Console Timeline

The Madden Theory: Predicting the Lifespan of Video Game Systems

Many times I've questioned the usefulness of Twitter. As far as I can tell the primary purpose is to help people inflate their ego. The secondary purpose is fooling people into thinking they have a personal connection with a celebrity. Although I don't understand the utility of this, I can see how it's hugely profitable.

A couple weeks ago though I had an exchange that led me to a theory:

Twitter exchange about Madden games

Please note - my Twitter handle is blurred out because I deleted my Twitter account some time after writing this (when I re-remembered why I didn't want an account in the first place). I am not responsible for anything that handle has been used for since I deleted my account.

That last comment is the kind of off-the-cuff thing that almost everyone would assume is true. A few days went by and that last comment kept bouncing around in my brain. Yes, it has to be true... unless it's not, maybe it's not. So taking a semi-scientific approach let's start with the hypothesis I want to test:

John Madden Football is the best predictor of whether a video game system will succeed or fail.

Yeah that seems incredibly obvious but is there hard evidence to back it up? Further, is there another game franchise that's as or more accurate?

Let's start by looking at the relationship between Madden releases and the lifespan of video game systems:

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without Madden Football

First off, all the disclaimers that no one will read before complaining about how inaccurate this is:

As for the analysis - this looks pretty darn accurate. Systems with annual Madden releases generally lived for over 5 years while systems without Madden games generally died in under 5.

There are a pair of outliers on this chart we need to examine. The Atari Lynx survived past the 5 year mark thanks to a trickle of late releases from the mothership. I suspect most aren't aware that Atari released the last Lynx game all the way out in 1995; it was mostly gone from stores by then. The Game Boy Color is the other oddball. In a complete 180 from the Lynx, I think most assume it lasted a lot longer than it did because it inherited the Game Boy name. As a separate system it was quickly deprecated in favor of the Game Boy Advance. Both of these will be oddballs on the other game charts we're looking at.

Overall I'd say Madden is a very accurate predictor of a system's lifespan - over 5 years with, less than 5 years without. Sorry Wii U.

So are there any other series that are as good a predictor as Madden? According to Wikipedia, Madden is the 12th highest selling game franchise of all time. I think it makes sense to look at the ones ahead of it to see if we find a better one. The top 11 franchises are:

  1. Mario
  2. Zelda
  3. Pokemon
  4. Wii - Meaning any game starting with the word "Wii". Yeah, I don't consider that a franchise either. Using that definition we could call 90% of Super Nintendo games part of the "Super" franchise.
  5. The Sims
  6. Grand Theft Auto
  7. Tetris
  8. Call of Duty
  9. Final Fantasy
  10. FIFA
  11. Need for Speed
I'm as surprised as you that Madden is below FIFA and Need for Speed but I have to remember that American football isn't especially popular anywhere else. Yet the NFL will still try to move a team to London where it will eventually fail.

Alright, so how do these other series stack up as predictors for a system's lifespan? Let's axe all the Nintendo exclusives for obvious reasons and look at the rest.

First up is The Sims which was released in 2000 so we'll only consider systems also released after 2000. There are so many lines of Sims games that I can't figure out a good criteria to use, so I'm just going with systems that had any Sims game.

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without The Sims

There are two problems with using The Sims as a predictor - 1) the sample size is too small 2) they made a Sims game for the N-Gage?

Next is Grand Theft Auto, the first game was released in 1997 so let's begin with the 5th generation of consoles. This is a little unfair to the Sega Saturn since it was already declining at this point but for all we know a game like GTA could have saved it. Hmm, on second thought, no.

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without Grand Theft Auto

The lack of support for many Nintendo systems makes GTA a bad predictor of a system's lifespan. For non-Nintendo systems it's not too bad though. Maybe the Vita will be the system to prove or disprove this. Yes, I know the PSP GTA games can be played on the Vita but I was only looking at the first run games.

With Tetris we'll go all the way back to the 3rd generation but we'll leave off the Atari 7800 which was already hopelessly sunk by the time Tetris came around. Like The Sims, this series is all over the place so I'm just going with whether a system had any variant of Tetris.

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without Tetris

Nuon+Virtual Boy = Tetris is a terrible predictor of whether a system will succeed or fail. The glaring lack of Tetris games on the Genesis (not counting the extremely rare prototype) also stands out.

The first Call of Duty game was released in 2003 so let's include every system that was active then except the original PlayStation which was in its twilight years.

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without Call of Duty

Like The Sims, I think the sample size for Call of Duty is too small to be useful. The Wii U will apparently be the decider on this one. If the Wii U breaks the 5 year mark then it has to be considered a good predictor for post-2000 systems. One caveat is that I would expect the 3DS to last at least 5 years and it has yet to receive a Call of Duty game (but I'm sure it will at some point).

Final Fantasy as a franchise is a tad complicated so three categories are needed - 1) systems that received major Final Fantasy games (1-13) when they were first released 2) systems that received remakes/re-releases of major Final Fantasy and/or other Final Fantasy branded games 3) systems that had no games with "Final Fantasy" anywhere in the title. We'll again start with the 3rd generation minus the Atari 7800.

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without Final Fantasy

Square's love/hate relationship with Nintendo makes the Final Fantasy series a completely unreliable predictor of a system's success.

For FIFA let's use the same timeline and criteria as Madden.

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without FIFA

FIFA would be just as good as Madden except for that pesky N-Gage. Maybe the N-Gage was more widely adopted in markets where soccer is popular but in the US it was a flop. The single 32X release also hurts its case a bit. For whatever reason EA decided not to publish a Madden game on the 32X. It would be interesting to learn the rationale for porting FIFA but not Madden.

Fact I suspect most gamers don't know - the first Need for Speed release was on the 3DO in 1994. So that's where we'll start the list. I'll include the Jaguar since it's the other 3.5 generation system. I can't go along with the consensus that the Jaguar and 3DO are 4th generation systems since both were discontinued before the Nintendo 64 launched and primarily competed against 16-bit consoles.

Video Game System Lifespans - With and Without Need for Speed

Nope, Need for Speed is not a good predictor. It missed on the Nintendo 64 and bet on the Dreamcast & N-Gage. That N-Gage really messes things up doesn't it?

I think this pretty much illustrates that Madden is the best predictor of a system's lifespan. We could go all the way through the top 20 selling game franchises but at a cursory glance none seem like they'll do any better.

So now for the chicken or the egg argument... do systems fail because they don't have any Madden games or is EA just really good at picking winners and losers?

One factor that can't be ignored is that for some of these systems their last release was a Madden game so the presence of the series directly impacted their lifespan. In the case of the original Xbox the last two releases were both Madden games meaning the series is 100% responsible for adding a year to its lifespan. None of the other series mentioned have actively prolonged a system's timeline (although FIFA will likely play that role for the PlayStation 2).

Let's face it, American gamers really want to play Madden games. They may not buy it annually but they want some semi-recent version. Completely anecodally, I'm one of the types that buys a new version every 3-4 years. I would say I buy it whenever the Bears have a good team but...

Anyway, I strongly suspect that most American gamers won't buy a system that lacks a Madden game. First there's the obvious reason, you can't play Madden on it. The second reason is it's a sign that maybe that system won't last. Why don't these other franchises have the same impact? Here's my 5 second opinion on each:

  1. The Sims - These games are widely available on the PC so they don't influence console purchases.
  2. Grand Theft Auto - Many gamers don't care for violent games or have young kids; either way the presence of GTA games doesn't influence them.
  3. Tetris - Whether a game system has Tetris is irrelevant if you can play it on your phone.
  4. Call of Duty - Same reason as Grand Theft Auto.
  5. Final Fantasy - I'm a huge fan of JRPGs but will readily admit they're far from mainstream.
  6. FIFA - Americans will never like soccer, quit trying to make us. Add a 45 second shot clock and maybe we'll tune-in if there's not an NFL game on.
  7. Need for Speed - There are plenty of other racing games to choose from unlike Madden which is the only NFL game available.
So there you go - if you want to know how long a system will survive look no further than whether it has Madden games. As a longtime Nintendo fan I wish that wasn't the case but have to accept reality on this one.