THQ is in dire straits. Following an announcement this week that pretty much all of their most anticipated titles have been delayed, their stock has dived today and dropped over 50% from yesterday as of the last time I checked (around $3 yesterday, around $1.50 now). THQ was threatened with stock delisting earlier this year, the company has fired numerous employees, and things have gotten so bad that they even had to hire a new president in May.
I like THQ. I own several of their games on the PC and am looking forward to their sequel to Metro 2033 (which was a fantastic horror game). I even met with a representative of THQ (sorry, I forgot his name) at a convention once and he talked to us about the possibility of them acting as publisher for an upcoming game of ours. Nothing ever came of it, but it was a very enjoyable meeting and he was both personable and professional. I don’t want to see THQ fail.
THQ is placing a lot of faith & trust in the South Park RPG to save them. They’ve gone on the record as saying they need 2 million sales to break even. Expecting those kind of sales out of a South Park RPG is a huge mistake for a number of reasons.
I have great affection for some of Obsidian’s games, especially Fallout:NV and Alpha Protocol, but they’re not exactly a reliable company. Obsidian has gained a reputation for releasing games that are extremely buggy at release (again, see Fallout:NV and Alpha Protocol). THQ needs the South Park RPG to be a hit right away, not a few months later after the bugs have been worked out. There’s also the potential problem of the South Park RPG appearing to be a very different style of RPG than Obsidian is used to making. Remember the last time we saw a popular Western RPG developer try to make a Japanese-style Action/RPG with a popular IP? We got Sonic Chronicles – not exactly a well beloved title. Plus, Obsidian isn’t exactly in great condition themselves – early this year, they laid off a number of staff members, including some of the individuals that were working on the South Park RPG. Some might say that Obsidian saw a big success with their recent kickstarter for Project Eternity, but let’s be serious here. $4 million dollars (minus taxes & reward fulfilment) isn’t going to keep the lights on for very long at any major video game studio.
The most recent South Park game to be released on the Xbox 360, South Park: Tenorman’s Revenge, performed very badly. Although we don’t have actual sales figures available to us, the game only had about 15k entries on its leaderboard at the end of its launch month. The game also got very poor review scores with a metacritic average of 52%. So right off the bat, the South Park RPG has an uphill fight to prove that it’s not shovelware.
2D cartoony games have a tendency to sell poorly unless they’re by Nintendo. The most recent example is Rayman Origins – a gorgeous, well designed platformer from a popular European series that bombed horribly in the US. And the South Park RPG doesn’t have the advantage of Rayman’s gorgeous graphics. The South Park RPG looks like the South Park TV series, i.e. it looks cheap. I believe many gamers are going to see the flash-esque graphics and expect to pay $15, not $60.
Just how big is the South Park fanbase these days? The series has been going on for over 15 years. The current season has been averaging about 2.2 million US viewers an episode which is noticeably less than they have done in some of their previous seasons. Of course, some people would argue that this is an inaccurate depiction of the fanbase since it doesn’t take into account alternate ways of viewing the series (buying the DVDs, watching reruns, online streaming, etc.), but I still think it’s safe to say that the series is past its peak of popularity.
And perhaps the biggest reason of all to doubt the South Park RPG’s ability to turn THQ’s fortunes around – it’s targeting a niche of a niche. South Park tends to be a very divisive show – either you love it or you hate it – and the RPG genre is one of the least popular of the major video games. Yes, there are blockbusters like Skyrim, Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and Mass Effect, but these are well known series that have been around for years. I don’t see the South Park RPG as having much crossover appeal – their potential audience are people who A) like South Park, B) like RPGs and C) are willing to pay $60 for a South Park RPG. That’s not a large potential audience. And this is all assuming the best case scenario where the game turns out to be really good…something that the game’s recent delay doesn’t inspire much confidence in.
Some people might say that this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. After all, we made an RPG based on a divisive comedy series and we’re doing just fine. But that’s just the thing – we make niche games and plan accordingly. Since our team is so small & our development times relatively fast, if we take a year to make a game and sell 100,000 copies at $5, that’s a big success for us. That’s a huge difference from needing 2,000,000 copies sold at $60 a piece just to break even.
In short, THQ really needs Obsidian to give them a blockbuster game and Obsidian really needs the support of a strong publisher to give them the backing they need to make a blockbuster game. With both companies floundering, the most likely outcome is failure all around.