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Weekly Musings #13 - The Release Seasons of Gaming
Author: Michael Ahlf 
Date: September 8th 2004

When they're not busy molesting cacti (or other vegetable matter) Tycho and Gabe over at Penny Arcade occasionally deal with video games. On Monday - the day I was happily taking off for some Living Greyhawk play - Gabe penned a rant about why so many games he wanted to play were coming out all at the same time.

To quote the sage one:

During the entire summer I purchased maybe three or four games tops. I was in an EB yesterday looking at all the coming soon boxes and it got me thinking. I went home and compiled a list of all the games coming out just in September that I really want to play. Take a fucking look at this:

Guilty Gear X2 - 9/7 - 19.99
Burnout 3 - 9/7 - 49.99
Fable - 9/14 - 49.99
X-Men Legends - 9/22 - 49.99
The Sims 2 - 9/14 - 49.99
Star Wars Battlefront - 9/20 - 49.99
Myst IV Revelation - 9/21 - 39.99
Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne - 9/28 - 49.99
Sly 2: Band of Thieves - 9/14 - 39.99
Mega Man X Command Mission - 9/21 - 39.99

Then take into account the fact that I already purchased Star Ocean and Phantom Brave this month. That means that if I wanted to buy all the games I want this month Id have to spend over five hundred bucks. That is totally fucking insane. What in the hell is wrong with the videogame industry? If they spread these games out over the course of a year Id probably buy every one of them. As it stands now, Ill end up having to rent 90% of these.

In the movie industry you have a few big summer blockbusters, but decent movies come out year round. Imagine if every single movie worth watching came out in July. Imagine if you had to spend five hundred dollars in one month just to see the movies you were interested in. People wouldnt stand for that. Why is it that the videogame industry is able to get away with this bullshit?

I thought since I was taking my time on this issue, perhaps I can shed some light into Gabe's darkness regarding the matter. Really, it's not all THAT difficult to understand. There are basic market forces at work here, a few of which were touched on by those who wrote in, and a few of which are more basic to the retail industry in general.

To simplify things, I'll take it in four seasons. Keep in mind that these are just generalizations, and there are plenty of companies that don't follow them. In general, the bigger the company, the more likely they are NOT to follow them; for instance, Microsoft's got both MechAssault and Dead to Rights II wandering out the door in what functionally is the January slot, though early enough in the month that they still might be considered holiday-season releases. Games that are tied to other events - like movie licenses, or a sports season - also tend not to follow these rules.

January/February/March

January is, as I'm sure we're all aware, a month that almost nobody wants to be launching a new product. Consumer buying is down all-around during the month of January, and bargain hunters are out in full force. Chances are, if you're buying something in January you're buying it on post-holiday sale, it's a gift exchange, or it's an essential item like groceries. The reason is the immediately preceding holiday season, of course, when shoppers load up gifts for relatives/friends, spend money going to or throwing parties, and then get the credit card bill (and a good case of sticker shock) around January 10-15.

Game releases in January are limited to the value-buy games, throwaways that aren't expected to do well anyways, or the occasional release by a company that's hoping to be the only new face on the shelves for 3-4 weeks and boost sales that way.

February is much like January; game releases improve, but not noticeably much. Adventurous developers, or developers trying to stretch out their big-name games in the early part of the year (so as not to compete with their other titles) release them here. Next year, for instance, we can look forward to Midway's remake-title NARC, Xenosaga episode II, the PS2 port of Outlaw Volleyball, and Devil May Cry 3. "Tainted" titles - such as DMC3, still decently anticipated on the strength of the first but hurt by the relatively weak sequel - also tend to find their way into the earlier quarters of the year since sales and investor confidence can be made up in the final quarter by showing "growth" over the year and loading more sure-fire successes into the latter half.

March is when things start getting exciting, for a brief while; the game releases in March and April are all the stuff the designers want to get out of the way before big trade shows like E3. In many ways, E3 - due to the summer phenomenon - has morphed into a big advertising festival of what is to come. Big game releases are limited, unless they're timed to coincide with a release-party and attempting to piggyback on the E3 hype in general. This works best for the bigger developers, of course, who are already halfway running the show with massive booths and the entire next year (or more) lineup on display.

April/May

April and May are the end of the first big release season; these are when our spring games are hitting full-force. As Gabe opined, none of these will likely be major blockbuster titles, but there's a long string of good titles to choose from, as well as sequels to good but not first-rank games looking to improve their odds by not competing with the "big boys" of the November/December holiday season. Titles in this area unfortunately have to compete with the hype about new hardware products coming around E3 and similar conventions, as well as the "coming this fall" hype for those same big-name products.

The end result is that the spring season is the season of lightweights. If there's going to be a yearly "sleeper" hit, some absolutely amazing title that grows by word of mouth about its being a great game rather than the full force of a major marketing campaign, there's a very good chance that it'll be coming out in the months of April or May.

June, July, August

As Gabe mentioned, he didn't buy many games this entire season. Why is that? Because the discretionary money that's associated with videogames tends to dry up during these months. Not as much as it used to - after all, the gamer population is much older than they were in the 1980s - but still less. Gamers like Gamerdad who may be buying games for their kids are likely to be reluctant to give them excuses to stay indoors during summer vacation time; instead, getting the kids outside for fun, sun, and exercise is the proper parental goal. Recreational sports leagues like baseball, soccer, or softball leagues eat up evening playing-time. Even if you don't have a regular event, the longer evening hours make going out and staying out in the evening a much more fun prospect, and gamers are just as likely to take their weekend and head out to the beach as stay on the couch playing games.

With the exception of games tied into summer blockbusters (like Spider-Man 2) or else games by developers with enough clout that they could release 100 black cats into the street on Friday the 13th as a release party (id Software, Doom 3) and still make a mint, very few studios are going to put their top-tier games into a season where there's so much competition, not so much for the spending money, but for the recreational time to play the games in question. Yeah, Gabe may want to buy 3-4 a month during that time period, but most gamers who would buy 2-3 in a normal winter month are probably going to see just one title and expect it to hold them until September or October if they do buy it, knowing that their recreational time is going to be spent as much on other activities as on the game.

When Gabe talks about buying these games during summer... well, perhaps HE will. Keep in mind that a movie in the theater - or even bought on DVD - can only expect to eat up a small amount of time during a month. 3 hours max in the theater, even for big ones like The Lord Of The Rings. As little as 90 minutes for some of them. If you buy the DVD and watch it 4 times a month, that's still only 12 hours. By contrast, a video game can easily be expected to eat up 40+ hours of gameplay, and more with any RPG title or game with a multiplayer or online component. So in the summer, that discretionary time is in incredibly short supply, and it's understandable that game companies may be reluctant to risk the sales of a big-name or expected big-seller title unless there's some added bonus, like the free advertising of a movie license tie-in.

September/October/November/December

Ah, the fall buying season. The exact season that so pisses off Gabe, because all the games he wants are coming out at once. Your buying habits at work, folks - September is back-to-school time. Clothing will be bought, and kids will be running around the stores picking out what they want. This is the season for parents like Gamerdad that Christmas Lists are written.

For September, we're seeing the first rank of the holiday games - the titles the developers want to see hitting the bargain shelves and 10-15% off sales right around December. The goal now is exposure. Initial sales don't mean much, but if the game is fondly remembered from September, then the likelihood of someone getting it as a gift around Christmas is pretty good. Again, these are not the "blockbuster" titles. Out of Gabe's entire list, the only truly massively-hyped title I can pick from the list would be Fable. They're all Tier 2 titles.

When October and November hit, that's when we're going to see the real doozies like Halo 2. The goal is to get as many holiday season sales as possible. As an added bonus, when winter comes, the days are shorter; staying in during the evening and playing video games isn't as hard a decision as when the sun's still shining outside. Sports leagues are shut down. The competition for a gamer's attention is limited mostly to the TV schedule. Not only that, but we've got three months worth of delayed releases to catch up on; games that would have been ignored during the summer and then hidden behind new releases if it were a 100% smoothed-over schedule now get their time on the new releases shelf at a time when gamers are actually willing to buy.

It fits the larger pattern - remember, it's not just videogames being hawked during these months. Retailers are trying to get as many butts into the store as possible. Malls want to be busy. Consumer confidence needs to be up during the holiday season, especially around Thanksgiving when the "holiday shopping season" officially starts. Can you really blame the game companies for trying to take advantage of the existing retail trend, and perhaps sell a few more copies of their top-tier games?

Got Comments? Send 'em to Michael (at) Glideunderground.com!
Alternatively, post 'em right here for everyone to see!

Weekly Musings 13: The Release Seasons of Gaming


Added:  Wednesday, September 08, 2004
Reviewer:  Michael Ahlf

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