Experienced Points

The Stupid Season


You’re on a gameshow. The host walks up to you in his plaid jacket and tells you there are twelve doors. He also explains that doors one through eleven have $1,000, and door twelve has over ten times as much money, $11,000. You don’t have to guess. He tells you how much is behind each door up front. Now, which door do you pick?


Wait! Before you go off half-cocked and pick number twelve you need to be aware of one small fact: Lots of other people are playing the same game at the same time, and no matter what door you pick, you’ll split the money with everyone else who picks the same door. Sure, you can pick twelve, but it’s a safe guess that everyone else will, too. Is it better to pick the same door as everyone else and split the big pile of cash, or try for one of the other doors and get a smaller pile of cash all to yourself? The first question out of your mouth will probably be, “How many other people are playing?” The answer: “Nobody knows ahead of time.”

This is the decision faced by publishers when deciding on a release date. They can pick the sales-rich Christmas season and fight over a massive pile of cash with everyone else, or they can release some other time and fight over a smaller pile of cash against a smaller group of games. Numbers are hard to find, but verbal lore suggests that retail sales during the Christmas season constitute nearly half of the yearly sales. That is, you’ll sell as much during the Christmas season as during the other eleven months combined.

Yes, we’re talking about Christmas during the month of August. No, I’m not one of those people who is always trying to start the season earlier each year. I’m talking about Christmas in August precisely because it’s a nice long ways away and we can get a clear-headed view of things.

It’s actually a lot more complicated than my game show example because gift cards, returns, and shoppers who were gifted money will create a secondary sales surge in January. But after that dies down there is a big slump as people start getting their post-Christmas credit card bills and snap out of their mad spending stupor. But if we don’t want to be drawn into a vortex of advanced accounting theory we can just simplify things by assuming that the December sales equals roughly eleven regular month’s worth of business. Those kind of sales would look attractive to anyone. It’s possibly better to be the tenth most popular game in December than to be the top seller in May. Why kill yourself trying to be the best when you can be mediocre at Christmas and do just as well?

But it’s not as simple as that, because the money isn’t split evenly, and neither is the risk. There are only so many games a reviewer can play in a given span of time. During the summer drought, we have lots of time to pick apart each game and talk about it in detail. During the holiday glut, you could plow through a game every few days, dash off paper-thin reviews, and still not come close to keeping up with the new releases.


Worse, people shopping for presents are going to be less discriminating than people buying for themselves. Christmas gives rise to this entire temporary economy based around manufacturing and selling crap that no sane person would buy and keep. The shelves are lines with light-up ties, Chia Pets, and Deer Hunting games. There is no limit on how much kitschy crap you can sell if you’ve got a determined marketing department and an icy vacuous hole where your soul should be.

If you’re a publisher and you’re worried your game might be reviewed unfavorably, then release it at Christmas! Reviewers won’t look too deeply, if they manage to review the game at all. And even if it does get savaged by Metacritic or sodomized by Yahtzee, shoppers won’t be paying attention anyway. Christmas can guarantee that your buggy cookie-cutter game can get a decent slice of the December sales pie-chart no matter how much it sucks.

So, release your strong games in summer and your crappy knock-offs in December, right? Not so fast. The season does have winners and losers, and some games do end up doing far better than others. This week Ubisoft’s Michael de Plater told GI.biz, “It’s a bit tough to launch a new IP exactly at Christmas when you’re head-to-head with blockbuster sequels. […] It’s interesting to see a number of big titles, like Heavy Rain, being targeted at 2010 to avoid the Christmas rush.” So, Christmas sales aren’t really about quality, they’re about brand recognition. People will buy an entry in a famous franchise over a hot new property, more or less regardless of their relative quality.

Obviously, this Christmas mess is bad for the industry as a whole. Low quality titles sell well. Innovative stuff gets overlooked. Game reviews are less comprehensive. Sometimes publishers will rush a game out the door for Christmas, thus taking what would have been a fantastic game with mediocre sales in March and turning it into a mediocre game with fantastic sales in December. For those of us who play games year-round, this is the exact opposite of what we want. We keep clamoring for less sequels, less knock-offs, more polish, and more innovation, but who are publishers going to listen to? Us, or a pile of money?

Nobody has any motivation to change anything. Sure, you could release your game in August, but your game will really have to stand on its own merits. And even if it performs well, you’re letting your rivals have a bigger piece of the December pie. You’ll be taking on more risk while helping them make more money. What we have here is a Nash Equilibrium. The industry as a whole would be better off if sales were spread more evenly year-round, but it’s not in anyone’s interest to change their behavior.

For now the industry is probably going to continue its practice of holding games when everyone is on vacation and then releasing them all at once when nobody has time to play them. Merry Christmas!

Shamus Young is the guy behind this movie, this website, this book, these two webcomics, and this program. His actually really looking forward to his first Christmas in twelve years where nobody talks about Duke Nukem Forever.


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