— Welcome to Video Game Land — a place graced with the most extreme of climates. In the summer months, this locale transforms into a scorched desert with only a few shimmering oasis to sustain its residents. And in the winter months, it becomes a flood zone — the kind of place one could easily drown.
That is, when it comes to the flow of top-tier video game launches, gamers are caught in an endless cycle of draught and flood … when what we really need is a nice steady stream to drink from.
This comes to mind now as the warm months bring the list of weekly game launches to a trickle. Yes, May, June and July gave us "inFamous," "Ghostbusters: The Video Game" and "Wii Sports Resort." Meanwhile “Madden NFL 10” launches today and “Wolfenstein” launches Tuesday. But if big games are your thing, there’s no denying that the pickings grow slimmer as the days grow longer.
But look ahead at the horizon. There, in the months to come, you’ll find a tidal wave looming. Consider this list of games scheduled to launch from Oct. 20 to Nov. 20: “Borderlands,” “DJ Hero,” “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” “Assassin’s Creed II,” “Left 4 Dead 2,” “Tony Hawk: Ride,” “Tekken 6,” “Dragon Age: Origins” and “Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time.” And that doesn’t include mega-games like “Halo 3: ODST,” “The Beatles: Rock Band” and “New Super Mario Bros. Wii” which are also scheduled to launch this fall and winter.
So why does this cycle of feast or famine continue year after year? Spending summers waiting for the most anticipated games to trickle from the faucet is annoying … and so is getting a blast in the face come holiday season. It isn’t good for game consumers trying to budget and balance the limited cash they have for purchases, and it can’t be good for the games industry. I mean, right?
Bad for you, bad for me
“Unlike the movie industry and maybe the concert industry, the summer hasn’t been very well utilized or monetized by the game publishers,” says analyst Michael Cai, vice president of video game research at Interpret LLC.
Meanwhile, during the late fall and winter months, game publishers are madly monetizing away.
“Frequently, you see publishers launching similar games that are in the same genre or that will compete for gamers’ mind share and wallet share at the same time. And sometimes those games are even coming from the same publisher,” Cai says. And no, “It’s definitely not good for their sales numbers.”
Cai points out that last year’s jam-packed holiday launch schedule was cited as a reason for underperforming sales from a number of titles. “Dead Space” and “Mirror’s Edge” were among those hurt in the crush.
When the NPD Group announced their dismal summer video game sales figures yesterday, many were quick to point to the end-of-year game-launch glut as a chance to pretty up the fiscal picture. But maybe summer sales figures wouldn’t be quite so bleak if consumers weren’t forced to sit around twiddling their thumbs as they waited for the blockbusters to finally arrive. I mean, why cram so many titles in front of gamers during one time of year?
Certainly games make good gifts, so launching around the gift-giving holidays makes good sense to some extent. But also, “part of the reason might be a kind of inertia and risk aversion,” Cai says. “Traditionally, the game industry generates more than 50 percent of their revenue in the fourth quarter and then it just turns into this kind of self-fulfilling circle that everybody believes they’re going to do well in the fourth quarter and therefore everybody ships their big titles in the fourth quarter.”
But Cai says publishers have been learning that this end-of-year rush doesn’t always work and have been making adjustments. Games like “Grand Theft Auto IV” and “The Sims 3,” for example, have been launched during the summer months to great success. Meanwhile, in recent weeks, publishers have announced they’ll be postponing a multitude of games originally scheduled for release this holiday to next year instead.
A Capcom rep told Game Spot that they have delayed the planned holiday release of their third-person shooter “Dark Void” until early next year to avoid the crowded fall season. Meanwhile, Activision is moving its time-manipulating shooter “Singularity” out of the fall/winter schedule to next year so that it doesn’t have to compete with another hugely anticipated Activision title: “COD: Modern Warfare 2.” And Take-Two Interactive announced last month that it was cancelling the November launch of “Bioshock 2” and moving it to 2010.
“We believe the result will be a more compelling consumer experience and a better performing product in the marketplace,” Strauss Zelnick, Chairman of Take-Two, said in a statement.
The news has frustrated some gamers who were looking forward to playing these highly anticipated titles. But others are relieved.
“I'm glad there are so many game delays this holiday because I didn't have the money for all the games I wanted to play and I still don't,” wrote gamer DjFlex53 in a discussion forum.
Warming up to the summer months
Certainly it makes sense that publishers would think of summer as a less-than-ideal time to peddle games — what with the sun and great outdoors luring players away from their machines. But the reality is, game playing hardly comes to a stop during the summer.
On Monday, Nielsen released stats showing that gamers are spending more time playing games this summer than last. In fact, this June was a record breaker, with data showing that total video game console usage minutes increased 21 percent over last June.
Cai believes it makes good sense for publishers to start thinking more seriously about launching big games during the summer. Not only is there less competition, but younger players — especially college kids — are out of school and have more time on their hands. Interpret LLC data shows that hours-per-week spent gaming among 18-to-24-year-olds increased by 9 percent during the last three months over the same period last year, Cai said.
He also points to the emergence of the Wii as something publishers should consider.
“Wii gamers care a little bit less about rushing out there and buying a game in the first week of its release,” Cai says. “They tend to stretch out their purchases throughout the year, even games that have been released for a long time. So with gamer demographics changing it makes sense for some of these publishers to begin experimenting with a more refined release strategy.”
Certainly Microsoft and Sony have found one smart way to put the slow spring and summer months to good use. Both have taken this time to launch and promote their best downloadable games — smaller games often from indie developers that could easily get trampled during the holiday crush.
Microsoft is in the midst of its second-annual Summer of Arcade event in which each week for five weeks they unveil one of their best new Xbox Live Arcade titles — the combustible comedy platformer “Splosion Man” and the Orson Scott Card-inspired side-scroller “Shadow Complex” (coming Wednesday) among them. Meanwhile, earlier this year, Sony ran a Spring Fever campaign — launching standout PlayStation Network titles like the gorgeous “Flower” and the stretchy, surreal adventure “Noby Noby Boy.”
And that’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate about the summer slowdown. It forces us gamers to slow down as well and to look for our gaming fix in new, less obvious places.
During these lazy summer days, I’ve spent quality time with WiiWare platformer “NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits” entranced by its elegant gameplay. I’ve wallowed in “Pure Hidden,” the most spellbindingly gorgeous PC hidden-object game I’ve ever laid eyes upon. And I’ve jumped into the PSN’s “Shatter,” a stylish and addictive block-breaking game with a rump-shakin’ original soundtrack.
Perhaps that summer dry spell isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Winda Benedetti is tweeting about her favorite summer games and other things on Twitter.