It is believed that games publishers and retailers alike make almost 80% of their profit in the run-up to Christmas. November is the most important time for producers as friends and family look for the hot entertainment product that will shut their kids up for a few sweet minutes on Christmas Day. Although gaming is a business, and no one can be blamed for putting out their biggest and best at a time of the year when they are guaranteed sales, it says a lot that even marginal publishers with marginal titles feel the need to slot their products somewhere into the grand melee.
Take the end of October to the beginning of November this year for instance. In just a few short weeks, we will see the release of Forza Motorsport 4, Battlefield 3, Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 and Uncharted 3, all titles that are almost certain to be critically acclaimed and lauded as must haves. If you dig a little deeper under the surface of September and October, you’ll see less prominent titles up for grabs too, like F1 2011, Batman: Arkham City and Ace Combat: Assault Horizon. As much as this quarter is likely to be seen as one of the best in recent memory, it may not be one that delivers great business for the market.
One only has to look to last year’s Christmas for evidence of that. Sega’s Vanquish, developed by Platinum Games, the acclaimed team that delivered Bayonetta earlier in the year, in the middle of a very busy period. First week sales seemed like a respectable 150k across both platforms, until you compare them with the half a million of Bayonetta, a game released in a much less crowded period of the year.
Publishers often make the argument that the marginal games they release wouldn’t do the same kind of business in the Summer or Spring. This could not be further from the truth. Arkham Asylum had a minimal advertising campaign and was simply buoyed by great reviews after continual delays (usually a tell tale sign of a game struggling with quality in development). First week sales were well over half a million, in the height of Summer.
It can’t be denied that Christmas improves sales of big games. Call of Duty continues to smash records because it’s the hot product that everyone wants. It’s as much material that gamers want to play on the day of release as it is the big present from Santa (despite the age rating, but that’s another discussion). Even more so for hardware – a big campaign for the biggest new console, as well as the price point of entry makes it a desirable object under the tree. However, the impact it might be having on smaller games is more negative than it is positive.
Gamers don’t stop playing during those outdoor months. Rockstar Games have made a very effective business by selling games at less crowded times. One needs to look only at LA Noire, released this May against an otherwise barren backdrop to phenomenal sales. The kind of games that are largely being released in the Winter months are exactly those which sell in the low periods.
So gamers will buy those marginal titles this Christmas, as they always do, but they will once again have to choose to divide their time between their Battlefields and their Call of Duty’s. Publishers will look at their balance sheets in the aftermath and wonder what went wrong with their PR and marketing. And everyone else will be able to pick up these games in the bargain bin on Boxing Day as retailers look to dump whatever isn’t selling. Until we are ultimately able to change our thinking about how and when games are sold, the subject of the Silly Season will forever remain a hot topic when scheduling game releases… and game purchases.