As you may have heard by now, 2003 was - yet again - a record breaking year for the UK games industry. 12 months in which the nation sat glued to their sets, not watching Pop Idol or Corrie, but playing some of the more than 50 million games sold last year, a combined outgoing of over Ł1.07 billion. That's triple the number of games sold (by units) compared to 1997 and over double the value. We are, without doubt, a nation of committed gamers - and it's my pleasure to wade through this mountain of ChartTrack-compiled stats to bring you the tasty stat nuggets that will make you the envy of all your friends - but don't quote me on that.
But while the UK nation's thirst for gaming pleasures, man for man, is arguably the most passionate in the world (third only in value to the USA and Japan) the choices that the Brits make when heading down to their local software emporium are well worth examining, because the truth is, a tiny fraction of the hundred of titles released every year become hits. For every GTA: Vice City, FIFA and EyeToy, there was a Celebrity Deathmatch, AvP Extinction or Amplitude and literally scores more humbling flops or shocking oversights - some of which any self-respecting gamer should seek out immediately (more of which in a later feature), and the purpose of this latest investigation into the nation's buying habits is to highlight not just the glorious successes, but those that fell by the wayside and deserve our attention. Not everything in gaming is black and white. Except Black & White. Moving on...
Do not underestimate the power of the PlayStation
It will hardly come as a major shock to anyone who follows the charts to learn that out of the Top 20 best sellers of 2003, 19 of them were released on the PS2. Pure and simply, the PS2 absolutely wiped the floor with every other format in the market. In the entire Top 50, just six titles exclusive to other formats figured in the listing (two Champ Man titles, two Pokemon titles, Mario Kart, and The Sims: Superstar).
In the main, almost every publisher adopted a multi-format strategy that generally resulted in sales being massively skewed toward the PS2. But when you consider that there are five times as many PS2 owners in the UK compared to Xbox, and over eight times that of the Cube, it's hardly surprising.
The most ardent multi-format publishers like EA, Activision, THQ, Vivendi, Atari and Ubisoft almost always design their games for the PS2 and port them to the other formats almost identically. But when you consider that the PS2 version represents in the region of three quarters of the total sales, can you blame them? For example, the proportion of PS2 sales on virtually every best-selling games was in this region, such as FIFA 2004 (73%), Need For Speed: Underground (77%), Rising Sun (81%), Enter The Matrix (68%), The Simpsons Hit & Run (74%), True Crime (76%), Crash Bandicoot: Wrath Of Cortex (76%), and Tony Hawk's Underground (78%).
There were a few exceptions, of course. The most unusual of these was perhaps Disney's Finding Nemo, the 23rd best seller of the year, notching up a quarter of a million sales across the five main formats. Unlike most other games, the PS2 proportion was just 40 per cent, with the GBA also notching up 40 per cent. In the same area, Monsters, Inc. (59th best seller, 136k) managed just 12 per cent of its sales on PS2 against the 40 per cent on the handheld versions proving how strong the GBA is proving among the younger audience, despite the relatively high cost of the software.
But these anomalies were not merely confined to titles aimed at the younger audience, with Eidos' TimeSplitters 2 notching up 45 per cent of the sales on the Xbox against the PS2's 44 per cent, while Max Payne 2 managed only 40 per cent of its sales on PS2. An unusually even split was found between Soul Calibur II, where the PS2 accounted for only 44 per cent of sales, with the Link-fuelled GameCube version bucking the trend in style with 30 per cent of the sales - not bad when you consider the gulf between each format's installed base. Ubisoft's XIII, meanwhile, managed just 47 per cent of its sales on PS2, with Xbox grabbing 37 per cent.
Sales of the century
In terms of pure sales grunt, the gap between FIFA 2004 and the rest was vast. According to ChartTrack's 6,500-strong UK panel (an estimated 85 per cent of the true figure), 878,000 bought EA's latest footy title - a 19 per cent improvement on sales of the previous version and over 350,000 ahead of its closest competitor. Beyond that, a cluster of titles sold at around the half a million mark, headed up by Need For Speed: Underground - an ironic title for the breakthrough game in the series - and an amazing achievement even by EA's standards when you consider that no previous incarnation in the long running franchise has ever managed to sell more than a combined total of about 100,000 in the UK over several years - never mind 516,000 in a matter of weeks.
Below that, Rising Sun (506k), The Sims (505k), Vice City (475k), Enter The Matrix (461k), Splinter Cell (433k), EyeToy: Play (429k), and The Simpson Hit & Run (415k) all proved to be bona fide blockbusters for their respective publishers, and the kind of figures that would have guaranteed the No.1 spot just a few years ago. The latter title in particular exceeded expectations for chart watchers, providing Vivendi with the sort of hit it's been searching for for years, and proof what an astute signing Fox was. But you have to ponder how high sales would have been if a critically acclaimed Simpsons game emerged. No disrespect to Vivendi, but it's been proven for over a decade that the brand is a licence to print money.
In terms of quality, it's always going to be an uncomfortable experience for the hardcore gamer to see how disproportionately well certain perceived 'mass market' titles fare against lesser known but critically regarded games. Generally, most people accept why the likes of FIFA always outsell Pro Evo (even if they don't agree with it), and also understand the reasons why Crash Bandicoot continues to outperform the vastly superior Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank, but its hard not to get passionately involved in a tussle of expletives when exceptionally ordinary titles seduce unwitting gamers on the back of a licence and a gigantic marketing campaign alone. We guess it was inevitable that the likes of Enter The Matrix would find its way to the top regardless, but it still causes consternation among those who care about the quality threshold. After all, a dissatisfied customer might never return to videogaming if their initial experience is an unhappy one.
Don't encourage them!
But on the whole the use of the licence was as good as it's ever been. Both Lord Of The Rings titles fared well - Return Of The King (394k) edged ahead of The Two Towers (345k) at No.11 and No.12 respectively; the lack of a new Harry Potter movie didn't stop The Chamber Of Secrets selling all-year-round (345k), and finishing up in 13th place overall; while Philosopher's Stone sold another 173k to push its total sales (across eight formats, would you believe) over the magic million mark. Likewise, the lack of a new Bond movie didn't affect the performance of the abysmal Nightfire (295k), qualifying it for a No.19 placing.
Elsewhere, the surprisingly good Quidditch World Cup performed respectably, making it to No.30 on the back of 194k sales, while Vivendi will be happy that The Hulk turned in 153k, and The Fellowship Of The Ring managed another 134k once reduced to a budget price.
Sole trader: the exclusive smashes
But enough of the commercial obsession with multi-format! What games succeeded outside of this risk-averse strategy? Which titles were lovingly coded specifically for their format in question and still managed to challenge even these goliaths? 'Surprisingly few' is the answer, leading us to wonder if publishers are becoming scared of putting all their eggs in one basket.
In the entire top 100 best sellers, precious few PS2-exclusive titles made it into the listings - just five released in 2003; EyeToy (No.8, 429k), SmackDown 5 (No.26, 226k), SOCOM (No.52, 141k), Manhunt (No.91, 94k), and Formula One 2003 (No.92, 92k), with the remaining PS2-exclusive titles in the Top 100 comprised of titles released prior to last year; The Getaway (No.15, 338k), GT3 (No.29, 210k), SmackDown 4 (No.62, 133k), Midas' Ł6.99 International Cue Club (No.66, 129k), Ratchet & Clank (No.76, 112k) and Tekken 4 (No.87, 96k).
A further four titles were exclusive to PS2 on consoles; Pro Evolution Soccer 3 (No.18, 313k), Angel Of Darkness (No.22, 266k), Prince Of Persia (No.71, 125k), and Pop Idol No.80, 105k), but that's perhaps stretching the definition of exclusivity a little far. After all, the PC was still a significant gaming format the last time we checked - even if their respective sales generally amount to no more than between two and 12 per cent of the games we've listed there.
In terms of the Xbox, just two of its many exclusive titles made it into the Top 100, and one of them was the No.65 best seller Halo, which sold another 129k, meaning that one in three owners of the console are in possession of a copy of the game, with sales topping 381k by the end of 2003. The only other 'exclusive' (and this one's a little woolly, as PC owners will testify) was Rainbow Six III, which scraped in at No.98 with 87k. On that basis you'd have to wonder what happened to all the other high profile exclusive titles signed up in a blaze of publicity - but more of that another time...
Next up, the GameCube fared a little better in the exclusivity stakes, despite having a significantly smaller installed base than Microsoft's machine. Top of the heap was - unsurprisingly - Mario Kart: Double Dash!! at No.45, which sold an impressive 150k (the equivalent of over a million on the PS2, on a ratio of buyers to installed base), while The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker managed a No.55 placing on 140k sales. But it's perhaps worth bearing in mind that the Ł50 Ocarina Of Time on N64 managed to shift 161k pre-Christmas back in 1998, and a further 93k in the following year in a market worth half as much as it is now, and when discounting was nowhere near as common as it is now. In comparison, the fervour for these ageing brands just isn't what it was in the UK.
The old warhorse the PC managed a few exclusive entries into the Top 100, but few surprises among the big sellers. Top billing went to Sports Interactive's Championship Manager 4, which, despite being the fastest-selling PC game ever, managed to make just No.16 in the final reckoning, although sales of 330k were impressive considering how BitTorrent piracy affects the format these days. The real number of players can only be estimated, but it seems fair to assume it's well in excess of double that figure. Next up was The Sims: Superstar at No.27 with 215k sold, followed by CM 03/04 at No.42 with 153k, The Sims: Unleashed (No.51, 141k), SimCity 4 (No.79, 105k), and the only new title, Call Of Duty (No.88, 95k) cementing what has to go down as the least innovative year for PC gaming hits of all time. If someone can also explain the budget phenomenon that is Theme Hospital (No.73, 120k) and Theme Park Word (No.58, 138k) then you'd probably make a lot of money from ancient back catalogue.
I wanna hold your handheld
The GBA managed a few entries of its own too, despite the generally low-selling nature of software on the format. Top of the pile were the Pokemon duo of Ruby (No.28, 212k) and Sapphire (No.31, 187k), with Konami doing well with another Jap phenomenon Yu-Gi-Oh Worldwide Edition (No.83, 100k), while old 16-bit favourites also managed to do well, notably The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past/The Four Swords (No.94, 90k) and Sonic Advance 2 (No.96, 88k) showing how to maximise old brands to the full.
Even the long forgotten PlayStation managed a few notable format exclusive Top 100 entries last year. Top of the heap by a mile was Konami's Dancing Stage: Party Edition (No.21, 267k), followed by the Euromix version of the same franchise (No.57, 140k), especially impressive when you consider that the latter was released almost exactly three years ago. Somehow, TDK's Shrek: Treasure Hunt racked up 125k, (No.70), Yu-Gi-Oh: Forbidden Memories made it to No.99 (86k), while this year's total surprise, Beyblade: Let It Rip propped up the listings at No.100 with 86k. We won't be remotely surprised if the format still keeps on confounding the industry for years to come. With the PS2's backward compatibility and an eight million installed base, it's hardly surprising these titles still keep on selling at low price points.
From the hits to the pits
And that wraps it up for another exhausting chart round up. Next time we're concentrating on the slightly less positive area of those that slipped through the net - the ones that got away deservedly, and the ones that you're all fools for not buying. As my old Dad used to say: a game in the hand is worth about sixteen quid at CEX.