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How Sniper Ghost Warrior managed 1 million sales despite bad reviews

David Hughes's picture

News that City Interactive's latest shooter, Sniper: Ghost Warrior, had managed to shift a million copies was surprising given its review scores; in retrospect, it actually isn't that surprising - here's why.

The concept of Polish developer City Interactive's Sniper: Ghost Warrior sounded quite interesting when I first heard about it early last year. As it goes with many games, there are certain high profile titles I'm more than willing to pre-order, but other games (especially since I always have more games waiting for me to play) can wait until reviews are released. In this case, reviews were not good.

The game was released for Xbox 360 and PC in June 2010 (a PS3 version is forthcoming, which City Interactive has promised will be closer to a remake than a port) and currently carries a rather bad Metacritic average of 55 for the PC and 45 for the Xbox 360 version. Considering the inflation of review scores, where even 70-average games have some rather serious flaws, that's bad - just above the level of a game that fails on a basic technical level. Much of this came down to the fact that there isn't enough sniping in the game - in fact, it was panned because many levels devolve into pale imitations of Call of Duty shooting galleries rather than focusing on the sniper mechanics which would set the game apart.

Yet, Gamasutra recently reported that City Interactive's game has managed to sell-through 1 million copies in the U.S. and Europe across both platforms. How is this possible when reviews are so bad, and a small company like City can't manage anywhere near the marketing blitz that bigger publishers and developers can? The easy answer is that a large portion of gamers don't read reviews. This is certainly a factor, but I think there's something deeper going on here.

FPS titles frequently have what some call the 'obligatory' sniper level. Two of the most memorable in my gaming life would be 'Truth and Reconciliation' from Halo: Combat Evolved and 'All Ghillied Up' from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The problem with these kind of levels are just that: they are often seen as obligatory. They work as a change of pace, but done poorly they clash with the more action-oriented design of the game's other levels. Yet, in the cases cited above, a well-designed sniper experience can be a truly memorable gaming achievement.

Merely seeing a game that promises nothing but sniping on the cover taps into these fond memories. If I didn't operate with a constant gaming backlog, I probably would have been one of those million customers, because the idea has promise. The closest a major game has come to this concept would be the open-world of Far Cry 2, which demands a methodical approach, but this game (while brilliant) is admittedly too methodical for many players. Purchasers of Sniper are the FPS equivalent of a 'casual gamer': buying a game because the box holds great promise.

The upcoming PS3 version of the game, if it really does solve the title's problems, could back up the box with a solid game. It's also clear that City Interactive is aiming for growth: Stuart Black, previously of Codemasters, will be heading up a new London office for the company. The company has also licensed Crytek's impressive CryEngine 3 for its coming titles - freeing up designers (we can hope) to deliver a truly compelling experience that stands out from the current action-heavy crop of FPS titles.

Of course, none of this is guaranteed, but the promise displayed on the box of Sniper: Ghost Warrior needs to be delivered in one form or another. At least a million gamers would agree.

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