Thursday, December 4, 2008

On the Twelfth Day of the Christmas My Publisher Gave to Me

Twelve Gears of War, Eleven Halo 3s, Ten Fable IIs, Nine Games a Failin', Eight 'Motes a Waggin', Seven Special Editions, Six Movie Licenses, Five Xbox Live Gold-en Games, Four DS Remakes, Three Console Upgrades, Two Turtle Doves and A Great Game That Will Never Be Played.

The holiday shopping season officially started last Friday. In this post, I want to take a look at the release calendar over the past few months and ponder the consequences for publishers and gamers of stockpiling major releases for the last three months each year. In the end, this model is detrimental for publishers and gamers alike.

The compulsion to release big budget titles near the holiday season is understandable. The amount of money to be made is ludicrous. But competing in such a saturated market is impossible for many titles. Take a look at a few of the major releases of the past few months. In September, the following big games were released: Infinite Undiscovery, Viva Pinata, Spore and Rock Band 2. In the two weeks following Rock Band 2, S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky, Crysis: Warhead and Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway were released. It only gets worse as you approach December.

Let's look at the last two weeks of October as an example. I promise this will be the last list I make you read. In two weeks gamers received Dead Space, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, Fable 2, Wii Music, Far Cry 2, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Fallout 3 and Little Big Planet. (You can follow along here.) Even the most dedicated gamers would not be able to purchase and play half of those titles during their release week.

This is decades worth of work combined and delivered to gamers to sort through in two weeks. The result is that the largest of the large (in our example, Fallout 3, Fable II and maybe Guitar Hero) meet sales expectations. These games have brand recognition and large sums of money in advertising campaigns. They are part of existing intellectual properties that are safer bets for publishers.

It's obvious how this is detrimental to some publishers. EA took a chance on Dead Space as did Sony with Little Big Planet. Unfortunately for them, their first week sales were disappointing. Dead Space sold 180,000 copies while Little Big Planet sold 49,000. Compare that to Fable II which sold 700,000 copies its first week (or my God, Call of Duty: World at War which sold around 1.4 Million, I believe.) First week sales are important indicators for publishers because second week sales traditionally drop precipitously. If a game doesn't sale well during the first week, it's likely it won't be profitable in the short term.

One huge consequence is that it discourages publishers from taking chances with new intellectual property. In part, this is the fault of the consumer. If you choose a sequel like Far Cry 2 over Little Big Planet, you are sending a message that you desire well-known IP over something new. At the same time, there's no denying that Far Cry 2, Fable II and Fallout 3 are all great games and should be played. It's impossible to win.

It's impossible unless you spread the releases out. Putting more space between games allows each game to succeed based on its own merit and not on the competition of a given week. It also solves one of the most persistent problems in gaming: the dead zone between May and August where you would be lucky to see one big release a month. Sure, you can pick up last year's holiday games that you missed at bargain prices but publishers and developers barely take notice. Even if a new intellectual property has reasonable long-term trickle sales, it's still seen as underperforming in most cases (especially if it had high development costs.)

There are other issues to consider too. Many releases today are multiplayer-centric. Sad as it is (and a topic for another post) most multiplayer communities on consoles last for a matter of months before server populations dwindle to pathetic numbers. Purchasing certain multiplayer games after a certain point of time is pointless and gamers know it. Additionally, games that rely heavily on community content creation (like Little Big Planet) suffer similar fates if initial sales are low.

Publishers needs to take a step back and evaluate which release date would allow a game to succeed at its full potential. A roomy release date can be used as a very successful marketing tool, too. If a game stands out as the major release that month, then it should be much easier to drive preorder sales up. Also, publishers would not have to compete so heavily for air time or ad space at the local Gamestop.

And when it is all said and done, gamers will be rewarded with an evenly-distributed release calendar and the ability to support new intellectual property and their favorite franchises at the same time. Publishers will start to see sales figures that more indicative of their game's appeal and will probably make more money. Hell, if they want to sell it again at Christmas time, bundle some downloadable content released since a game's launch and call it a special edition. We might see the same crazy rush for sales in December but at least we'll have something to play in July.

Seriously... compare November to February. It's getting ridiculous.

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