By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Titanfall is one of the most anticipated games of 2014. By the end of 2013, the game already had 200,000 pre-orders. That's good news for publisher Electronic Arts (EA) and startup developer Respawn Entertainment. It's also great news for Microsoft (MSFT), which has the exclusive for this sci-fi first-person shooter that will ship across PC, Xbox One, and Xbox 360.
The majority of those pre-orders (approximately 150,000) were for the Xbox One version of the game, which makes Titanfall a killer app as Microsoft tries to keep up with Sony's (SNE) PlayStation 4 in the next-gen hardware battle.
"To have a huge new franchise like Titanfall developed by a team of the most-respected game developers as an exclusive is huge for Microsoft," said Peter Warman, president of research firm Newzoo. "Gamers are expecting Titanfall to showcase the potential of the Xbox One in terms of graphics and the gameplay experience." Warman adds that Titanfall is integrating with Microsoft hardware as well, with limited-edition branded controllers and a variety of game and hardware bundles.
Michael Pachter, video game analyst at Wedbush Securities, says Electronic Arts is leaving some money on the table with the Microsoft exclusive. He forecasts the game will sell 8 to 10 million units worldwide across Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC. But if the game was released cross-platform on Sony consoles, sales would exceed 12 to 15 million units.
"The spring launch is smart, since it comes right when there is a lull in big game releases, and it's long enough after GTA V [Grand Theft Auto] and long enough before Activision's (ATVI) Destiny and next Call of Duty," said Pachter. "That should help sales. The gaming press, and to some extent, the gaming community, loves Respawn as they recognize these guys made Call of Duty Modern Warfare."
Although Respawn is technically a startup developer, the team that Vince Zampella and Jason West formed includes key members from their previous studio, Infinity Ward. That studio, which was acquired by Activision in 2002, created the Call of Duty Modern Warfare franchise. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the last game developed under the creative direction of West and Zampella, was the most successful Call of Duty ever, with the highest rating by gamers and sales of over 30 million copies worldwide for Activision.
"True game enthusiasts know who Respawn is, and for more casual gamers Infinity Ward were the good guys in the fight with Activision," said Warman, referring to the multiple lawsuits that were filed between Activision and West and Zampella that were settled out of court. (Activision paid current and former Infinity Ward employees a total of $42 million.) "Having people on board that know how to build a world-leading franchise and maintain gamer loyalty is an enormous asset. Respawn sets trends rather than following them."
Titanfall breaks from tradition in the shooter genre by ditching the single-play campaign mode. It focuses solely on multiplayer gameplay. The game also introduces dynamically different gameplay within its near-future battlefields by allowing players to fight as elite assault pilots on the ground with parkour-style wall running and double jumps. Gamers can also get behind the controls of hulking, heavily armored 24-foot-tall titans and plow their way through war zones as team-based members of either the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC) or the Militia. The ability to seamlessly jump in and out of these titans introduces new tactics and strategies to the crowded, but lucrative, shooter genre.
"For us it was about not doing something that was similar to what was done before," said Zampella. "In Titanfall the gameplay is more vertical. The pilots are very agile. They can run on walls. They can jump higher. That's mixed with these Titans, which are an extension of you. It's an exoskeleton style."
Critics who've been able to play the game early through press events and the online beta have loved Titanfall. Over the past year, the game has accumulated accolades from around the world to the tune of more than 80 awards. Pachter said Metacritic scores and strong word of mouth could push his sales estimates even higher for the game.
Warman believes there will be some challenges in getting gamers acclimated to the new gameplay elements and establishing a new franchise. The team-based shooting and robot component could scare away some of the core shooter audience. But on the plus side, the team battle component could draw in some of the over 85 million League of Legends fans that Riot Games has attracted to its free-to-play five-on-five PC game.
With Sony eclipsing the 6-million-unit mark sold worldwide first with its PS4, Titanfall is expected to give Microsoft a much-needed hardware sales boost. Zampella said the Xbox One version of the game has given the developers the ability to expand the world.
"We're putting the single-player experience into the multiplayer," said Zampella. "We have dedicated servers, which is something we didn't have on consoles before. All that AI [artificial intelligence] that you see running around is calculated on the server, so now there's no host advantage. It's a better experience for all the players. And it's a more vivid world to explore."
The Titanfall brand is expanding beyond games with licensing deals like a line of K'NEX Titanfall Building Sets, which will launch this June. Gamers can now purchase licensed electronics like Mad Catz TRITTON gaming headsets, R.A.T mice, S.T.R.I.K.E. keyboards, F.R.E.Q. gaming headsets and G.L.I.D.E. gaming surfaces. And that's just the beginning, as long as the game lives up to the very high expectations.
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