I spend a lot of time staring at our release calendar. For my job, I mean. I don't just sit there staring in a fetishistic way; that would be super creepy. Rather, I use it a lot to try and figure out what games we have/need for upcoming review and Quick Look content. If you ever bother to look at this page as I do, you may have noticed that since April, the calendar's been a bit dry. In fact, for a long while there, last week's calendar only showed one new game: Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move, an eShop download for the 3DS. By the time the week began, that calendar began to fill out a bit more, with such rousing titles as the (delayed) XBLA version of Monaco, a PS2 Classics re-release of Fatal Frame II, and the advergame Doritos Crash Course 2.
Yep, it's official: We are in the thick of the spring/summer doldrums.
It happens most every year. By the time the holiday season winds down, game releases begin to dry up. It used to be that we wouldn't see much of anything for the entire first half of the year, though in recent years the first quarter has at least been a steady home of big releases that either slipped out of the holiday schedule, or just floated into March to help pad out a publisher's fiscal report. This February/March was actually pretty heavy with quality game releases. But now that we've gone past the end of every publisher's fiscal year (which ends on March 31), the quality has begun to take a precipitous dip.
Things aren't as bad as they used to be by any stretch--the last couple of years have seen some pretty great games like Mortal Kombat, Portal 2, Diablo III, and Max Payne 3 hit during the late spring--but as I look through this year's current release calendar, all I see for weeks on end are one, maybe two noteworthy releases pocking each month's schedule. This week, we got the one-two punch of Metro: Last Light and Dust 514. Two weeks after that, the Insomniac-developed multiplayer shooter Fuse (which one gets the impression EA couldn't figure out a better release week for). The week after that, Capcom's futuristic adventure Remember Me is the biggest game of the week (see previous parenthetical, substitute Capcom for EA). Then, the week of E3, Animal Crossing: New Leaf hits, followed that Friday by The Last of Us. Eventually we'll see the likes of Game & Wario, Shin Megami Tensei IV, and Deadpool, but that's about it until the calendar picks up again in August.
So tends to be the way of the spring/summer release calendar. A few big games spread across months of time, like butter scraped across too much toast. This notion of back-loading game releases into the holiday season is practically as old as the industry itself. After all, video games began, at least from a marketing perspective, as an offshoot of the toy industry. It's irrefutable fact that people spend more money on toys and video games during the holiday season than they do any other time of the year. That's been true even during our most recent recession, and it's seemingly been the guiding ethos for publishers looking to find an ideal calendar spot for all their big games.
But just because sales invariably pick up heavily in the holiday months doesn't mean that there isn't value in those long, hot, slow summer months. Microsoft practically owned the digital game market when it introduced its Summer of Arcade push. Out of that promotion, hugely popular downloadable titles like Geometry Wars 2, Braid, Shadow Complex, Limbo, and Bastion have emerged. Now Microsoft even has competition from Sony, with its PSN Play program, which theoretically should inspire both companies to be pushing for higher quality summer content. Then again, considering what a drag most of Microsoft AND Sony's summer digital lineups were last year (a few outstanding games like Sound Shapes and Dust: An Elysian Tail notwithstanding), one can't help but wonder how much either company will be pushing their respective campaigns this year. Especially when you consider that both have new consoles to focus on peddling.
The conventional wisdom says that kids and older student types don't buy games during the spring and summer because they're outside, traveling with family, or in weeks like this one, hard at work on finals. That's all fairly accurate to a degree, provided you're still working under the notion that video games are primarily bought by, or for, kids/college students. I imagine that's still a very big chunk of the overall gaming demographic, but we're long past the point of adults buying console, handheld, and PC games being an aberration.
And even if you are thinking solely about the kids, okay, then why not make the spring and summer months the designated home for all major handheld games? Kids who travel will eventually become bored of whatever they've traveled to see, and will look for time to spend with their 3DS and/or Vita. Given that the Vita is now well over a year old, I am legitimately flabbergasted that Sony hasn't made a bigger push to put more noteworthy Vita games out during the next several months. Right now, the only major title I'm aware of coming up for the Vita any time soon is Ratchet & Clank: Full Frontal Assault (though thankfully, there are some good downloadable indie titles popping up here and there as well). Sony might be dedicating more resources to PS4 development and promotion right now, but if there's any notion still floating around in the heads of Sony's executives that the Vita might still be salvageable in the US market, then why not focus toward getting big Vita games into the hands of players when they would theoretically have the most free time? Assuming, of course, there are any big Vita games currently forthcoming...
Nintendo doesn't even have that next-gen console excuse. If anything, the 3DS is what's keeping Nintendo in decent working order these days. There are no shortage of big, upcoming 3DS games, but few of them have release dates prior to this August. In fact, only Animal Crossing and the 3DS remake of Donkey Kong Country Returns are hitting store shelves prior to the end of the summer. Mario Golf: World Tour could potentially still be squeezed in there, but even still, that's not exactly a banger of a lineup for an entire four-month period. I was legitimately shocked when, during Friday's Nintendo Direct, Iwata had nothing of note new to offer for the 3DS' summer lineup. I figured if they were having an event focused on summer releases, then maybe there would be more, like, you know, actual summer releases.
Nothing is going to change this year's release trajectory. With so many eyes squarely focused on this holiday season--one of the exquisitely rare "new consoles" breed--this summer's release schedule is largely expendable, peppered with last hurrahs for the current slate of hardware, and leftover, less eminently marketable games publishers clearly hope will benefit from minimal competition. By the time we do get to the end of August, dozens of huge games will start converging on the ever-narrowing weeks between then and November, all vying for a limited number of dollars. The bottleneck will result in some big games doing extremely well, and a lot of other games being called "disappointments" in their publishers' future financial conference calls. I assure you, it's going to be an absolute bloodbath.
It doesn't always have to be that way. There are 52 weeks every year when publishers could theoretically be releasing new games. Instead of building every major development cycle toward a narrow window of supposedly ideal retail conditions, spacing out our releases over the entirety of the year could help relieve some of the tension of the big holiday push. And if you're so worried about games coming out in the summer and dying at retail in the fall, then why not time some big, meaty DLC to release around that holiday season, both as a bonus for people who already bought, and an enticement for those who haven't yet? It's not like we haven't figured out any number of ways to extend a game's lifespan in recent years. Pretending that people will only buy games so long as they hit store shelves around the holidays feels like an archaic way of thinking, one long overdue to at least be experimented with and tweaked, if not overhauled altogether.