Fourth Quarter Releases: Stop the Insanity Edition

This morning, I listened to a podcast with a couple of game reviewers arguing about how many games they have to play in the fourth quarter. They argued the stupidity of a release schedule so dense they could not keep up. They are right, but not about the keeping up part. There are too many games released in the fourth quarter. As far as keeping up, treat them like books and hire more reviewers, problem solved - but not for the consumer. We are looking at a cause and effect issue. The publishers put the games in the fourth quarter because it is when all the consumers buy games. Its the holidays and all. But have they ever thought consumers may be buying games in the fourth quarter because it is when all the good ones are the in the stores? I don't think they have.

I went through and pulled fourth quarter release dates from Gamespot. Some of these may have changed, and some might not have been right in the first place. The first thing we notice is the fourth quarter is kind of like the rest of the Christmas shopping season. It gets earlier ever year, and this year is creeping well in to the third quarter. To me the official launch of the holiday game season is the annual release of Madden. This year, it is happening on August 10. The rest of August is rounded out with some other highly anticipated titles. Too Human on the 17th, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway on the 24th and Mercenaries 2 on the 31st. Kind of a busy month for the core gamers. There may be some who only buy Madden, but I would guess there is significant overlap between the Brothers in Arms audience and Mercenaries.

September is no slouch either. The first week, we have Spore (fingers crossed), Legendary, and Midnight Club: Los Angeles. Those disks won't even have a chance to cool down when we take them out of the console for Force Unleashed, Socom, Civ IV, Destroy All Humans and Warhammer Battle Mech, all releasing the week of the 14th (Yes I know I am mixing PC with console, but the clock on the wall knows no platform distinction.) September Gaming goodness doesn't end there, with the release of Silent Hill, Warhammer on line, Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. and Pitfall Wii all shipping the 21st. But we are not out of the month yet, there is still another week with Fable 2, Far Cry 2 and Project Origin (They can't call it FEAR 2, but we can). A lot of titles, but wait . . . there's more.

A bunch of titles are designated as Q4 releases. Some, like Prototype will slip, others will make it. The contenders include Guitar Hero World Tour, Tomb Raider Underworld, Fallout 3, Gears of War 2, Saints Row 2, NBA Live, NBA 2K9, Neverwinter Nights 2, NHL 2K9, Star Wars The Clone Wars: Light Saber Duels, Prince of Persia, WWE Smackdown, Lord of the Rings Conquest, Bionic Commando, Dead Space, Tom Clancy End War, Little Big Planet, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty 5 and maybe even Starcraft.

We are looking at several hundred millions of dollars of game development being dropped on consumers within a period too short for them to even play a handful of them. We talking about competing for dollars, but the more scarce resource is consumer time. There simply is not enough time to play the games being released. A smart consumer knows they can't play all the games at once, so they buy the one they want most and wait to buy the rest- at a lower price.

This year we were able to get some anticipated games like GTA IV, MGS IV, Bourne Conspiracy, Devil May Cry and some others without waiting for the holidays. We were also able to sit down and play them, without the urge to switch them out quickly to see what the others look like. I wish I could say we had all this fun and time to enjoy because the publishers planned it, but they didn't. All of the titles missed their q4 ship dates from the previous year. Wonder of wonders, they still sold. GTA did not ship against Halo 3 and COD 4, and they all sold. People came to the stores and purchased games, even though it wasn't the holidays. So . . . let's back the prior sentence up, and break it down. A bunch of highly anticipated games shipped in the fall, and people bought some of them. Then, Activision promoted COD 4 in the first quarter, and people bought it, then GTA shipped in the second quarter and people bought it . . . I think I see a pattern. People buy the games they want regardless of the time of year. No, couldn't be. I thought March and April were Midway's opportunity to release sub-optimal games into an empty market, when no one else ships.

Publishers have to start looking at the entire year. The film business understands they are competing for dollars and a short period of time. Even when such a short period of time - one night- is sought, they think about the the other releases on the market. The jockey for dates, counter release, and try to scare other studios off of certain days. In the game business, we must command a lot more attention, but we have no qualms about investing years of development resource and money into a game and then throwing it into a crowded market during a very small window. It just doesn't make sense. The buying season is not the cause, it is the effect. The games are the cause. If you release only shit games during the first 2.75 quarters of the year, no one is going to buy games during the first 2.75 quarters. When you release all the good games at the end of the year, they will go to the store, and buy some of them. If it is a cost issue, and people are waiting for holiday buyers, they will still pay full price for the title at the holidays, look at GTA. If you aren't confident the price will hold, look at the game, not the season.

Of course this can't be said of console purchases. Especially during the first half of the cycle when consoles are still expensive. We just saw this with the release of GTA IV, which was considered a console mover, but didn't move so many. This is because most of the world can't afford to make a USD 300 to 600 purchase on a whim. Especially for a leisure device. Consoles are almost by definition, a holiday gift. Publishers may see this as a rationale to release in the 4th quarter. Consumers are in the stores buying consoles, so they must want games. Right? Wrong. They may buy a few games beyond on the ones bundled with the console, but if you stand in a store long enough, you will see, they move to the bargain bin. These consumers are spending a lot of money on the console and may purchase a single full price blockbuster, but the rest of the purchases are USD 20 and under from last year and the year before. They never played Gears of War, they didn't have a console. Crackdown? New to them and under USD 10. These people will put the console under the tree, hook it up to the TV at the end of December and play the games it came with. Some time around mid February, early March, if they enjoyed the games they played, they will leave their house and venture to the store, to feed the machines. In Wal-Mart and Best Buy, they will find all the excess inventory of the holiday games being blown out at discounts. At Gamestop, they will find all of those holiday games available at significantly reduced used prices.

It doesn't have to be this way. Let's try a radical idea. Launch good games in the first two quarters. Completion doesn't magically occur at the end of the end of the year, it happens at the end of the schedule. Give the developers the extra few months of polish, miss the holidays, make the money.


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