Is ‘Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars’ A Flop?

Gamers, 'GTA' publisher Take Two and GameStop weigh in on what went wrong with the DS game.

Sometimes it snows in July. Sometimes men bite dogs. And sometimes a new “Grand Theft Auto” appears to flop.

“Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars,” the best-reviewed game in the five-year history of the Nintendo DS, is now being labeled by some gamers and critics as a sales disappointment. The game, developed by “GTA” series creators Rockstar Games, sold 89,000 units in the U.S. between its March 17 launch and April 4, the end of the first monthly reporting period for the game’s sales tracked by the NPD group.

That compares to 805,000 units of “Pokémon Platinum” sold on the DS by Nintendo from its March 22 launch through April 4. It’s also far lower than the 2.85 million copies that “Grand Theft Auto IV” sold, according to NPD, in that Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game’s first month on the market back in April 2008. The DS has sold 100 million units worldwide, including 6 million in the U.S. just since October.

What went wrong for “Chinatown Wars”?

The game’s publisher, Take Two Interactive, doesn’t publicly state that there’s a problem. “We’re confident in the game, and we think it has long-term potential for success,” company spokesman Alan Lewis told MTV News. “We’re trying to pioneer mature games on the platform.”

Lewis dismissed comparisons to the kid-targeted “Pokémon,” instead casting “Chinatown Wars” against the handful of other M-rated games released on a system that is commonly associated with children and moms. He said “Chinatown Wars” outperformed those other M-rated DS games at launch and is already the second-best-selling M-rated game on the platform.

That may make “Chinatown Wars” a success compared to “Dementium: The Ward” or the DS version of “Resident Evil,” but it doesn’t compare to the performance of portable “GTA” games on Sony’s PSP. The first “GTA” on that platform, “Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories,” sold more than a million units in its first year. Earlier this year, Sony’s head of marketing for the PSP, John Koller, told MTV News that putting a “GTA” out on the DS “raises some eyebrows in a lot of areas.”

MTV asked gamers why they might have refrained from buying the game. Through Twitter and our gaming blog, they blamed rampant DS piracy, the game being too big or not as visually stimulating as the Xbox 360 and PS3 “GTA” games, or simply not getting around to buying the game yet.

Among the replies was a comment from a reader posting under the name Sting Wolf, who dismissed the piracy issue and focused on marketing and development issues, which resulted in “Chinatown Wars” looking more like the less-popular original “GTA” games than the ones that have been global phenomena this decade: “It couldn’t possibly have been the fact that the reason GTA completely blew up in popularity [in 2001] was its shift to 3D [graphics] in GTA3,” he wrote sarcastically. “And those same people who loved that won’t necessarily enjoy the 2D format of old. It also couldn’t possibly have been the fact that there’s little-to-no market for M-rated games on Nintendo systems anymore. … I look forward to the day when this [piracy] excuse is removed from everyone’s mind and industry execs can get back to taking blame for bad marketing decisions themselves, instead of looking for others to blame.”

There are plenty of other possible reasons for the performance of “Chinatown Wars.” It could be “GTA” burnout. It was released just a month after “Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned,” the Xbox 360-exclusive “GTA IV” expansion that was heavily promoted on TV and looks more like the “GTA” games the public recognizes. (“I don’t think one has to do with the other,” Lewis said.) It could be that a 2-D “GTA” game just doesn’t show well in ads and TV commercials.

The nation’s biggest gaming retail chain expressed confidence in the title. ” ‘GTA: Chinatown Wars’ is exceeding our expectations and illustrating the power of the franchise on a new platform,” GameStop spokesman Chris Olivera said in an e-mail to MTV News. “We’ve seen a solid lift in sales of ‘Chinatown Wars’ following the launch of the DSi and believe that the product will continue to enjoy a long life at our stores as the buzz around the new handheld gaming experience continues to grow.” Nintendo’s DSi model of the DS platform was released a day after NPD’s sales-tracking window for March.

The one thing no one seems to be able to knock “Chinatown Wars” for is the game’s quality. It received rave reviews, including from MTV.

Last month, Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, told MTV News that the DS demographics shouldn’t doom the fortunes of M-rated games, including “Chinatown Wars”: “We certainly believe that there’s an 18-and-above consumer opportunity with DS, just as we believe there’s an 18-and-above consumer opportunity with Wii.”

Take Two still expects a long-term success from its “GTA” DS debut. Can it get there? For the first time in a long time, the triumph of a “Grand Theft Auto” is not a sure thing.

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