Is Panzers Stuck in the Mud?

By Scott Parrino 25 Jun 2005 0

Codename Panzers: Bittersweet Success Breeds Changes

"Bittersweet", was how Mario Kroll, CDV's North American Marketing and Public Relations Director, described the success of Codename Panzers: Phase One in a recent interview. The World War II strategy title was released in North America last fall, yet despite strong review scores (averaging 82%) the game fell well short of its expected US sales figures. Considering more than a quarter of PC game sales in 2004 were strategy titles, Panzers' success among critics should've translated to meteoric commercial success. So what happened?

Part of the problem was Panzers' timing. "We released Phase One in the United States in Q4 against some really stiff competition," Kroll admits. ?The game had previously released in Germany mid-summer, but the level of interest and coverage simply hadn?t reached what we felt was an appropriate level, so we delayed the release in this country and went on a massive PR campaign across North America.? 

2004's Codename Panzers: Phase One succeeded with critics, but not with consumers.

Panzers hit North American store shelves early in October 2004, in the midst of dozens of other tremendously popular franchises. CDV's title had to compete with shelf space against such marquee strategy titles as Rome: Total War, Warhammer: Dawn of War, and Full Spectrum Warrior, not to mention the hugely popular DOOM 3, Half-Life 2, The Sims 2, and World of Warcraft titles. 

Other problems hounded Panzers' release in the US, including a premium $50 pricetag, negative buzz among a small number of early adopters, a disk manufacturing problem, and cultural differences which made the German-developed game less appealing to American audiences. Since the game's script and tongue-in-cheek humor was written by Hungarian developer Stormregion with an eye toward Europe, the translation suffered and came across as odd European humor, lost on English-speaking consumers. Hardcore fans that imported Codename Panzers into the US before its September release were disappointed to find the game lacked the historical authenticity they were hoping for. 

Kroll argues consumers have built-in expectations with historical titles. ?Whenever a title is set in World War II, particularly with real time strategy titles, often fans simply expect a fully historically accurate depiction. That was never the purpose of Panzers, and I think some of that was also lost upon audiences, resulting in mismatches between expectations and delivery.?

The game's tank-rushing, explosive Hollywood-styled combat translated into a more action-RTS feel geared towards casual gamers, which didn't go over well with the grognard importers. These problems created unfavorable word-of-mouth buzz on game forums, and between the game's European release and its North American release nearly three months later, Kroll believes these factors significantly affected Panzers' potential for success in the US.

The story was much different in CDV's home country of Germany and Europe in general. Released in Europe over the summer of 2004, Panzers quickly grabbed climbed to the top of the sales chart in Germany, Poland, and France. The RTS garnered critical praise and the commercial success soon followed: in the weeks following its release, Codename Panzers outsold Activision's highly-anticipated DOOM 3 on multiple occasions throughout Europe. By comparison, DOOM 3 was the best-selling North American game in August, while Codename Panzers failed to even enter the top ten releases when it debuted here.

Panzers certainly isn't the only critically-acclaimed World War II game to suffer the same challenges. Ubisoft's World War II submarine simulation, Silent Hunter III, has also struggled to make a dent in the marketplace. According to published reports, Silent Hunter III sold an underwhelming 26,600 copies in March and April, despite tremendous (89% ratings) critical praise and strong word-of-mouth buzz among hardcore simulation fans.

Terrific games like Silent Hunter III have also struggled.

So are World War II games on the way out? Kroll doesn't believe so, and he points to another World War II strategy game from CDV that has done surprisingly well. The Blitzkrieg series, which is considered to be more historically accurate, has done exceptionally well, with sales in North America besting even Germany's. The results were a pleasant surprise to CDV, and point to a continued interest in World War II gaming world-wide.

"You have to innovate in World War II games," Kroll explains. ?It?s still a popular era that involved nearly the entire globe and has wide-ranging appeal. There is an amazing amount of knowledge about the period out there. Yet, it also has been done over and over again. To be successful in the genre, I believe publishers and developers really have to reach deep and offer something that hasn?t been done before.? 

For Codename Panzers: Phase Two, CDV is addressing the factors which may have contributed to the game's lackluster sales. For starters, the game is being released simultaneously around the world in the middle of summer, when there are still a limited number of titles being shipped. The game's powerful 3D engine, which can start at cloud-level and zoom right onto an infantryman?s unit badge, has been improved with more graphical polish to appeal to the eye-candy fans in the US market. The game's campaigns have visited different theaters of war and also offer a rare chance to play as a Yugoslavian Resistance fighter in the Balkans. 

To address the cultural issues, CDV hired Hollywood talent to add Americanized voice acting and script writing, including Peter Weller, perhaps known best for his starring role as Robocop. To please the hardcore fans and increase replay value, Phase Two will also include a mission editor. Finally, all of this will be packaged at a more competitive $40 price.

Codename Panzers: Phase Two will hit stores in North America in late July. The game will be an important litmus test for CDV; the company is planning to publish yet more World War II strategy titles in the months and years to come. For gamers, it?s a second chance to pick up a critically-acclaimed World War II RTS. 

Codename Panzers: Phase Two is looking to improve the series.

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