Let's play a game. It's a very simple game that also doubles as an experiment and I think you're going to really enjoy it. Here comes the set-up.
You are the head of a game developer who is in the home stretch of the completion of a brand new game. It can be either a brand new franchise or the long overdue return/re-invention of an old classic (if you're going for the second option, then the franchise you pick must not be very well known and not have had a proper new game in the last 5 years).
It's got good buzz on the internet, there's nothing else like it on the market, and it's really, really good (as part of this hypothetical exercise, you already know the Metacritic score is in the 90s even though you haven't finished it/sent it out for review yet. Just roll with me here).
The only big thing to do now is narrow down a release date. There are four release seasons to choose from, but which one is most likely to give your untested and unique IP the best chance of people giving enough of a toss to actually go out and purchase it?
Got an answer? Let's see which of you got the correct answer, then.
The most obvious choice would be the winter period, right? I mean, it's easily the best and most profitable period for gaming, especially November. The market is flooded with loads of clones of Gears of War and Call of Duty so your new and original IP is far more likely to stick out. And; if it does bomb slightly, it's got a better chance of being included in the Christmas sales, making it far more likely to succeed as an impulse buy! So, this is clearly the right time to release it, right?
Except that that's not how this works. For a start; you're a relatively unproven developer with an untested IP that's not a sequel with lots of guns in it and explosions on the box. You're crippled off the starting line. Who's gonna give a damn about your game when Skyrim and Uncharted 3 and Battlefield 3 are launching around you?
But, “That's OK! We can circumvent this problem by advertising!” you say to yourself. Except for the fact that your publisher doesn't think your game is gonna sell well. They like it, sort of, but they think, quite rightly, that it's gonna get slaughtered and that no amount of advertising can fix the issue. So, they don't even bother to tell the world that your game is out there on store shelves crammed next to Battlefield 3 and mountains of unsold copies of Bodycount.
But here comes the kicker, boys and girls: your publisher is Ubisoft and despite revitalising one of their self-proclaimed hallmark franchises they still have no faith in your game doing well. So they decide to shunt it out the same day as every other game on the bleedin' planet including the highly anticipated sequel to their cash cow franchise.
This is something they have done at least three times now. Rayman Origins, Beyond Good & Evil and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. And whilst that last one managed to get a sequel (and, eventually, a franchise), the ridiculous tonal shift it got was made precisely so that this problem wouldn't happen again because it now appealed to “tha yoof”.
Your game bombs. Your company goes bankrupt. Your wife leaves you. You hang yourself on a doorknob.
Spring time is clearly the best time then. I mean, it's after the holiday season and all of the big games choked themselves to death during that relatively tiny window. The gamers who got the big games for Christmas (or other such religion approved holidays) have already sped through them all, 100% them as they go, and are hungry for something new. Plus, with all of those big games gone, you've got a nice big advertising window to promote the hell out of your game! There's nothing wrong with this period then, right?
Ah, but those same points can come back to bite you in the arse. For one; it's post-Christmas which means that no one has got any money (at least in January, anyhow) and the money they do have is going to go towards this little thing we call living and bill paying. If they barely have enough money for food, why on earth would they want to drop 40 notes for your video game?
Plus, again, your publisher isn't entirely confident in your game and, as such, you're not getting that nationwide advertising blitzkrieg you were initially promised. You'll get some ads, but that's at 4AM on POP and POP Girl and on page 75 of gamesTM.
Oh, and to rub salt into the wound, you're launching one week before the finale of a massive sci-fi RPG trilogy that fans are eagerly waiting for and devoted fans are eagerly awaiting to tear into seeing as this is “the developer's last chance” otherwise “they're a soulless EA machine”. You're gonna get crushed.
Your game bombs. Your company goes bankrupt. Your wife leaves you. You attempt to hang yourself on a doorknob but fail and just kind of sit there half strangling yourself and looking a bit stupid.
But how about autumn? Little to no big new games are coming out then. They’re all too busy trying to squeeze themselves into November, the fools! Plus, your developer has much lower expectations of you; meaning that being even a mild success is enough to guarantee you a sequel (this is, essentially, why we haven’t seen the last of Driver after San Francisco did decent sales). And, this gives you enough time to slap together a demo for all of the major conventions. You can raise awareness on your imminent final product! Autumn is perfect in theory, right?
Except that nobody gives a damn about your game. Why should they? November is looming over the horizon and everything is coming out then. Sure, they may not want to go without a new game for a month, but they’re far more likely to hold off and get several massive games at once. So your game will be passed over again.
Then there’s the fact that the autumn release window is super tight. Tighter than all of the others. Technically; it starts in August, but it really starts whenever the latest Madden game graces us with its presence, which fluctuates between the years. And then it ends in the middle of October when the first of the massive releases crops up on store shelves. If you wanna get it out in this window, you need to be going faster than the speed of light.
Plus, those conventions you were relying on to bring in publicity can backfire spectacularly. A poor showing at even one of them can damage your appearance beyond all repair. The internet is not a forgiving place.
Finally, Madden comes out during this period. Let me repeat that: Madden. Since you need a success in America, which is where your publisher is gonna base your performance on, you’re boned.
Your game bombs. Your company goes bankrupt. Your wife leaves you. You throw yourself under a bus, but it stops about 5 feet away from you so you end up being laughed at by bystanders for sucking so much.
As a last gasp attempt, you choose summer. Your reasoning? No games come out at all in summer. Ever. This actually starves the gaming community who are desperate for something, anything, to come out and distract them for a few hours in exchange for £40. This drought means that some games that would otherwise not do so well actually post halfway respectable sales figures (such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution). Also: Summer holidays! The kids want to buy stuff. Why would you not market towards them? So, summer it is...
Unfortunately, you may have just picked the worst possible release date. You see: “nobody buys games in the summer!” Do you know what sales figures for the summer look like? (If you haven’t, here’s an idea) So, you’re screwed before you even consider the following reasons.
All of the major videogame conventions are on in the summer, so your game is going to be extremely under the radar. For example: did you realise Duke Nukem Forever came out the same week as E3? Yeah... Neither did anyone else. Also, any ads that the publisher does decide to create are going to be super half hearted. Because... well... E3!
But here comes the final nail in the coffin; this is Rockstar’s territory. Since 2008 (technically) the company has released their game for the year in May. And, without fail, they’ve cleaned up. GTA IV in 2008. GTA: The Lost & Damned in 2009. Red Dead Redemption in 2010. LA Noire in 2011. Max Payne 3 this year. If anyone will even consider buying a game in summer; who’s are they gonna pick? Yours or Rockstar’s?
Your game bombs. Your company goes bankrupt... You get the idea.
To those of you who chose no season and instead answered, “Whenever. There is no magically correct time to release it. You just need to hope you’ve got good advertising power, massive, positive internet hype and love from a set of imaginary deities from up on high”... congratulations! That’s exactly what I was looking for! You sure know your game release schedules! You’re gonna do well in this industry.
Thanks for playing!
jackanderson is a wannabe games journalist and an amateur amateur film critic. If you bought Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood over Rayman Origins then you and him are no longer friends.