I didn’t have high sales expectations for PlayDead’s first XBLA title, Limbo. Between the higher price tag ($15), black and white graphics, and short running time (most reviews have pegged it at around 3-6 hours), it had “artsy sales flop” written all over it. And yet, 8 days after release, the game has over 200,000 different entries on its leaderboard. If say, 75% of those entries purchased the game (with the other 25% being alternate gamertags) and Microsoft took a third of the revenue, the developers of Limbo are looking at around $1.5 million dollars. Now admittedly, Limbo had a bigger development team than most indie games and it’s been in development for a while, but even still, $1.5 million would be fantastic lifetime revenue for most indie titles, to say nothing about a mere 8 days of sales.
The question then becomes why? Why has this game sold so extraordinarily well? I haven’t actually played the full version (they were out of review codes when I asked and our money’s too tight for me to purchase new games these days, although I hope royalties from Cthulhu will rectify that) so I can’t analyze the entire game, but just from the demo and the Internet, I’ve come up with a few possible explanations.
1 – Summer of XBox Live promotion. Any game that’s featured in Microsoft’s yearly Summer of Arcade promotion gets a huge boost in visibility. Yet this alone can not explain Limbo’s huge success – for comparison, last year’s Splosion Man (another high quality Summer of Arcade game) had 70,000 leaderboard entries after a week – a solid showing, but nowhere near as good as Limbo (and Limbo is $5 more expensive!).
2 – Media Coverage. Coverage by the media is huge for boosting sales, as my own experience has born out (Breath of Death’s sales usually spike whenever a website covers it). Limbo currently has 48 reviews on Gamerankings with an average of over 90%. Both the coverage and the high scores certainly can’t hurt.
3 – Accessibility. Limbo’s controls are very simple – move, jump, and interact. Although I’m sure the puzzles get more difficult as the game goes on, at least in the demo, there was nothing particularly mindbending (pull an object, push an object, jump). Certainly this isn’t Braid with its numerous complicated time manipulation mechanics.
Not only are the controls simple, but the game wastes no time in letting the player play it. No lengthy cutscenes, no big tutorial, just press Start and begin playing.
4 – Cliffhanger demo. The demo for Limbo isn’t long – it took me about 10-12 minutes amd that’s with getting a couple of hidden achievements – but it ends with a bang and that counts for a lot. I daresay a lot of people who were on the edge ended up buying it just to see what happens next.
5 – Ignored niche. Horror games have become a scarce commodity of late. Resident Evil has abandoned its horror focus in favor of action, Alone in the Dark & Silent Hill haven’t had a great game in years (although Shattered Memories was a step in the right direction), Fatal Frame is Japanese only these days, and we haven’t seen anything new from the Siren team (my personal favorite horror series). Sure, we’ve gotten a couple of new series like Dead Space & Alan Wake, but for the most part, I daresay there is more demand for horror games than there is supply.
Limbo fills in this much desired void in the current gaming market, but not only that, it has some noticeable advantages over the limited competition. One, it’s rated T so children and teenagers who are in search of scares but have parents that frown upon M rated games can purchase it (as well as adults who chose not to play M games for whatever reasons). Two, it’s a 2D platformer so players who lack the skill or inclination to play 3D shooters (i.e. the standard format of horror games these days) can play it with ease.
Any other reasons I’m missing?