You hear it all the time within the sim racing community: sims don’t sell. Titles such as Richard Burns Rally or BAJA: Edge of Control, while absolutely phenomenal games in their own right which were praised endlessly by the niche following they’ve acquired over the years since release, in some cases were the last title developed before the company whom brought their vision to live went six feet under. Too obscure and challenging for a mass-market audience, for every simulator that has stood the test of time, pirated by private league after private league, another marks the end of the company, or a drastic change in direction – just ask Bethesda Softworks, who before their record-breaking Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises, were just another indie developer focused on creating a line of hardcore drag racing simulators centered around a feeder series to the NHRA. Clearly, that didn’t work out.
Unlike other genres, which rely on creative, odd-ball, and sometimes extremely hardcore-oriented ideas to differentiate themselves from their competitors, racing games are simply competing for too small of a market share for a developer to take chances on an idea or concept that won’t sell, and those who do, often end up paying the price. But to the surprise of many, it’s more than just simulators that can turn into commercial duds due to an insanely steep learning curve; ideas that merely stray from current market trends and traditional premises can also fall off the map just as quickly as they landed on store shelves.
Today’s PRC article will not feature a collection of hardcore simulators from forgotten companies that once took aim at satisfying a handful of drag racing, rally, or motorcycle racing nerds, but mass-market titles that while considered to be genuinely fantastic games by all who owned them, were complete duds in the market. And though it’s not the most complete and in-depth analysis of sales figures, data providing the underlying premise for this article has been collected from vgChartz.com.
The original Race Driver: Grid, first released in 2007, was seen as fantastic first step from Codemasters into the tarmac racing scene, re-inventing the Pro Race Driver series for a new generation of gamers by significantly dumbing down the driving experience while fleshing out the world with a living, breathing ecosystem. Allowing users to create their own branding, hire AI opponents as teammates, and progress through the ranks in a very elaborate offline career that treated the auto racing world as an evolving, dynamic entity, most looked past the admittedly simplistic driving model to experience what was a very compelling campaign mode. Yet when talk of a sequel began a few years later, a sequel never surfaced – Codemasters instead took to furthering the Colin McRae franchise (now under the name of DiRT), while also landing the official Formula One license. We would later learn Grid 2 was stuck in development hell, arriving in the spring of 2013 as a half-baked sequel no amount of marketing or licensed series tie-in’s could hide. The game was a disaster.
Codemasters took heed to the complaints of many, and in less than a year, re-built what should have been released in place of the tragedy that was Grid 2, calling their 2014 package Grid Autosport.
Bundling a surprisingly large number of tracks and locations with the largest, most diverse roster of vehicles seen across the previous two Grid games, as well as the three ToCA Race Driver release for the PlayStation 2, Autosport was a much more focused, coherent game than the one which relied on half-assed ESPN cutscenes to fuel the campaign mode a year earlier. Though the team management elements still didn’t exist in Autosport’s offline campaign – replaced with a generic driver for hire concept where you could focus entirely on one type of racing if you wanted to – online functionality had been designed to implement the team management elements into the core progression system, meaning as you’d race your friends and random shitheads in public lobbies, you’d sign sponsors, buy & repair cars, and move up into faster classes and machinery based on the amount you’d earn from each race. The core experience was also tied together with a much more realistic driving model, which while still sitting firmly in the simcade spectrum, drove reasonably close to what a race car felt like compared to the other Grid releases, rewarding drivers who drove properly as opposed to executing enormous drifts, and even introduced elements such as tire wear into endurance races.
For a franchise that had established itself as an “action driving” package on real world race tracks, Autosport succeeded in striking a happy medium that catered to both crowds equally. Unfortunately, both the sales numbers and online activity for the title are embarassing, with Codemasters announcing financial troubles shortly thereafter, and their tarmac racing projects not involving Formula One permanently shelved. However, the title is still recommended by pretty much anyone on Reddit’s sim racing message board when asked about lighthearted simcade games. Autosport was great, it was just too little, too late.
The late 1990’s and early 2000’s were a period in the history of video games where developers tried all sorts of shit just to see if it would work. Coming off the success of the Monster Truck Madness series, which saw a team by the name of Terminal Reality pair up with the Monster Truck Racing Association and the Penda Points Series to produce a pair of officially licensed Monster Truck titles under Microsoft’s Madness umbrella, TRI then set their sights on becoming the Gran Turismo of the off-road world. Acquiring licenses from all major auto makers and crafting an excellent career mode that allowed users to upgrade their vehicles and progress through championships with increasingly larger cash prizes – not to mention out-of-the-box support for modding & third party content – 4×4 Evolution was basically Gran Turismo for the PC, with trucks, sport utility vehicles, and massive jumps instead of Nissan Skylines.
The problem wasn’t that 4×4 Evolution wasn’t a good game, it was that nobody really wanted it. Originally calling on the help of the Monster Truck Madness 2 fan site vales.com to test the game – spearheaded by the site’s namesake KC Vale – most members were uninterested in an off-road Gran Turismo and wanted another monster truck game, as Monster Truck racing’s popularity was beginning to skyrocket in North America thanks to Clear Channel Entertainment and Monster Jam refining their events into a spectacle of destruction you could watch every weekend on cable TV. Many beta testers and long-time community members were simply not excited at the subject matter changing.
Regardless of the viewpoints held by the hardcore supporters of TRI’s previous work, 4×4 Evolution, and its sequel 4×4 Evo 2, were shipped across a multitude of platforms – the results of which varied drastically. Console ports were regarded as shoddy by mainstream video game sites, the game clearly designed for the PC first and foremost, while customers weren’t flocking to the PC version because it didn’t have the stellar add-on community surrounding it like Monster Truck Madness 2 did, and the quirkiness that came with launching Bigfoot or Grave Digger into cows or volcanoes wasn’t replicated in 4×4 Evolution. To make matters worse, the game’s sequel did not include Ford as a manufacturer, which made 4×4 Evo 2 a hard sell to fans who wanted a well-rounded roster of cars to select from; the leading pickup truck in North America, the game’s primary market, was suspiciously absent.
It also didn’t help that Microsoft was no longer publishing their work, meaning TRI would not have the luxury of an advert of their game being placed on every single Windows operating system promotional disc. As a result, even the Nintendo 64 version of Monster Truck Madness, developed by a rogue team known as Rockstar games, managed to outsell 4×4 Evolution 2 – and significantly less people overall owned home consoles back then.
The thing is, 4×4 Evolution, as well as the sequel, were both significantly better than Monster Truck Madness; sporting better graphics, better track design, a lengthy career mode, and the ability to upgrade your vehicles, on paper 4×4 Evolution was in retrospect a very good game. It just wasn’t what people wanted at the time, and would be the last racing game TRI would ever make.
The beta for Bizarre Creations’ Blur was a beautiful thing. Originally handing out codes on Kotaku and other gaming sites to drum up interest in the title before opening it up to everybody with an Xbox Live Gold membership, I can vividly recall jumping on the pile of codes for both myself and some of my buddies the moment they were posted before dedicating several nights to endless loops around the same two or three tracks, with the same handful of cars. I’ve never seen a racing game this goddamn popular during what was for a period of time a closed beta.
Mixing the basic weaponized auto racing gameplay of Mario Kart with licensed cars, tight controls, and gorgeous visuals, Blur was set to take the genre by storm. We would sign on after school to full lobbies of absolute chaos, and pretty much everybody in the room agreed this was going to be big. The driving portion was easy enough for the casuals to get into yet intricate enough for dedicated racing game fans to pull ahead of the pack with, the progression element stole several pages from the Call of Duty franchise with experience points, levels, and unlocks, while the weapons seemed just as natural as the items we’ve all come to know and love from the Mario Kart franchise.
Yet when Blur finally landed on store shelves, the sales figures did not match the euphoric beta period. Nobody bought it. The National Purchase Diary claim just 31,000 units were sold in the first five days of the game’s appearance on store shelves in the United States, and though that particular data may be cherry-picked – the game released near the end of the month – Activision shut down Bizarre Creations not long after.
Was it because titles with similar premises, ModNation Racers and Split Second, had been released within the same month? Possibly. Was it because the Call of Duty craze was at an all-time high, and just one more Gamebattles match in Modern Warfare 2 got in the way of people experimenting with other genres? Sure, that may play a role.
But in my opinion, I think the answer boils down to the opening paragraph: the beta of Blur gave away too much of the final game. Once the exclusivity had been taken off, gamers flocked to the servers and played the absolute shit out of it as if it were a full retail game, with the beta lasting far longer than a simple long weekend of Friday/Saturday/Sunday. We’re talking a solid two weeks of people ripping around the same three tracks with the same five cars. By the time the full retail product was on store shelves, people really didn’t care; they had already seen everything the game had to offer, because to Bizarre’s credit, the beta had a lot of shit to see and unlock for what was a free, limited-time sample of a game.
How do you start a war on PRC, or any driving game community for that manner? You imply that the very first game in a beloved franchise most of us have played to full completion, was somehow a flop. That’s what I’m looking to establish here with Acclaim’s Burnout, as the series that would eventually get picked up by Electronic Arts had what was a very rocky start on the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and Nintendo GameCube. Like the other three titles mentioned in this article, Burnout wasn’t a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, but a lot of people didn’t buy it.
Operating on a shoe-string budget that would inevitably sink the original publisher of the franchise a few years later, Burnout was backed by virtually zero promotional material and was far too difficult for the average gamer in 2001 or 2002 to become proficient at. Acclaim also weren’t entirely sure how to market the game, as though Burnout featured these highly detailed crash effects, the point of the game wasn’t to crash, a bit of a design oxymoron if you will. The race timer had been set so low, just getting from checkpoint to checkpoint was a challenge most gamers couldn’t complete, while the art style was far too generic and bland for the eyes, leading to major gaming outlets giving Burnout lukewarm scores at best, and thus scaring off potential customers even further.
But those who did get their hands on a copy realized there was much more to the game than reviewers and the lack of marketing indicated; Burnout was a punishing arcade racer whose visceral thrills were only limited by the technology. The challenging gameplay mechanics that required you to be perfect, coupled with ruthless stages in the final third of the game that linked several environments together for stupidly long lap times, combined to form a sort of hardcore-oriented version of Sega’s arcade classic Outrun. It also looked cool when you crashed.
According to vgChartz, neither the original Burnout, nor Burnout 2: Point of Impact, sold all that well, and publisher Acclaim would struggle with financial problems almost immediately after the release of Burnout 2 – problems they attributed to poor game sales – that would see the company officially file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in September of 2004. You could stretch the story into saying Burnout sold so poorly it helped tank the publisher for good, but in reality Acclaim had made many hilarious errors up to that point regarding other franchises, such as their insistence on pushing out low quality officially licensed NFL and MLB games during a period of time when EA Sports dominated the market.
A solid creative vision on the part of Criterion Games would allow the company to pair with Electronic Arts in the future, and create some of the greatest arcade racers of all time.