After debuting at number four in the UK physical games sales charts last week, just one place ahead of the five-year-old Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Microsoft’s latest open-world racing game has slipped to 16th in week two.
That’s a dramatic fall from grace. This week witnessed the release of Battlefield 2042, a big new game from EA that entered at number three, despite a Metacritic score below 75. Multi-platform titles Call of Duty: Vanguard and FIFA 22 are in the top five, while Sony and Nintendo have three and seven platform-exclusives respectively inside the top 20.
It’s easy to dismiss the physical sales charts, you’ve gone digital-only, I can tell. But recent GSD data shows three physical titles were sold for every two digital titles on PS5 during its first ten months on sale.
At the same time as its mid-table sales chart standing, the Forza Horizon 5 social media account is touting Forza Horizon 5 achieved the biggest first week in Xbox history with over 10 million players.
It’s all a bit confusing. There are many factors behind the disparity between physical game sales and the overwhelming quantity of players on the online leaderboards – so let’s dive in.
Right off the bat, this was the first-ever Forza game to release via the leading PC platform Steam on day one. Secondly, not only was it on Steam, it was on the Xbox PC store, Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S at the same time – the second Forza Horizon game to span multiple console generations after the Horizon 2 launched on both 360 and One, but that particular release also excluded PC.
That meant a significant quantity of devices were able to play the game, more than any other Forza at launch, period. It also helped that the game is brilliant. Be in no doubt that is an extremely popular title.
Surely the biggest factor, however, was it launching straight to Game Pass. Across the three tiers of the service, no matter which one you were a member of, Forza Horizon 5 was there for you immediately.
In a recent earnings report, Microsoft touted a 37.45 per cent increase in subscribers from mid-2020 through to mid-2021, with the most recent figure set at 18 million monthly subscribers across PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S and Cloud in January 2021.
Assuming the service hasn’t tanked since then – it hasn’t – then that’s at least 18 million accounts with instant access to the Mexican-set racing game, no strings attached.
We also know that if you buy any Windows 10 or 11-running PC desktop or laptop, any form of Xbox console or controller or if you are the type of human being that breathes, a trial period for the gaming subscription service is available for just £1/$1/€1.
What is the chance that several people saw the rave reviews and decided to pick up a trial subscription? I think quite high.
So, when it comes to copies sold, or revenue generated directly from this game, the astounding 10 million players and ‘biggest launch ever’ hyperbole is tricky to sift through.
Initially, the Premium Edition looked to hold some answers. This was a $99.99/£84.99 version that provided you with the game, some additional downloadable content and, crucially, early access. Privileged affluent types were able to play on5th November, not the general plebian release on 9th November.
On 8th November, we saw just over four million users on the game’s leaderboard. So, you can deduce that at least four million copies of the game were sold via the Premium Edition. Right?
Erm, not so fast. Because if you were a Game Pass subscriber, or on the £1/$1 trial, you could pay $44.99/£35.99 to unlock the Premium Edition too. That is not an insignificant fee and one that gives Microsoft at least half the revenue of a traditional game sale. If you squint at it, however, you could see this as the brand-new Forza game being sold for half price before its release date.
From all of this, what I’m trying to say is Forza Horizon 5’s user-base stats are far bigger for the gaming industry than it may seem at first. It sets an important precedent, because thanks to Game Pass, do game sales even matter anymore?
They certainly do to someone like Activision, or Valve, or Nintendo. But, I’m not sure they do to Microsoft anymore.
It’s flipped to the stock-market mentality of creating hype, boosting share prices and focussing on investor value. Look at Tesla’s incredibly high market capitalisation, surpassing $1 trillion in October of 2021, vs its relatively meagre profits. There are several car companies, pre-pandemic, that sold far more cars at fare higher margins, yet the stock market didn’t even glance their way.
The same is true in tech. Netflix has publicly stated that it will spend $13.6billion on content creation in 2021. As Professor of Marketing Scott Galloway highlighted on a recent episode of the Pivot podcast: “Netflix gives users $1.5 billion of content for every dollar a month they pay – deflationary for the media ecosystem.”
You debit your £5.99/$8.99 per month, gaining access to hundreds of lavishly produced, well-funded, films and TV shows. There’s no way, as it stands, the amount of subscriber revenue outweighs the production and promotion cost. It also heightens expectations from paying customers.
So long as you show growth, diversity and a future-looking vision, the stock market will respond positively. Just look at how Microsoft invested heavily in Teams, gave it away for ‘free’ as part of an enterprise bundle and crushed Slack.
Game Pass is Microsoft trying to gain a first-mover advantage and show growth in an industry where it has fallen way behind Valve, Nintendo and Sony. Forza Horizon 5 was arguably the first true test of the subscriber model and it has succeeded.
Will the Redmond-based tech giant ever release true sales figures for Forza Horizon 5? I very much doubt it. This is a company that hasn’t reported console sales figures since the Xbox One slipped behind in 2015.
We’ll never know how many of those 10 million Horizon 5 players spent money on the game, if they played it past the introduction, nor if the project as a whole delivered a traditional return on investment. What I do know is that the Achievement for winning 80 race events only has a 2.27 per cent unlock rate at the time of writing.
But it doesn’t matter. So long as Microsoft can tout that each subsequent game launch is the biggest ever, it can continue to sink vast quantities into game development without the need for huge profits. That can only be a good thing for gamers.