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Question of the Week Responses: The Christmas Rush?


October 25, 2005
 

In last week's Question of the Week, we asked:“Do you think that releasing the vast majority of major video games in the run-up to Christmas best benefits developers, publishers, and consumers?” With a few exceptions, the general feeling from the surveyed game professionals was that the large number of game released during the holiday season may be a detriment to the industry that benefits few if any parties involved. Negatives brought up included an overcrowded market, intense competition, and severe crunch times for developers. However, there were those who felt that there were at least some beneficiaries of the Christmas rush.

        
Holiday Lemmings

Not Many Benefits For All Parties Involved

Most of our respondents felt that it would be more beneficial to spread releases more evenly throughout the year, for both creative and financial reasons. Comparing the game industry to the movie industry, a few pointed out that movie releases tend to be more spread out, with summer being one of the major release periods. Quality control and quality of life issues also arose in the responses.

No, I don't think it helps anyone. Once upon a time it may have benefited publishers (and developers if they're getting royalties) to get their product out at a time when consumers are most likely to be purchasing a game. I believe this time has long since passed, and we have instead moved on to the point where many games are missing out at Christmas because of the huge amount of competition. These games could be selling at least as much if they were released during a quieter patch of the year, and maybe get a bonus by getting a budget re-release at Christmas. Similarly, it doesn't benefit consumers to have a 'game drought' away from Christmas, nor does it benefit them, come a point in time when they are more likely to spend money, that any games they do want to buy have all just been released and hence are all full-priced. Our industry is unique in this drive. People buy CDs, DVDs and go to the movies all year round, yet for some reason we believe that they need to buy all their games in two months.
-Robert Green, Sidhe Interactive

I just don't understand why summer is so slow. It seems like the summer season should be second only to the holidays, but instead it's the slowest period of the year. As a teenager and through most of college, summer was always the most boring part of the year. Growing up, it was always in summer that we'd get in trouble; usually because we were bored and needed something to do. It was also the time when we'd play the most videogames. I guarantee that at least 50% of holiday-released games would make better money if they'd only release in June instead of November.
-Ian Fisch, Green Room Productions

For short term gains (and sadly causing long term potential loss), retail has for ages brought up consumers to demand sales of otherwise perfectly fine goods all at one time during the holiday season, causing lumpy cashflow, low inventory turnovers and reduced margins. It is like giving in to a spoiled child's demands. And like parenting it does take a united front, or else... Bringing up our consumers in the same way is a big mistake. There will only be room for the EA and other big market players to rise above the deafening noise of 90% of the year squeezed into the space of 8 weeks. Yes, the holiday season, will draw customers in, who normally don't buy games, as they purchase presents, and with that bring a surge in spending. But remember a couple of years ago, where Ubisoft had a brilliant Christmas lineup of innovative titles consisting of, among others, Beyond Good and Evil, XIII and Prince of Persia; most of them didn't even make a crack at top 20. Yes, the Christmas season is desirable for short term profits, for the marketing giants anyway. But Christmas is not going to bring another Katamari Damacy or ICO; come Christmas time they will be snuffed out by another incredibly important release of “Madden NFL” or “FIFA 20XX.” For the sake of our industry, and the continuing innovation we need to develop and keep it alive, let's bring up our customers to spread their purchases more evenly across the year, so more titles will be given a legitimate shot in the marketplace and that not only the Christmas Top Ten will be profitable.
-Marque Sondergaard, Heroes Team

It certainly doesn't help developers... 22-hour days with nothing to eat but pizza and Jolt is bound to damage tender bodies. Publishers want revenue to be spread across the entire year, not jammed into a few "bet the farm" weeks; especially since any sort of economic disruption might destroy their entire year's profit. And consumers want to be able to read reviews and make leisurely comparisons, rather than being overwhelmed with a zillion titles at once. The one big advantage for consumers (but nobody else) is that so many titles will be in the remainder bin by the end of January!
-Dennis Sustare, BAE Systems

I think the traditional holiday season blitz will increasingly become a detriment to the industry. As the median age of gamers continues to climb, I predict overall sales will sag as it becomes apparent that fewer and fewer consumers have either the time or the money to enjoy all the high-quality titles that are released. A more evenly distributed release schedule would allow today's gamers, who now increasingly have families and other financial responsibilities not faced by previous generations, to experience a wider variety of games throughout the year, rather than being faced with a glut of choices at precisely the time their budgets are strained the most. Furthermore, without the pressure to release games in time for the holiday season, we would see fewer half-finished games rushed out the door, an all too common product during this season that benefits neither developer, publisher, nor consumer. Gamers could rest (more) assured that the game they're buying is actually complete. Developers would (theoretically) have the time to polish their vision. And publishers would not have to convince skittish shareholders to bide their time in anticipation of a sudden end-of-year revenue windfall. Sadly, though obviously necessary, such a massive transition requires a leap of faith for the whole industry. One which will hopefully come sooner rather than later.
-Eric Braxton

Looking at it from a sales numbers point of view I would say that it benefits both publishers and developers… but only a handful of them. The amount of titles released in the months up to Christmas is so massive that the consumer buying the games for presents (mums, dads, grandparents, brothers and sisters) have such a large selection that they almost don't know where to begin. Therefore it is often the titles with the biggest marketing spend (i.e. the big publishers with the big brands) that end up in the stocking, leaving smaller publishers and developers with the new and (perhaps) innovative titles grasping for the few consumers that haven't been indoctrinated by TV marketing blitzes. A more even launch schedule would maybe even out the odds and give the new IPs a better chance of getting noticed. It would also have the side effect of relieving the pressure on the developers who don't have to absolutely get the bloody game out by Christmas.
-Soeren Lund, Deadline Games

I think it benefits no one. Developers lose out because their hard work is fighting for a slice of the publishers' limited market resource. Publishers lose out because marketing will cost more in order to make an impact, and consumers lose because they'll miss out on some truly good games just because they either can't afford to buy them all at release, so they don't get bought at all, or they just won't have time to play all the games they do buy properly.
-Sean Scaplehorn, IdeaWorks 3D Ltd

I think that it is generally harmful. Needing to make a Christmas launch will usually involve imposing a very 'hard' deadline that leaves little to no leeway for the developers involved. In a perfect world, this would not be a problem, but this world is just not perfect. This in turn can result in shipping a game before its ready, or with features cut, or both. One quote that was attributed to Origin was: "A game is late until it ships, but it will suck forever." On top of that, it cannot be that good for the publishers. Not every game is going to be a blockbuster. It is very likely that your game will have a great deal of competition if it launches during the Christmas season. A game that could be a solid cult hit or sleeper will suffer at a Christmas launch, especially if its marketing is just not as strong as the competition. This could turn a solid but unremarkable game from a profitable game into a financial failure.
-Nicki Vankoughnett, Exile Interactive

No, not at all. I mean, what are we supposed to play for the rest of the year? Seriously though... by releasing all the major games at the same time of the year the chances are you're just going to alienate a lot of gamers who can't afford to shell out on more than one or two of the high-profile titles they want at that time. Even taking into account the 'extra' cash people apparently have lying around before Christmas. If game releases were more reasonably spaced throughout the year, I reckon that the incentive to buy good games upon release is greater as a consumer. Even if only because you know that when "Ultra Whizzbang Mega-Game of the Month" is released a month or two later, you know you'll be able to afford to buy it, having had a month or so to save. It's not committing the consumer to an “either/or” situation. For the game consumer, being forced to choose between buying games you really want merely because the publishers refuse to release any games between E3 and late September... well that just plain sucks. I want to buy all the games that look awesome - not just the one or two I can afford in the run up to Christmas.
-Anonymous

Well, it's better for them if they release before Christmas then shortly thereafter. But what about the summer season? The movie industry releases the vast majority of its titles then, which makes sense because that's when people have the time to watch them. It seems reasonable that such would also be when our audiences would have time to play the games they want to buy. Maybe it would be better for the industry as a whole if we had two major launch periods: Christmas and summer.
-Stephen Horn

I think that publishers have decided that they can make the most money during the Christmas season and so they have chosen that mark as the target for releases. Personally I feel that gamers suffer for this. Whether the gamers are on a budget with money or time, most rarely will buy all of the high profile titles released at a given moment. One moment we have every type of game to choose from, the next we are going months at a stretch with nary a sweet gaming moment in sight. If publishers would spread out their releases I believe that sales would rise and piracy fall. A gamer without the money to buy each of the top titles can resort to piracy, where a gamer that sees a longer timeline ahead might be able to keep it all under budget. Plus, with less titles that are similar (witness F.E.A.R. and Quake 4 out this week) it might prove an easier choice. Take a lesson from the movie industry - games will always be purchased regardless of what time of the year it is. Space them out, keep tabs on who is releasing when so you maximize your exposure and you will see profits increase!
-Todd Howard, Montana State University

Not if the game is rushed and full of bugs.
-Dan Mahoney, Virtual Sail Loft

No, no, and no. The Christmas rush does not contribute to quality shopping. It's the time when parents buy junk for their kids because they have no idea what the kids like. The Christmas rush only encourages whichever game is the current fad or games that are flashy and not necessarily any good.
-Ryker Abel

No. Instead of pushing for deadlines that are often times unreachable, and cluttering the market with too many new games at once, publishers and developers need to realize that people will buy games no matter when you release them. If a game has consistent marketing, good hype and piques the interest of gamers everywhere, then it shouldn't need an additional gimmick (i.e. a holiday release date). If you release a great game on a Wednesday in March, not only will it have the benefit of being great, but you'll have released it at a time when probably no other AAA titles are slated for release, so gamers are focused on your title alone. Let's leave fruitcake to be the biggest selling item during the holiday season.
-Tom Hanrahan

No, and it's an anachronistic practice that's in need of changing. The idea behind the Christmas season push is that kids will see shiny new titles coming out in the weeks leading up to the holiday, leaving parents to increase their typical buying habits for a few magical months. While this was a reasonable business strategy in years past, the gaming audience has undergone a massive shift from children and teenagers with negligible buying powers to twenty and thirty-something professionals with a smattering of disposal income. So while the power of the holiday season to incite brisk business is by no means eradicated, its importance has definitely decreased. The other dangerous aspect of rushing to meet a holiday launch is the way the Christmas market plays havoc with supply and demand. Instead of spreading new releases evenly throughout the year, spacing new titles out to prevent an influx of competition, studios make costly sacrifices to have their games ready for the holidays. Such a glut of product crowds the market immensely and leads to an overwhelmed consumer, neglected games, and even cannibalized sales from healthy-selling titles.
-Ben Serviss, Creo Ludus Entertainment

I believe a case can be made that this is the worst thing within our industry... We have followed in the footsteps of the movie studios, replacing the 'summer blockbuster' with the 'Christmas run-up'. Our customers have a finite wallet and releasing all these titles at once forces a choice to be made. With that choice comes a higher expectation that the money they are going to spend is on something worthwhile.
-Anonymous

For lower level testers and contractors it is not beneficial because it forces them to get laid off every year and stop working, collect unemployment or find a different job. This can have a negative effect on the very economy that the business is trying to cash in on. With lower level testers and other contractors they can ideally along with others in the business, work less overtime, work a more flexible schedule and work year round. For the consumers I can't imagine anyone wanting 5 games to come out all at once. Most gamers do not need another game unless they have finished the game they had just bought. The only benefit that I can see is that if 50 games are coming out in a span of two weeks, then chances are something I want is coming out and I might be more inclined to go to the store and browse the selection of Christmas time games. In short, this is a really antiquated practice, and should be updated with the times. I am sure that customers would prefer time to pass for their favorite games to be released, so that they can budget their money and have enough time to play games. Also the employees should not be working so much overtime working to release a game come Christmas time, usually before it is ready; this would help the lower level testers and contractors who do not deserve to be laid off every year.
-Ty Barrett, Microsoft

For the publisher, yes, it benefits them because it boosts fiscal sales and raises the stock of the company. For the developers, no! The time constraints put on the developers pushes them to make faulty fixes in programming and shortcuts in artwork. For the consumer, well that is a give and take... they get an end product to stuff in a stocking or two that is mediocre instead of solid and well-made. Everyone knows that deadlines can be unrealistic at times, that 'things' happen... but it just seems to be a question of integrity... is it money or quality that is more important to your company?
-Christina Bergschneider

There Are Some Benefits…

Eevery coin has two sides, and a smaller but notable contingent of respondents suggested that there are benefits to the amount of games released during the holiday season. A few respondents felt that large publishers do quite well during the Christmas season, in part, due to large marketing budgets but also due to increased overall consumer spending in the period. Other beneficiaries cited, included consumers who have a wide selection to choose from, and even developers, who get time off after the severe crunch leading up to the season.

There are good and bad things about this mentality; sometimes it can be a bad thing, but usually it is beneficial. From a quality of life standpoint, it's negative in that there are crunch times associated with "getting the game out in time for Christmas." But there is also a positive in that "comp time" or "down time" usually comes around Christmas, giving developers time to relax and spend time with family during the holidays. One rebuttal to the negative point is that crunch time occurs for other reasons besides just Christmas deadlines. My thoughts are that Christmas deadlines are fine and beneficial, but if a game isn't going to be ready in time, it's not the end of the world to release it after Christmas - there's still plenty of game buying going on after Christmas, especially after the gamers have returned all their unwanted gifts.
-Josh Jones, Sensory Sweep Studios, LLC

Releasing a large number of major games around the holiday season has upsides and downsides, both to the industry as a whole and to an individual developer. The plus side is the sheer amount of revenue being spent by consumers during the time period. This means more products will be purchased. Also, with the "extension" of the holiday season (people buy gifts earlier and earlier), the release of games are not necessarily overlapping each other tightly, which could potentially increase the sale of your game. The downside is that companies are going to face a large amount of competition and the sheer bulk of major games coming out could also cause a bottleneck in sales with only so much consumer spending to go around. Releasing a major name during other points of the year would likely capture a larger part of the market. While people are more fiscally conscientious then they are during the holiday season, releasing a major title during this period would likely gain more notice, and bring in revenue regardless, as it would have less competitors.
-Sean Bulger, Husky Game Design

As a developer, I'm of the belief that you release a game when it's done, not because of an exterior milestone. That being said, Christmas is obviously a big sales window that can't be overlooked when publishing games. Therefore, as developers and publishers, we must balance quality with timing because unless both are in sync, our titles won't sell. I think consumers with a limited budget that do plan for Christmas spending, benefit most by the large selection of new and exciting titles and systems each year, especially this year with the Xbox 360 coming.
-Patrick Lister, Infinity Ward

In my opinion this strategy works well, but I do believe there are other solutions to generate more sales over a period of time. During the Christmas season, sales are up with the mass demand by the consumer market. This trend lasts until about mid-January when all the after-Christmas sales end, after which sales drop dramatically. This boost in sales for a short while is no doubt good and should be taken advantage of by both consumers and publishers but also the need to prolong the demand for new games is in need and should be taken into consideration. My opinion would be to release major titles during the Christmas season for the consumers to take advantage of Christmas and after-Christmas sales. Then release other titles over the next 4 months to maintain the level of sales with the gaming market. That way, the consumer feels they get a good deal on the Christmas sales, while the publishers are able maintain more sales over a longer period of time, while at the same time giving developers a longer time period to finish projects on games they are working on. This would benefit all parties while generating more sales in the gaming market.
-Byron Richmond

_____________________________________________________

[Please note that the opinions of individual employees responding to the Question Of The Week may not represent those of their company.]


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