Why Was “Spec Ops: The Line” A Great Game But A Financial Failure?

Spec Ops: The Line poster

Spec Ops: The Line, published by 2K Games and created by Yager Development, is a recent AAA (Triple A) game, released on June 26, 2012.  It was a great game by design with a poor financial outcome. The game had a very strong narrative, told through story and gameplay, which taught players to think more critically of video games as a whole, instead of just taking them at face value.

The financial Failure of Spec Ops: The Line is potentially a pretty hefty one, considering the design of the game very much follows that of a Triple A (which, incidentally, is a term that doesn’t really have a concrete definition — not even on Wikipedia. Gameindustry.about.com provides a definition, saying that it typically means that the game has a higher budget, but for the most part, it is mostly based on how much “polish” the game has, and how it is marketed).

It was difficult to find the precise number of sales for Spec Ops: The Line because Take-Two Interactive (the owner of Rockstar Games and the publisher, 2K Games) has not informed the public about it. The only information they made available was posted in this Take-Two Interactive blog article, which only says that Spec Ops: The Line’s sales were “lower than anticipated,” and it was left out of their further fiscal quarter reports.

So, to try and figure it out, I had a look at the sales of video game units, multipled that by the price point of the game and compared it to the estimated cost to produce the game, which I based on a VGChartz estimates of PC sales at 140,000 units, Xbox 360 at 290,000 units and PS3 at 340,000 (for an approximate total of 770,000 units sold, which falls short of the target of at least 1 million units sold for most Triple A games). Within seven months after its release, Spec Ops saw a price drop down from a typical $60 price. The occasional sale dipped it down to as low as $35 within 2 months of its release. Since December 2012, the highest price point for Spec Ops has been $29.99, and it has seen multiple sales, bringing it down to as low as $7.99 only 6 months after its launch.

Call of Duty: Black Ops

By comparison, Call of Duty: Black Ops, released in November of 2010, is still sitting at $39.99, which is higher than Spec Ops currently is (sources: SteamgamesalesFuture Shop, Best Buy, GameStop and Steam). Based on that information, along with the knowledge that the sales were lower-than-anticipated from the beginning, and that sales later increased based on the lower price point  and because of awards it won, I averaged the numbers to match the current cost of the game ($29.99) when calculating total game sales. With the 770,000 estimated games sold and the average cost of $29.99 that brought my estimate of Spec Ops: The Line’s cost to $23.1 million.

That is a very low sales count for a Triple A, especially when you factor in how much the game may have cost to produce. There wasn’t much information on that, but I looked at estimates for lower end Triple A games, which cost roughly between $40-$100 million,  and then some of the higher end Triple A titles, which cost upwards of $1 billion to produce (Note: see this Tech 2 Article on the subject of big budgets for game development). Regardless of whether Spec Ops: The Line falls into the first or second group, they still haven’t breached the minimum of $40 million in return. This indicates that it is indeed a financial failure.

Spec Ops received mixed reviews, with scores from around 6.5/10 to some 9 and 10/10’s. But it went on to win many awards in 2012, and was declared the Best Game of 2012 by popular web producer Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw of Zero Punctuation. Yahtzee called the game “the most exciting thing to happen in video game narrative in years.” Spec Ops also won IGN’s Best PC Story of 2012, and other awards as well. But although this led to more sales of the game (including my purchase of it), it still wasn’t enough to make back the cost of the game.

Warning: From here on out, there will be SPOILERS, and lots of them.

That all being said, despite its financial failure, the game is amazing. It makes strides with its narrative through gameplay that no game of this quality has ever seen. They designed the game to strongly contrast with the other modern shooters currently making high sales today. It targets players and makes them think critically about the video game by breaking the fourth wall and telling narrative through gameplay. It questions the player’s motivation for playing as the hero. And there are other reasons as well that made the game mind blowing.

At first glance, both with the box art and the trailers for the game, it looks like your typical modern warfare shooter. It uses realistic guns, looks dramatic and relatively simple in gameplay. It appears to fail at having gameplay be as fun as any of the modern warfare games, with poor gunplay and predictable enemy spawning, but all of this is done INTENTIONALLY to make a point. They deliberately set the game up like an average shooter in order to contrast the gameplay, but also to point out just how ridiculous some of it can be. You run through the games killing hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies without any reason, other than that, the game tells you to do it. Yager Development deliberately set the first hour of gameplay up to be just like a modern warfare game so as to get the player into the mindset of what to expect. That’s when the game slowly starts turning your preconceptions of the game on its head.

The gameplay starts slowly nudging you towards the mindset that you are playing as the bad guy. You start questioning why on earth there are hundreds of enemies in this decimated city and just how there could be so many people who are all in peak physical condition. There are corpses littered throughout the city and the citizens aren’t screaming and running away from the enemies you are shooting, they are running away from YOU.

The game also starts hinting at the insanity of the game with the tooltips during loading screens. At first they support the player, but then they start targeting the player, breaking the fourth wall with such statements as, “To kill for yourself is murder, to kill for your government is heroic, to kill for entertainment is harmless,” and “How many Americans have you killed today?” They make you think strongly about what exactly it is that are you doing.

There are even more subtle gameplay aspects related to choices, which are hard to notice without taking a step back from the game, such as, you are ALWAYS descending throughout the game. The player starts off at a high point and descends, whether it is via rappelling down a building or falling into a building / sand collapsing beneath you. Then without a moment’s notice, you are placed back at the top of a structure, hundreds of feet in the air. This subtle gameplay mechanic emphasizes some of the problems of modern warfare games, jumping from area to area with little, or sometimes no explanation. It also emphasizes the character’s (Martin Walker) descent into insanity. All of these gameplay mechanics do an excellent job of reinforcing the narrative of the game and it gets the player thinking. They are intentionally subtle and make for great pacing for the gameplay.

On top of the subtle mechanical aspects to reinforce narrative, the game also does an awesome job of telling a story that really questions the player’s beliefs, and that descends the character into pure insanity, taking the player along down the same path. It starts off subtly with a radio that you pick up and start using to talk with Conrad, the person who you are seeking to find throughout the game. Just like with Fight Club, however, that person doesn’t actually exist. He is just a figment of your imagination, personified through the radio, which the character carries everywhere.

There are also points in the game where you follow along blindly with what the game is telling you — most notably, when you see an area FULL of enemies that is between you and where you need to go. The only way to pass through is to utilize a White Prosperous cannon, known as one of the most deadly chemical weapons ever used in warfare. You burn all the troops in front of you and walk through their burning corpses with some still crawling and burning alive. Once you pass the troops you killed, you move into the civilian area, where you have burnt 47 civilians alive and killed them all with your weapon. There is a clear point being made, emphasized by your team, who are following you around telling you what a terrible decision you’ve made. This is the first point where the player clearly realizes that what they are doing is in fact evil, despite attempts to justify it with “Conrad made me do it” or “The game made me do it!” This made for one of the most compelling story narratives I’ve played. It had me really thinking.

Mass Effect 3

Compared to Mass Effect 3, which I played earlier that year and loved, this game goes further. There are three critical points in the game that give the player true choice. Most games will give you the option of a good or bad decision, which is supposed to critically challenge who you are. Some games in the past have done a pretty good job of this but Spec Ops: The Line not only takes it a step further, it really makes the player feel rewarded for finding them out and playing the game that THE PLAYER wants to play.

In one example, you come to a crossroads where you are told you either have to kill a civilian for stealing, or kill the guard for killing that civilian’s family in an attempt to apprehend the thief. Beyond these two options, there is also the hidden option of aiming for the enemy that is making you choose. In doing so, the game becomes more difficult. Your squad tries to shoot the ropes to free them both, but there is a sniper squad aiming to eliminate them both. This really gives the player the option of saying, “No! I disagree with both of these choices!” and actually have a say in the outcome. The gameplay becomes appropriately difficult for making this choice to properly reflect the reality of choices such as this. It felt really rewarding to have options like this to both allow players to think outside the box and to create more interesting decisions.

With all of these design decisions, the game mentally challenges players to really think about what the game is asking them to do, but it also deals with a very real problem in today’s society and military: PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). The main character (Martin Walker) after seeing the problems of Dubai, seeks out to save both Conrad and Dubai, and thus be the hero — heroicness is an emotion that video games often try to instill in the player. The game then manipulates these desires and turns you into a bad guy, while at the same time expressing symptoms of PTSD and cognitive dissonance (which is actually pointed out within one of the game’s loading screens).

Players start off with a cognitive dissonance; they feel discomfort towards the game, they’re conflicted about it telling them what to do, and with it breaking personal beliefs and values. Then as the game progresses towards the end, the player starts to experience some of the symptoms of PTSD with the main character — in particular, avoidance, a sub-category of PTSD, which includes an emotional numbing in response to events, feeling detached, and having a lack of interest in normal activities.

While all of these reactions can be recognized while playing most modern warfare games, in those cases it’s taken at face value and you move on. What Spec Ops does differently is go a step beyond that and show you what was actually going on during your lack of gameplay. You remember events incorrectly; you deliberately ignore facts and have flashbacks of terrible events. Spec Ops: The Line successfully makes the player think, which is a very welcome change from the sometimes ignorant “Ok boss” style of gameplay, where you just blindly follow. It makes you aware of what you are actually doing, and makes you genuinely feel bad for committing the atrocities of war. This contrast is very much needed in today’s culture, where many people are now blaming violence on video games.

So, based on these successful elements of the game, why was it not a financial success? For starters, although the single player game of Spec Ops: the Line was amazing and filled with great game mechanics and decisions, the multiplayer version was just tacked on as a minor edition in the game. Multiplayer takes a substantial amount of time and cost in order to make it successful and for it to be justifiablly added in Spec Ops, they needed more of both of those. A few reviews made it evident that having a poor multiplayer actually hurts the game more than not having it at all. In fact, many reviewers reduced the score of the game precisely because the multiplayer was poor and lacking. Check out this IGN review, for example, which shows how the addition of the multiplayer directly led to the lowering of score for their review.

If you watch the trailers for Spec Ops: The Line at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) 2010 release trailers and more, you will see that they all look similar to the other modern warfare or battlefield 3 shooter games. Comparing it to any of the other modern warfare shooters, it doesn’t have any new or interesting gameplay, it doesn’t have celebrity appearances, cool music or show off new features that they are adding to an ALREADY ESTABLISHED FAN BASE.

Despite the fact that Spec Ops: The Line was a continuation of a series that had ended in 2002, the game didn’t add much new to the previous installments, aside from carrying over the character Conrad in order to stick with the same franchise, and it wasn’t even a recent game. Although it was an awesome reboot for the franchise, it’s not a good expectation to hope that people are going to pick up it again after 10 years when they have other modern shooters that have been doing fantastic in the past few years and have dedicated hardcore fans.

In order for the game to have been properly marketed, the game needed to really push the strengths of the narrative and decision-making, and utilize the positive aspects of it better.

I also would have made better combat for the game, although, it was a great design decision to take a complex system that isn’t quite working out for them and turn it into a feature of their game, where the poor gameplay is deliberate in order to juxtapose it with the narrative of the game. But the gameplay was clearly lacking, and the main reason that I kept going through the game was the narrative. In fact, the best-case scenario would have been to have taken the resources they needlessly applied to the inadequate multiplayer and use it to improve the combat of the single player experience.

In conclusion, Spec Ops: The Line was a financial wreck and a designer’s gem. It’s unfortunate that now it’s going to be much harder to produce a Triple A game with the same sort of well-crafted narrative and player decisions, because they will be blinded by the failure of the game.