-selling Zelda game up until that point.

• A side-story using Twilight Princess’s world and characters is discussed internally, and eventually morphs into Link’s Crossbow Training. The game is released just one year after Twilight Princess and goes on to sell 5.7 million units by itself, outselling a number of prior Zeldas. That same year, Nintendo also releases The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for the Nintendo DS, which goes on to sell 4.7 million units globally off the back of its intuitive touch controls.

• Between Twilight Princess, Link’s Crossbow Training, and Phantom Hourglass, the Zelda brand enjoys a stretch of considerable success, making inroads with both the core and casual gaming audiences. Twilight Princess’s version of Zelda and Link go on to serve as the Zelda brand’s ambassadors for the next several years, representing the franchise in Nintendo’s marketing until 2015.

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• The year is 2007. While Twilight Princess has found success globally, sales remain weak in Japan due to the ongoing decline of the home console market. Despite finding success globally with the DS and Wii, Nintendo’s upper management feels it needs to address the declining market in Japan as well.

• A quote from Shigeru Miyamoto: “I think a lot of people who bought the Wii are not necessarily the types of people who are interested in playing that kind of game. And a lot of the people who would want to play it [due to chronic shortages of the console] can’t find a Wii! But mostly, I think it’s that there are fewer and fewer people who are interested in playing a big role-playing game like Zelda [in Japan].”

• Despite the weak sales of traditional game software, Nintendo’s management believes that the company’s audience of casual players in Japan can be convinced to partake in more “core” experiences, provided concessions are made to ease them in. The thinking at Nintendo is that the blue ocean audience might be enticed with more straightforward, linear appearances where they cannot get lost and feel a constant sense of progress. Teams across Nintendo EAD are tasked with making the company’s core IP more approachable. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is designed to feel more guided than Galaxy 1, while an entirely new upcoming Mario game, Super Mario 3D Land, aims to blur the line between the linear 2D Marios and more exploratory 3D Marios.

• The Zelda team, too, has taken measures to appeal to Japan’s casual audience. The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is released in 2007, and relies on simplified touch inputs using the Nintendo DS stylus. The game is successful at appealing to new audiences globally, and goes on to sell over 900,000 units in Japan alone, becoming the best-selling Zelda title in that market in several years. The team is then tasked with replicating its success in the home console space with the next 3D Zelda on Wii.

Alongside this goal, the team also tasks itself with establishing a new structure for future Zelda games, seeking to distance itself from the shadow of Ocarina of Time. Thus, the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword begins development with three broad goals:
  1. Making a 3D Zelda game more approachable and accessible
  2. Deepening the motion controls introduced in Twilight Princess
  3. Making a smaller, more “dense” game that falls more in line with Nintendo’s ongoing innovation-over-expanse approach to development and also helps establish a new structure for future Zeldas

• A smaller team spends nearly two years experimenting with the Wii MotionPlus accessory to determine how the device can be used to enhance sword combat in a Zelda game. This frees up the Wii Remote’s A button, which is subsequently mapped to a new “dash” ability. Meanwhile, producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi brainstorm how to distill Zelda’s structure down to a simpler format to make the game feel more approachable.

• Drawing inspiration from Mario games, the team decides to adopt a format where the player can simply drop down into a stage without having to explore an overworld first to get there. This is intended to make the game feel more compact, more approachable, and to simplify the development process. The new structure leads to Skyward Sword forgoing an overworld, and each area being designed to feel like a combination of indoor and outdoor dungeons, taking the “open-air dungeon” concept a step further.

• In parallel, Link’s new sidekick, Fi, is designed to serve as a guide for the more casual player, often providing hints and solutions to puzzles.

• Skyward Sword is released in 2011. It reviews well like every prior Zelda, but sees weak sales and disinterest from the gaming audience at large owing to a variety of factors:
  1. The concessions made to appeal to Nintendo’s blue ocean audience do not entice said audience to buy the game
  2. The game releases into a market where expansive, exploratory experiences like The Elder Scrolls and Assassin’s Creed are the preferred format for the action-adventure genre
  3. A declining software market on the Wii

• Over the next two years, Nintendo receives feedback through multiple channels that players are not keen on Skyward Sword’s simplified structure and emphasis on lengthy dungeons without an overworld to explore. By 2012, it is clear that the same principles that could be applied to designing Nintendo’s more casual software cannot be applied to Zelda. The brand finds itself at a crossroads once more, unclear about who its core audience is, and how to keep up with its contemporaries. A reinvention is in order, or Zelda risks growing irrelevant once more in an increasingly competitive industry.

• In parallel, Nintendo is preparing to release a successor to the Wii—the upcoming Wii U console—marking the company’s first skirmishes with HD development. On HD platforms, the budgets of even smaller games are much higher than their SD counterparts, and development cycles considerably longer. As a company that emphasizes conservative budgets and efficient development cycles, Nintendo’s future in the HD era is uncertain.

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The year is 2012. Nintendo is preparing to release the Wii U, the successor to its Wii console. The goal of the Wii U is to act as a device that complements the television, even allowing the user to directly control their TV set using the Wii U GamePad. Additionally, the console is meant to address a number of its predecessor’s commonly-cited shortcomings. This includes a more traditional control scheme out of the box, which Nintendo hopes will encourage better support from third-party developers.

• By this point in time, the games industry as a whole has made significant strides in bridging the gap between the core gaming audience and the broader casual audience. Traditional video game experiences on high-definition platforms are growing more popular than ever, and Nintendo recognizes that it will need to keep up if it wants to remain competitive in the long term.

A quote from Nintendo’s president at the time, Satoru Iwata: “That core vs. casual debate seems like something that can never see a resolution, but with Wii U, I have a feeling that it all may change. I even feel that the barrier that separated the two genres was only something psychological, just an impression that people had about them. For example, The Legend of Zelda games were something geared towards the toughest audience, and it has been so from the beginning. So it's not like at Nintendo we don't have it in us. But there are quite a number of people who assume that Nintendo is the equivalent of being casual. If we are able to break those psychological barriers with Wii U, I feel like we will be able to take our goal of expanding the gaming population even further. It would even be possible to expand our customer base and bring in more people, and out of those new people, there will be those who will find certain controls or elements of deeper gameplay intriguing, and eventually will become passionate game fans. That was the way the history of video games has been, and I want to keep the tradition going so it doesn't fade away. That, I think is the true meaning of ‘a game for everyone’. A game for everyone isn't just wide, but also very deep. That's how it will become everyone's game.”

• With the move to an HD platform and Nintendo now more willing to commit larger budgets to its flagship games, producer Eiji Aonuma and director Hidemaro Fujibayashi are able to make a case for the next Zelda project to be more ambitious and open, broadly following in the footsteps of Twilight Princess, which Aonuma later says he considered a “starting point” for this new game.

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Viewed dead on, the design of Twilight Princess's overworld bears some very obvious similarities to the "peaks and valleys" design of Breath of the Wild. (Screenshot: Monster Maze)

• After a period of prototyping around the concept of more player freedom, development of a new Zelda game begins with two broad goals:
  1. To create an open-world game set in a large, seamless environment
  2. To rethink the conventions of the Zelda series, which by now are at odds with the tastes of the broader video game market

• Development of this new game begins with Aonuma inviting members of the Zelda team to conceptualize a new look for Link—one that would be indicative of the kind of new adventures he might go on. Over one hundred designs are submitted, with the team eventually settling on the idea of a Link wearing a blue tunic. A realistically-proportioned Link is chosen as Nintendo feels a super-deformed style would turn players off. The realistic style is also meant to help players relate more easily to the game, and the actions that they might be able to perform within it.

• On the technical side of things, the team takes the entirety of Twilight Princess’s map and places it within the new development engine to test whether that game’s entire overworld can be made explorable as a single, seamless area with no loading screens in between.

• In addition to creating a game that is fully open world, director Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s other goal is to create a game that feels “active” (where the player actively takes on the game world) rather than “passive” (where the player simply reacts to events in the game world). This leads to giving Link the ability to climb and jump off any surface in the environment, turning the act of traversing the game world into a puzzle in itself.

• A quote from Fujibayashi: “Our first step in designing the game was to reexamine these conventions, and put our sights on changing the structure of the game from a passive one (where you play within the confines of a pre-prepared mechanism) to one where the user can actively engage with the game. So what is an active game? Our first approach was to remove those impassable walls, which were a convention of Zelda, by transforming the walls and allowing the user to climb them in our experimental game field. By transforming walls, which were used to represent boundaries, into another optional path, it's as if the entire landscape that lays before the user opens up, asking them 'So, which path are you going to take?' It was at this point I realized that this was the kind of game design I was striving for, and holds the potential to create this 'active game' I had envisioned.”

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Link diving towards Himeji Castle in a prototype overworld map for Breath of the Wild. (Screenshot: CEDEC 2017)

• In order to realize this vision of a vast world, the Zelda team renders a terrain map of the city of Kyoto using map data from Google and Zenrin Co. Ltd., and temporarily places the Twilight Princess map in the upper-left corner of this world. The Kyoto map is then populated with models of historic Japanese monuments in order to help the team get a sense of scale and it serves as the foundation for the new Zelda’s Hyrule.

• Once the team is confident in its ability to deliver a seamless, open-world experience Nintendo officially announces that a new Zelda game is in development for the Wii U in January 2013, and that its goal is to break the conventions of the series and establish a new structure for Zelda.

• As the team begins to craft its new Hyrule, three keywords are used to aid in its creation: distance, density, and "time spent”. Distance refers to how long it takes the player to traverse the world. Density refers to the spread of events, enemy encounters, and other such elements across the world. Finally, “time spent” refers to how long a player might spend engaging with any individual event in the world. These keywords are meant to help provide the player with an experience that allows for a constant sense of discovery.

• These three keywords guide the creation of everything in the new Hyrule, including the space between Sheikah Towers, the shape of different landforms, and the size and placement of the Shrines, which the team designs to serve as bite-sized dungeons, not wanting to trap players in any one activity for too long. The game is laser-focused on player agency and flexibility.

• In crafting its new Hyrule, the Zelda team looks to open-world games like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, with Aonuma also mentioning The Witcher 3 and Far Cry as examples of games the team is aware of. A number of developers from Monolith Soft who designed the world and user interface of Xenoblade Chronicles X are brought aboard to aid in both world design and game design for this new Zelda. The combined team ultimately builds a Hyrule that is about twelve times the size of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and takes the idea of “open-air” puzzles even further than Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword.

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• The final piece of the puzzle takes the form of a hyper-interactive physics and chemistry system, prototyped using a tech demo in the style of Zelda 1 on the NES. This system assigns an “element” to every object in the game, allowing for pre-scripted, context-specific actions from prior Zelda titles to be realized in real-time. These include the ability to set fire to any wooden object, shield surf across any sloping surface, and use wind in a variety of ways to influence the world and objects within it. Along with the open environment, this system turns the new Zelda into an experience where the player feels as though they are living in its world, instead of simply fighting and solving puzzles within a traditional video game.

• In order to let players enjoy the game's world, the game's user interface is simplified to the barest necessities, displaying information only when necessary. The team also creates a new warm-white colour, dubbed "Zelda White," and this is used across icons, logos, and even the game's packaging.

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"Zelda White," a warm white colour that is used across the game's icons, logos, and packaging.

• As development progresses and the new Zelda game is delayed beyond its initial 2015 release window, Nintendo realizes that the Wii U platform will not be able to provide a large enough user base for it. The team is asked to port the game to the company’s upcoming hybrid platform, the Nintendo Switch, which is designed to consolidate Nintendo’s console and handheld expertise into a single device.

• In interviews with the press, Aonuma compares the new Zelda game to switching from Japanese food to Western food, confirming that the game is designed primarily around Western tastes.

• The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is released in March 2017, alongside the Nintendo Switch. At launch, the game sees a 100% attach rate with the Switch, selling over a million units in North America within the span of a month. Its groundbreaking approach to open-world design and positive word-of-mouth carry the game for the next several years, eventually leading to it selling over 30 million units globally.

• In the years that follow, a number of games draw inspiration from Breath of the Wild in one form or another, including Elden Ring, Shin Megami Tensei V, and most notably Genshin Impact. In interviews, Nintendo states that the “open-air” structure of Breath of the Wild is going to be the standard for Zelda games for the foreseeable future, and that it intends to re-use the game’s world and groundbreaking physics system for its next Zelda title as well.


— thanks for reading —​

This write-up represents a fairly truncated version of the events it outlines. The history of Zelda is long and complex, and there's a lot more nuance to be found at the resources below, penned by me:

Article A Sales Story | E09 | Hyrule Warriors

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A Sales Story | E09 | HYRULE WARRIORS [NEW!]​

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A LITTLE BIT OF CONTEXT
It is the year 2014, in the middle of the Wii U era
: one of the darkest periods for Nintendo, in terms of financial results, with great difficulties mainly due to the enormous commercial problems of the latest born in the womb of the Japanese production house. After the enormous success of the Wii, what will be the last pure home console developed in Kyoto has not been able to capitalize on the enormous potential user base obtained by its predecessor and, due to questionable hardware choices and a bizarre marketing campaign (both attributable to a single selling proposition that is incomplete, not well defined and, in essence, not very convincing among a vast mass audience), will end up proving to be a substantially unsuccessful project. Yet, as later demonstrated by the enormous success of the games originally conceived and proposed on that console, when they were re-proposed on Switch, not all the experience gained during those difficult and complicated years is to be thrown away and, indeed, it is evident how the maturity of development in the HD environment obtained precisely in the Wii U era proved to be fundamental to affirming such a constant and complete software library among the key elements of the current hybrid hardware. But, beyond the purely internal production on which the development teams have been able to rely for several years up to now, both in quantitative and qualitative terms, there is another element that was born amid a thousand travails in the Wii U era but which it later proved to be important as one of the pillars of the "comeback" carried out with enormous success by Nintendo Switch. And this unexpected and too often underestimated element was born with a project that, especially back in the days, was considered as a mere spinoff with small ambtition, or even as a sign of the Kyoto house's difficulties in finding a sufficiently ambitious and decisive planning . We are talking about Hyrule Warriors. One of the many external collaborations that Nintendo set up at the time, to flesh out its production of titles dedicated to the home console, also suffering due to the output of the internal teams, struggling with two separate production lines (still having to support the 3DS, real cash-cow on the Japanese market) but also with the difficulties of the first leap into HD era. But if on the one hand some of them judged in hindsight really appear as desperate attempts to attract the attention of third parties and a certain slice of users otherwise not served by titles dedicated to certain segments (see the HD porting of first two Yakuza, by SEGA), others had a more long-term planning and, on the contrary, proved to be far more strategic, in the mid-long term plan of the company.
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THE PROJECT: NINTENDO AND KOEI RELATIONSHIP OF MUTUAL TRUST
The project was announced in December 2013, in a Nintendo Direct which unveiled the first original Zelda title for Wii U: not one of the usual adventures divided between exploration and puzzles, fights and boss battles, but an external collaboration with Koei-Tecmo which , entrusting the game to the expert hands of Omega Force, proposed for the first time the adrenaline dynamics of the Musou genre, however setting them in the world of Link and his companions. An original Hyrule, borrowed from the saga as a whole and not referring to a specific episode of the Zelda brand, which proposed several innovative elements for the series, allowing many "first times" to its longtime fans. On the one hand, it was possible to master a wide, varied and deep combat system, very oriented towards the wildest action; on the other hand it was possible to play the role of many characters extrapolated from the various chapters of the saga, impersonating for the first time even characters who were not directly Link. All within an original narrative frame, made up of multiverses and "what if" scenarios and, therefore, perhaps not very coherent or accustomed to the more traditional public, but undoubtedly fun. With great longevity and rich in content, the project differed greatly from a typical "The Legend of Zelda", and probably also for this reason it was entitled in a different way, focusing on the entire fictional universe of reference, as much as on the more adrenaline-pumping combat aspect, coining thus the title of Hyrule Warriors. This collaboration, by admission of the two parties involved, has allowed Nintendo to get to know the strengths and weaknesses of the external team more closely, also closely studying their passion for adrenaline-pumping rhythms and an action imprint, while Koei-Tecmo granted the privilege of entering into the management dynamics of one of the most prestigious brands in the videogame landscape, coming to understand the importance of elements such as the stylistic and narrative coherence of the Aonuma first party team. A process of mutual growth that is no small feat, as we will see later.

SALES RESULTS

The game was published by Koei-Tecmo in the Japanese market and by Nintendo in the rest of the world; in none of the markets was it able to set the charts on fire, also due to the enormous difficulties of the console, more than to other factors truly endemic to the production itself. Despite this, however, observing the overall numbers of the software library of the last home console of the Kyoto house, it is clear that, due to the nature of a spinoff and experimental title that the work represented, the sales results have been objectively positive for this game. The title was able to sell 69,090 copies (equal to 57% of the initial distribution) in the launch week in Japan, enjoying greater success in the West (with a launch tracked by NPD on the American market of 190,000 units). The overseas success was even able to amaze Koei-Tecmo, selling beyond the developer's initial expectations. Finally, in January 2015, it was the same Japanese company that announced the milestone of one million copies sold. The list of million sellers (published by Nintendo) on Wii U is the shortest ever and consists of only 17 games. As mentioned, the collaboration with Koei-Tecmo is not included in this calculation because the title has been co-distributed on various markets, but imagining that it has even just slightly exceeded the ceiling of one million copies, it remains a satisfactory result both for the house of Kyoto as for the external partner, which has not achieved such an important overall result for some time with one of its Musou and which instead with Hyrule Warriors manages to obtain the same results as the HD porting of Twilight Princess, one of the main episodes of the saga made in Nintendo. The game was considered important by both houses, so much that it was proposed again in several subsequent versions: in March 2016 the Legends edition was released for Nintendo 3DS, while in 2018 a Definitive Edition was released for Switch (which would seem not to have exceeded one million copies, although the only official data relating to the Japanese market indicate results not dissimilar to the original for Wii U, with 58,581 copies sold at the retail level).
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THE LEGACY: NINTENDO WARRIORS
The Musou-oriented partnership between Nintendo and Koei-Tecmo launched with the project described above has proved to be truly fundamental for the market results of both development houses. Not so much in the limited and limiting dark period of the Wii U, but in the immediately following era. If there was a third party ready immediately to support the hybrid console launched in 2017, in fact, that was undoubtedly Koei-Tecmo (together with NIS, Bethesda and Square-Enix, probably), also thanks to the proximity created with that important collaboration strongly desired by Iwata himself. In addition to bringing Hyrule Warriors in its complete version and pushing the newly acquired Gust closer to the hardware of the Kyoto house (with qualitative and commercial results evident for all the parties involved, especially for the Atelier series), the third party responsible for works such as Ninja Gaiden found itself in a privileged position to be assigned the management of prestigious and interesting first party projects, increasing its revenues thanks to the exploitation of beloved Nintendo IPs, which in turn found an additional armed and operational arm , capable of contributing significantly to the constancy of software output that has characterized the current machine since its launch on the market. In particular, the alliance focused on another IP of the Kyoto house: that Fire Emblem relaunched by the 3DS projects and ramping-up in the two-year period of 2017/18 between Switch and mobile platforms. The mobile operation expanded the financial importance of the franchise, while the first product dedicated to the new hybrid console is a Fire Emblem Warriors, in many ways similar to the Hyrule Warriors from which it all began: original story, somehow capable to bring together different protagonists extracted from various titles in the saga, giving rise to fresh and unexpected opportunities for meeting and confrontation, inserting a large action component, albeit peppered with some classic strategic gimmicks borrowed from the original brand. Although FIre Emblem is not a commercially strong IP like Zelda, thanks to the renewed reputation obtained from Awakening onwards, the Koei-Tecmo title manages to establish itself crossing the milestone of one million copies sold, on April 26, 2018. An important goal, if you think how it happened before the sales peak generated on Switch by the first truly "main" episode released shortly after: that Fire Emblem Three Houses which definitively cements the collaboration between the two houses, given that the development, always supervised by Intelligent System, was entrusted to Koei-Tecmo itself who, evidently, was able to exploit the know-how of the Musou chapter to grab enough credit from Nintendo, and be entrusted with an undoubtedly more prestigious task. But, as many will know, the double thread that binds these three entities (the Kyoto company, the programmers of Omega Force and the strategic brand examined) did not end here: a few years later, in fact, the enormous success of the main chapter (3.82 million copies, according to data updated in December 2021), pushes all the actors involved to develop a further project in Warriors flavour, this time officially set in the world of Three Houses, practically acting as a prequel / sequel /alternative version: Fire Emblem: Three Hopes becomes yet another Musou crossover with Nintendo to cross the milestone of one million copies sold, in August 2022 (few weeks after its launch).
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THE RICHEST PRIZE
Such an effective collaboration obviously could not leave aside the fulcrum from which the whole initiative started, and so, to fill the six-year gap between Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom, allowing the Aonuma team to concentrate totally on the realization of the sequel of which the programmers clearly had a precise vision in mind, without worries or commercial pressures, Nintendo decides to once again entrust a spinoff of the saga to Koei-Tecmo, even promoting it as a real prequel, although narratively peppered with time travel and alternative realities twist. Thus was born nothing less than a hybrid project in playful terms, but adhering to the narrative and the world of one of the most successful games in the history of the Kyoto house: Hyrule Warriors - Age of Calamity, in fact, is inextricably linked to the diegetic universe of Breath of the Wild, carrying the blazon, as well as the weight of expectation. Expectations that are respected: the enormous success of the main chapter is not disregarded, so much that this operation manages to collect enormous feedback from the market, placing as many as 3.7 million units in the first 5 weeks of presence on the international market, then surpassing the milestone of 4 million few months later. Astronomical figures for a Musou, so much to become the best-selling exponent of this particular type of action oriented Omega Force sub-genre, and positioning itself among the best-selling games ever by Koei-Tecmo, to the enormous satisfaction of all parties involved. A satisfaction that, fully matured on Switch, thanks to the truly out-of-scale success of Breath of the Wild, has grown step by step in managing the relationship between the developers and the Fire Emblem brand, through three different operations in terms of budget and ambitions, but all three able to confirm a great commercial appeal, has its roots in the dark period of the Wii U. When many turned up their noses, seeing The Legend of Zelda mix with the adrenaline-filled imprint of the Warriors, but certainly not Nintendo and Koei-Tecmo : they believed in it, and only a few years later they reaped the fruits of those beliefs.
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Thanks for reading; I personally can't wait to see what's next for Musou and Nintendo :)

How much units will the Switch end up selling in Japan ?

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    Votes: 13 9.3%
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    Votes: 39 27.9%
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    Votes: 30 21.4%
  • 38m-39m

    Votes: 16 11.4%
  • 39m-40m

    Votes: 1 0.7%
  • 40m+

    Votes: 10 7.1%

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