The last three months of the year tend to fit the Dickensian cliché as the best of times and the worst of times for gamers. They’re the best because a ridiculous number of high profile games come out – this year’s season saw the release of highly anticipated games like Call of Duty 4, Crysis, Super Mario Galaxy, Assassin’s Creed, Mass Effect and Rock Band, all in a three-week period. It’s the worst of times because, well, a ridiculous number of high profile games come out. A game aficionado has to spend a fortune and divide his attention to a ridiculous degree just to keep up.
Sure, there are worse problems for a gamer to have, but that glut certainly seems like a waste come April, when the holiday games have finally been played out and the shelves are practically empty. People play games throughout the year, yet publishers seem to think people will only buy them in a three-month period at year’s end. Why can’t publishers spread those AAA titles throughout the year a little bit more? Why can’t the videogame release calendar be a little more balanced?
“Unfortunately the videogame industry has kind of gotten itself trapped in this cycle where everyone waits to put out their $25 million games on top of each other in a 12-week period,” says Chris Kramer, Senior Director of Communications and Community for Capcom US. “That really can’t be good. Even if you are the game of the moment, in [the holiday season] there probably was another game of the moment a week or two before you and probably another game of the moment a week or two after you.”
To Kramer, publishers’ focus on the last quarter of the year is a result of horribly circular logic. “It’s one of those things where people tend to go and crunch a lot of numbers and say, ‘Look at all these games that sold in the month of November. We must put our game in the month of November, because that is where all the games sold,'” Kramer says. “Well, no, the fact is, in July and August, only crap came out, so no one went and bought any games because there was only third-string licensed titles coming out for Game Boy Advance.” In other words, the last quarter of the year sees 50 to 60 percent of the year’s industry revenues because that’s when 50 to 60 percent of the good games come out. If those same games came out at different times, they’d probably sell just as well, if not better.
But some say it’s not just habit, that there are good economic reasons for thinking games will sell better if they’re forced into a crowded holiday market. “In some ways, it’s which came first, the chicken or the egg?” says Michael Goodman, Director of Digital Entertainment for the Yankee Group. “I’d hypothesize that the reason why [more games are released in the holiday season] is because this is the time period when people are entering the marketplace. From January to September you’re predominantly selling directly to the gamer market. Outside of birthdays, you don’t have non-gamers buying games. During the holiday season, you expand the market to moms and dads and gift givers.” Even with the increased competition, game companies stand to make more by taking a smaller slice out of the much bigger holiday pie.
Not everyone is so gung-ho about throwing himself into the holiday maelstrom, though. 2K Games, for example, felt that even a marquee release like BioShock was better off coming out in the usually game-barren month of August. “We knew the holiday was going to be extremely crowded,” says 2K Games VP of Marketing Sarah Anderson, “and we felt it was important for new intellectual property to have its own moment, so it could get full attention from press and consumers. We wanted to be the first big title to hit for the season. … We knew BioShock was amazing and wanted it to have its time to shine. We feel like we launched at the perfect time globally.”
Besides helping the game sell over 1.5 million units so far, the decision to release BioShock in August also helped people enjoy the game more, Anderson says. “During the holidays, the commercial volume gets turned up, and our lives become filled with messages about things to buy and play and see,” she says. “By shipping in August, which is typically before the official holiday rush, gamers worldwide were consumed by BioShock‘s awesomeness – partly because it is an amazing game that had great reviews and word of mouth, but also partly because they had the time without so many other distractions to fully let themselves experience it.”
It’s not just big new names that can benefit from a move outside the fourth quarter window, either. Capcom thinks smaller, licensed titles like Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law will do better in January than November, just through sheer competitive economics. “Someone in planning here at Capcom actually sat down and figured out what the release schedule was going to be for the month of November in turns of games,” Kramer says. “There’s something close to 250 games coming out in the month of November. Granted, not all of these are AAA titles … but there are a significant amount of titles such as Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty 4 or Rock Band that were definitely taking up a lot of the air in the room in the month of November. … The thought was ‘Why compete in such an incredibly crowded space when you don’t have to?'”
Historically, though, it’s usually the big, well-hyped titles that can afford to avoid the expanded holiday market. “If you truly have a breakout title like a BioShock or a Madden or a Halo 3, it doesn’t matter when you enter the marketplace, you’re going to do well,” Goodman says. But, by the same token, those big-name games are also the ones big enough to stand out in the holiday rush. “If we wanted to bring out Resident Evil 5 in the fourth quarter, that title will be big enough to warrant whatever particular date we felt would make the most sense,” Kramer says. And if you save your big name for the holidays, it has the added bonus of taking attention away from your competitors. “One product is gonna suck the dollars out of a gamer’s wallet,” Goodman says. “If I’ve just gone and gotten Guitar Hero III, chances are I’m not going out next week and buying another game.”
It’s a tough balancing act, and one that causes some companies to sprinkle their big releases both inside and outside the fourth quarter. “We have so many big games launching that we like to space them out a bit,” says Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo of America’s outgoing Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Affairs. “That’s why you have Metroid Prime 3: Corruption in August, Super Mario Galaxy in November and Super Smash Bros. Brawl in February. Release them all at once and you force consumers to choose one. But spacing them out lets them all stand on their own while giving gamers time to enjoy them. So far, sales have been going strong, and naturally we expect to see them increase during the holidays.”
But when publishers bring out their big guns, they also have to watch out for other companies’ firepower. “It becomes more of a marketing issue than anything else,” Goodman says. “If you had a Metal Gear Solid and a Halo 3 coming out simultaneously, you’d have a harder time generating buzz, and they’d wind up cannibalizing each other; they’re going to hurt each other’s sales.” Not all big-name game conflicts deserve a wide berth, though. “Launching Pokémon and Halo on the same day, go ahead and do it because they’re two fundamentally different audiences, so there is no overlap between the two of them,” Goddman says. “Launching Guitar Hero III and Rock Band on the same day would probably be a bad idea. You have to think what are the genres, who is the target audience and factors like that. You have to look at the marketplace dynamics when you decide who’s going to launch when.”
Is there hope for a more balanced release calendar going forward? Capcom’s Kramer certainly thinks so. “More companies are beginning to realize that people aren’t just buying videogames in the fourth quarter, that there is a year-round market for it, and they’re trying to get out there. I think it’s a hard habit for some people to break, but you are seeing some people put on their thinking caps.”
But others think the holiday glut is here to stay. “That’s the status quo,” Goodman says. “Until some major gift-giving holiday emerges in March, I don’t see this dynamic changing.”