Rethinking the Holiday Release

With Thanksgiving right around the corner for some (or if you’re Canadian, having already passed), this is the time of year when gamers like to give thanks. From about the beginning of June to mid-September (in other words:  the whole summer), nary an AAA blockbuster is to be found. Then as the season changes, the floodgates open and an oncoming deluge brings with it a venerable bounty of anticipated titles. Rejoice fellow gamers, rejoice and give thanks! The summer lull is over, and we won’t have to deal with it again until, well, next summer. Dammit.

I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth here because I am enjoying this current slate of holiday releases as much as anybody (mostly because there are finally some new games to play), but I can’t help feeling that the schedule for new releases is weighted too heavily towards this time of year. Typically so many games are released at this time that I, and I’m sure many of you, just don’t have time to really delve into some until the aforementioned summer lull. This then begs the question: why not release big games in the summer? People will still buy them, and perhaps they might even play them more.

Now keep in mind, I’m making a generalization. There are worthwhile games released in the summer, and this past summer was no exception. Titles like Lollypop Chainsaw, Darksiders 2, Sleeping Dogs, and Spec Ops: The Line, the latter of which I actually purchased (and reviewed), made their way into gaming systems around the world, but that slate pales in comparison to the holiday lineups. I can count on one hand the number of high profile games that were released this summer, but now, with Christmas looming around the corner, I may need to borrow a few extra digits.

Look, I get it; this time of year is typically seen as some sort of boon for the industry. With the holidays people are more inclined to open their wallets, so it appears that now is the best time to release all those games that will eventually make their way into our clamouring hands. Besides, summer sales are never that great anyways, right? Herein lies the rub: Sales are lower in the summer than during the holiday season, but how are they supposed to improve if higher profile games are continually clustered together for a holiday release resulting in a weaker, less interesting summer lineup? After all, there are only so many games a publisher can release in the year.

It is like a chicken-egg problem, which came first: Low sales or lack of quality titles? The answer, of course, is irrelevant because the situation has long settled into a circularity doomed to repeat itself. There are more anticipated video games released this time of year because we will buy those video games and because it’s the holidays, meaning we get more of those anticipated titles this time of year. Meanwhile summer releases typically aren’t as high profile, thus they don’t sell as well, and because sales are lesser, publishers are going to release their games when they think they will sell. As a result, summer is looked down upon as a time to release those hot AAA titles.

It all comes down to dollars. Publishers want to maximize their returns, and the typical notion of people being willing to spend more money now than any other time of year means releasing those AAA titles now is perceived as the best way to go.

I would wager, however, that we’d buy those AAA titles regardless of when they are released. In fact, I’d go even further to say that publishers do themselves a great disservice by vacating such a large portion of the year to cram so many games down our throats in such a short time span. As it stands now, I have to pick and choose which games I want. While it’d be nice to purchase and play them all as they are released, I simply don’t have the necessary resources, whether it be time or money. This is probably true for any gamer, and publishers must be aware of that fact. Yet they must still view the financial benefits as outweighing any potential risk stemming from competition—a truly misguided belief from risk adverse executives looking for a “sure thing.”

I’m not entirely certain why this belief exists because summer is actually the perfect time to release new video games. I don’t game any less in the summer, and I’m sure many of you don’t either. In fact, I’m sure many of us game more because we seem to have more time in summer than any other time of year. Students are done school, people typically take time off work, and we’re looking for ways to spend both time and money. Couple that with the lightweight release schedule that exists now and it should be a goldmine, a cornucopia for publishers to compete for/siphon away our entertainment dollars, but, instead, they continually shun the potential summer represents.

One of the reasons I actually bought Spec Ops: The Line, one of those “lightweight” summer releases, was because I was so starved for something new to play. Yes, I had heard good things, and I did enjoy my time playing it, but the fact of the matter is there also wasn’t much else to play. Publishers should be thinking along the same lines.  Just look at all the competition that currently exists: each game represents an obstacle towards another game fulfilling its perceived potential by not only selling the most it possibly can, but by actually being played longer before being left in a dusty, forgotten pile or, even worse, from a publishing perspective, being traded in.

I think there is an analogy that can be drawn to the film industry here. For the film industry, summer is a potential windfall, which is why we have those big budget summer blockbusters. They don’t shun releasing highly anticipated movies in the summer; no, they embrace it, and we are all the more willing to sit in a dark cinema on a beautiful day because we like to be entertained all year round; this is something the film industry understands and the video game industry needs to see. After all, something is anticipated not because of the time of year it is released, but because we actually want it (an over-simplified, ostensive explanation if there ever was one). It is not complicated.

Just imagine a small handful, a fraction, of AAA titles being moved to summer. I’d posit that the results would be good for everyone involved. They could sell just as well, maybe better, because there is less competition and more time to play them. Who really knows what the outcome would truly be.  All I know is that any AAA game released in the summer is something more to be thankful for.