A History of Unique Failures in the Games Industry

Image Credit: Lucie Liz on Pexels

Rory Galvin looks back on gaming’s biggest flops

Sometimes, a product comes out in the gaming industry and it just fails. It might be a flash in the pan, or a slow, painful death, but either way they’re considered failures. There are too many to count since the days of the Atari 2600, but here is a collection of what I consider to be the most unique and most interesting flops.

Nintendo have had disasters since they were a card company in the 1800’s. We all know about the Wii U (like the many people who thought it was just an add-on for the Wii), but Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was a special kind of failure. If you haven’t heard about it before, that makes sense - it was Nintendo’s attempt at virtual reality, all the way back in 1995. VR is a realised dream today, but its limit isn’t even close to being reached, so just imagine what it was like almost 30 years ago. The Virtual Boy was mounted on a tripod rather than your head, and similar to the original GameBoy being all green, this device only displayed the colour red. It could have had multiple colours, but Nintendo decided against it due to the cost of manufacturing. Even if Nintendo was trying to cut costs for the sake of consumers, the console still sold for $179.95 (which is about $330 today). Not exactly out of this world for consumers, but it was somewhere in between a console and a handheld, and was considered too expensive at that price. This is one of those gaming failures that was pretty much dead in the water at launch. Alongside the console were only four launch games, one of them, Mario Tennis, was a pack-in with every purchase. The console (if you could call it that) did so poorly that any plans for it to be released over here were abandoned, with less than 800,000 units sold, it’s one of the worst selling consoles of all time. It seems like Nintendo wants to forget about it - and the twenty-two games for it will, probably for the best, be stuck on hardware that was destined to fail.

this may have been the most realistic skateboarding game ever, in the sense that I couldn’t do anything beyond an ollie

The Tony Hawk franchise used to be one of the biggest in gaming, up until the PS3/Xbox 360 era of consoles, where it essentially went downhill. EA’s Skate had recently entered the scene and was taking up most of the market share for skateboarding games, but instead of killing the franchise outright, Tony Hawk Ride did the job for them. Trying to follow the success of their other plastic peripherals with games like Guitar Hero, Activision made this Tony Hawk game work with a giant, cumbersome skateboard with no wheels. Ironically enough, this may have been the most realistic skateboarding game ever, in the sense that I couldn’t do anything beyond an ollie. It barely works, and requires you to lay it on carpet so the slick plastic doesn’t slide away from you - the entire game is controlled by you standing on the board and mimicking skate moves and watching them be replicated on screen. Everything from movement to staying on the thing was near impossible. And, as you can imagine - it completely flopped. Being sold for about €120 at launch, the only sales numbers for the game were 114,000 copies sold in America. Not tiny, but not exactly a success. The real nail in the coffin was the sequel released a year later, Tony Hawk: Shred. Leaning more into the arcade aspect of the series, this was practically a Tony Hawk game in name only - and was only a slight improvement over Ride. The only sales numbers available are its first week sales in the U.S.: 3,000 units. For a huge franchise like this one used to be, it’s one of the biggest flops in history, and essentially killed the series for about ten years.

Activision loved their plastic accessories, and leaned very heavily into them during the 2000’s and early 2010’s; Skylanders is an example of a game starting a bubble that was always going to pop. This series was not the first to make the ‘Toys-to-life’ genre, but propelled its popularity into the stratosphere, leading to many copycats attempting to replicate its success. Skylanders itself is a very basic game, acting as a top-down brawler directed at kids, allowing for multiple people to play at once to beat the bad guys. These games were quite prevalent, but what made Skylanders different (and slightly predatory) was the use of the interactive toys. Kind of like a form of physical DLC, you could buy figures that either acted as character unlocks or entire new levels when you placed them on the “Portal of Power” - which acted as a reader for all the toys. For the first game, it cost over €300 to see everything it had to offer after you bought enough of the toys, and that number just went higher with each sequel. At first, it made Activision billions, but with each copycat entering this new market, it quickly became oversaturated, and everyone was fighting for a bigger piece of a shrinking pie. Series like Disney Infinity, Lego Dimensions and Nintendo’s Amiibo all eventually led to a collapse in the market when consumers got sick of the high costs and figures that took up too much space. Nintendo is the only one left standing with their Amiibo line, but they pivoted more towards marketing their figures as collectables, and release them rather infrequently. The trend lived and died within about five years.

These games were quite prevalent, but what made Skylanders different (and slightly predatory) was the use of the interactive toys

Speaking of trends, the ‘games-as-service’ model popular today has led to many failures similar to the toys-to-life genre. For every game like Destiny or Fortnite that had amazing successes, there’s ten games that could never hit the ground running. This form of game is technically an offshoot of the MMO genre, with the biggest goal from the developer to keep players playing their game for as long as possible. If there’s not enough players - the game dies, and this has happened a lot. Rumbleverse had backing from Epic Games (the same people behind Fortnite) and is shutting down after less than six months online. A game like Knockout City, which had backing from EA, is one of the luckier examples, but is still closing its servers this summer. Apex Legends Mobile is another high-profile closure, and not even the backing of the console version could help it succeed. Ubisoft have been trying to implement these live service features into all of their games, hurting their quality and their sales. A game like Ghost Recon Frontline was cancelled before it even released - millions wasted on a Call of Duty Warzone competitor nobody even wanted in the first place. It’s another fad that’s hurting the quality of games, but as gamers decide on what to play - things will shift again.

There are many more things that can be mentioned: Google’s cloud gaming service Stadia crashing and burning, the infamous release of E.T. for the Atari 2600, or even the collapse of E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), a once highly valued industry convention. Video games are amazing, but this is the harsh reality of the industry: you adapt, or you die.