The Christmas Games Release Bottleneck


Not content with one holiday mired in consumerism, the US has two and the resulting two-month ‘holiday season’ has become an irrational convention on the games industry’s release schedule. This Christmas, there aren’t any must own games on my radar, so I’m sitting back and observing the maelstrom. It seems to me that we need to rethink the urge to release everything in a four-week period, which creates a bottleneck of games vying for attention. It’s unnecessary and damaging.

Arguably, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate kicked off the holiday season, despite suffering from falling standards and a lack of anticipation, due to its annual outings. Then came Halo 5, which was quickly eclipsed by the release of Call of Duty: Black ops and of course the behemoth that is Fallout 4, in early November.

Fallout 4 has consumed almost every gamer I know, since it came out, so I pity the games that had to compete with that.  Rise of the Tomb Raider, the follow-up to the successful reboot launched on the same day as Fallout 4, which seems like  commercial suicide. And then, riding on the swell of Star Wars attention, ahead of the new film, Star Wars Battlefront also launched in November, just seven days after Fallout 4 and Tomb Raider.

For an industry that’s famously risk adverse, it seems crazy to line-up all your blockbusters at once to compete against each other. Games run at around £50 these days, which is no small change. There aren’t many gamers who will happily shell out £100 in one month, let alone £200, for four out of the six, November, AAA releases. And that’s not even considering the cost of season passes, which can run to over £100 for just one game.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a perfect example of a game that’s suffered, as a result of the Christmas release schedule. According to UK chart figures, the highly regarded reboot sold 183,000 units at launch, two years’ ago, but in 2015, the follow-up sold just 63,000.

One has to wonder why Microsoft paid what must have been a significant amount of money for its timed exclusivity deal for Tomb Raider, only to release it on the exact same day as the biggest game of the year, Fallout 4.  With no PC and no PlayStation sales to boost it, Lara Croft got lost in the noise. Unless Sony makes a similar mistake, come holiday 2016, I suspect sales will be bigger on PlayStation.  However, if Microsoft had held Rise of the Tomb Raider back until January or February, it could have benefited from the release date lull.

Of course, the argument for piling all releases into a four-week window, is that that’s when people buy games. It’s Christmas shopping season, which is buoyed by the ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Cyber Monday’ consumer push. But do people really buy more games, traditionally, at Christmas or do they just buy more AAAs because that’s when they’re released?

Are gamers more likely to buy Fallout 4 in November and simply ignore it, if it’s released in July? I think we all know the answer to that. So, what actually happens is that gamers buy one, maybe two AAAs in November. And then, come, say, March, when the release schedule is a wasteland, they buy the other two at a reduced price. That’s a win for the consumer, but not really great for the retailer or the publisher who watches launch sales figures to gauge a game’s success.

The other argument is that the gamers who buy Fallout 4, don’t buy Halo 5 or Assassin’s Creed. That may be, but it’s highly unlikely. When four out of six games are FPSs, I’d say there’s a definite crossover in that Venn diagram. And I’d say Assassin’s Creed and Tomb Raider are fighting for the same audience, so the upshot is that some games win and some games lose. This year’s Tomb Raider sales figures go some way to proving that.

The only ones who seem to be immune to the lure of the Q4 release window are the indies. Thank goodness for indies and Steam with their steady stream of interesting titles, all year round. I just wish the major publishers would follow suit.

There’s no real reason why GTA VI can’t come out in May, except the other kids might point and laugh and say that Rockstar can’t handle November. By moving your game from the crucial four-week window, it’s like saying, ‘we can’t compete’. Currently, publishers seem to think it’s better to compete and lose, than not compete and sell more games.

The film industry seems to have it right. There are several high points in the year for big movie releases and that’s why the latest Avengers film isn’t going to hit cinemas on the same weekend as the new Star Wars – that will never happen. In contrast, the games publishers insist on pitching games against each other, banking on one title to fail, in order for theirs to succeed. Why not provide space for them all to succeed?

Enough of the willy waving. The industry needs to devise a more sensible release schedule that benefits everyone and doesn’t punish consumer bank accounts every November.

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