NEW YORK (CNN/Money) – Looking back, we all should have guessed that 2004 would be the year of sex and video games.
We were less than one week into the new year when it started – publisher Ubisoft inadvertently promoted a Web site featuring hard-core pornography in marketing for its hit game "Rainbow Six 3". Ubisoft had neglected to buy the URL, which was shown on in-game posters, before publishing the title. An enterprising fan scooped it up and, basically, held the publisher hostage.
Ubisoft got the URL back (after a rumored five-figure payout – though the company won't comment on the amount it paid), but that turned out to be the kickoff for a flesh-filled year, both real and virtual.
At least three titles tested the theory that sex sells – with varying results. "Leisure Suit Larry: Magna Cum Laude" sold less than 114,000 copies total on the Xbox and PS2, according to The NPD Group, which tracks game sales. While the results were not abysmal, they were certainly nothing to celebrate. (PC sales of the game, according to NPD, were too small to release the numbers.) "The Guy Game," which featured video footage of spring break coeds stripping to little more than smiles, did even worse, selling just over 60,000 copies combined on the Xbox and PS2.
As if that weren't bad enough, a Texas judge has issued a temporary restraining order against any sales of "The Guy Game" after one of the women who appears topless in the game alleged she was only 17 years old when she was filmed and photographed for the title.
As for "Singles," the adults-only game Eidos (Research) tried selling online, the company did not respond to inquiries. But bet the farm those numbers were abysmally low.
Even Playboy Magazine got in on the act by featuring digital hotties in various states of undress in its October issue. Characters from several video game franchises, including Majesco's "Bloodrayne" accompanied a series of articles about the changing face of the game industry.
Playboy won't say, specifically, how well the issue did, but spokesperson Lauren Melone did tell me, "We'll certainly do another video game pictorial."
The spread certainly seems to have helped Majesco (Research). The company credited the game with helping revenues go from a $46 million operating loss in 2003 to a $121 million operating income in 2004.
In early 2005, another publisher will see how well sex sells when Groove Games and Arush co-publish "Playboy: The Mansion." (Development delays pushed the game out of this holiday season.) And don't be surprised if a few other developers attempt to push the envelope. While games featuring nudity haven't broken through yet, it's only a matter of time before one does.
As big as sex was this year, sequels were bigger. Finding a groundbreaking new franchise was a trick even magician Doug Henning would have trouble pulling off. "Halo 2." "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas." "Half-Life 2." "Metal Gear Solid 3." "EverQuest 2." "Doom 3." Starting to see a trend?
Now, that said, few gamers seemed to care too much about the sequel invasion. Those titles listed above, for the most part, are the top sellers of 2004 – and the majority were very good games.
But new franchises? I could only think of one that wasn't tied to a film: Namco's "Katamari Damacy." The most charming game to come dancing down the pike in years, "Katamari" found an audience against all odds – and a sequel is already being planned. Other than that, though, it was a bleak year for new title lines.
That should correct itself somewhat next year, however. Vivendi Universal's (Research) "F.E.A.R." is shaping up to be an exhilarating action game. Sony's (Research) "God of War" shows great promise. And Electronic Arts' (Research) "Black" (which will be released for the Xbox 2) has the early markings of a hit.
Of course, the coming of the next generation of consoles (expected to begin with Xbox 2 in the third or fourth quarter of 2005) should bring some new franchises as well. Historically, publishers have been willing to take more chances during console launch periods.
As I looked over the past year's worth of columns and noted the trends, I also ran across a few stories that demanded an update – or an acknowledgement. For instance, it's starting to look like this will be the year the Madden cover curse is finally broken. Granted, Ray Lewis hasn't had the best year of his career, but it's hardly been disastrous. And, as of the day this column was written, he hadn't been sidelined with a catastrophic injury of any sort. (Sorry Ray, if my writing jinxes you in the final games of the season.)
And while we did see new hardware from Nintendo this year, as expected (in the form of the DS), two other companies fell short. Apex's ApeXtreme has gone from a product that had high visibility at the Consumer Electronics Show and Electronic Entertainment Expo to vaporware. Apex, which never had a real sense of direction on how to market the product, has quietly cancelled the line.
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Apex might cringe at the word cancel, but that's what it boils down to. Marietta Schoenherz, director of public relations for Apex, said there are no plans to release "the product as we knew it last year, but we hope to have the capabilities in a different sort of offering."
Meanwhile, Infinium Labs, while insisting its Phantom game machine is merely delayed and is on track for a 2005 launch, seems to spend more time defending its reputation than promoting its product these days. The company has been besieged by lawsuits, is more than $10 million in the red and, in its latest 10-Q filing with the SEC, acknowledged this debt "raises substantial doubt about its ability to continue as a going concern."
Finally, there's the issue of the $99 Xbox. Ok, so that didn't happen. Microsoft's decision to cut the price to $149 in late March proved enormously popular – and forced Sony to match it, despite the company's reluctance to do so.
Sales never let up, either. And the September release of "Halo 2" sparked another buying frenzy. There are, in fact, widespread shortages of the machine this holiday season. And with demand like that, why on earth would Microsoft cut prices again?
Hey, there's always next year.
Morris is Director of Content Development at CNN/Money. Click here to send him an e-mail.