[With publishers pushing former 'Holiday 2009' games like Bayonetta and BioShock 2 into 2010, Gamasutra examines the shifts, looking at whether this potential "new trend" is an economic stopgap or a long-term change.]
Anyone recall a time when the video games industry wasn't focused almost entirely on year-end sales? To take advantage of the holiday gift-giving season, the majority of games have always been released in the October to November time frame, almost as if there weren't 12 months in the year.
But this year, the economic slump has given birth to a new marketing strategy -- delaying some releases until first quarter and beyond. This, some believe, will enable gamers with limited funds to find desirable titles not only during the holiday season but into the new year as well.
At least, that's what analysts are saying; publishers, meanwhile, aren't saying much. Not one publisher contacted for this story was willing to talk on the record -- not Ubisoft, not Sega, not Activision Blizzard, not 2K, all of them with plans to delay titles into 2010.
What They Say
In a previously-released statement, Sega West president and COO Mike Hayes explained why the upcoming PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 action title Bayonetta won't make its Fall 2009 release window
in North America and is, instead, slated for January 2010.
"As a result of market analysis," he said, "we have made a publishing decision that January 2010 is the optimum release time in the Western markets to maximize this exciting new title's potential."
At Take-Two, chairman Strauss Zelnick earlier released a statement that it was delaying the North American launch
of BioShock 2
from November 3 into the company's fiscal 2010 -- which begins November 1 -- citing unexpectedly challenging retail environments and "to provide additional development time. We concluded that [the move] was the right decision for the product." Take-Two's Mafia II
is reportedly due in the first half of calendar year 2010, also a delay for that title.
Similarly, Activision Blizzard has bumped the release date of Raven's Singularity
back to March, 2010 "in order to establish the new cutting-edge action IP as a 'must-have' title ... and clear the way for [Activision's other shooter] Modern Warfare 2
to dominate this holiday season," according to a corporate statement.
And asked to explain why Ubisoft was moving the release
of Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction
from its holiday lineup to February 23, a spokesperson said, "We've said all we're going to say on the subject."
But back in August, Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello described the scenario
that may have influenced other publishers to delay some of their releases: "One of the learnings we had from FY09," he said, "was that we bunched up too much into the Q3 quarter [October-December]. Where some of our titles crowded out the competition, they were crowded out by other EA titles."
And, he added, EA put together a plan "that is designed to take advantage of the fact that there are 12 months in a year, and we think we can actually do better with our key titles by spacing them out."
What It Means
Indeed, amid the economic downturn and what some publishing execs cite as continuing retail conservatism on initial sell-in volume, it's possible other publishers may buck the trend toward seasonal rush and move their higher-profile, costly releases into less crowded release windows in the hopes of selling more units.
Are we seeing the beginning of a long-term trend -- or just a short-term stop-gap measure until the economy picks up? "I do think this is a new trend," says Matt Matthews, Gamasutra contributor and NPD analyst, "but I'm not surprised there aren't more people talking about it. Delaying a game -- for whatever reason -- has always been considered something negative ... even when it's not."
Matthews subscribes to the scenario that with so many games being released in the same short period of time -- especially with the abundance of new Wii games which, he says, has overcrowded that platform -- publishers suspect that gamers, with their limited time and money, aren't going to buy every game they want.
"It's possible that publishers are looking at the must-buys -- like the new Call Of Duty
, the new Halo
, and, of course, this year's Madden
-- and are predicting that they will suck up so much of the available money that the others ought to be put on the back burner for a while."
"Under different economic circumstances, gamers might buy every title they want within the space of two months, but not this year; I don't think the general population is prepared to do that at this time," the analyst theorizes. "I don't remember the last time the industry got pinched this badly by a recession."
Matthews recalls that in 2005, 2006, and 2008, the dollars spent on console and handheld software were 55 percent in the first three calendar quarters followed by a 45 percent splurge in spending in the fourth quarter.
But then, he says, "a bunch of titles made a ton of money in the first three quarters of 2008 and sales jumped to over $6 billion compared to $4.5 billion in the year-earlier first three quarters. That's a tremendous jump -- 33 percent. But when you compare the fourth quarter of 2008 to the year-earlier fourth quarter, the increase is only 16 percent."
"What that says to me is that the pinch from the recession started even before 2008 was over," he continues. "Some people didn't expect the industry to be affected by the recession, but when people are unemployed, they can't purchase expensive video games."
Mathews suggests that, at some point, publishers looked at the numbers and realized they'd be far better off if they pushed back some game titles. "Consider the fact that this generation of console games is far more expensive to produce than the last one," he explains. "The games that are coming out now are ones that were green-lighted 18-24 months ago ... and those investments are now coming due."
"If a company is looking at its investment and has a choice of getting a decent return at Christmas or waiting a few months and getting a much better return in a less-crowded field -- perhaps in a somewhat more positive economic environment this spring -- I think they'd rather do the latter."
But won't delaying a year-end game glut until the spring just delay the glut a few months? Possibly, says Matthews, but he believes publishers may soon come to the realization that it would be to their benefit -- and to the consumers' -- if they targeted various times throughout the year to release their games.
"It used to be that nothing came out during the summer, and I think that needs to change," he says. "Publishers will have to figure out ways to make money in non-traditional months. You'll recall that Microsoft released Halo 3
in September 2007 and did very, very well. If a game is good enough, it shouldn't matter when it comes out."
Continues Matthews: "In my mind, Activision could promote, say, July as Call of Duty
month. Or use some other big franchise as a tent pole to hold up a different month. And then they might re-release it at Christmas as 'the hit that rocked the summer' and get a second bite of the sales apple."
However, once the recession is a thing of the past, will marketers return to tried-and-true strategies with Christmas as their main focus?
Matthews hopes that won't happen but he suspects it will. "Publishers may just slide through 2010 and then say, 'Well, we're glad we got through that' and return to old habits. It would be better for the industry if that didn't happen, but there are some habits that are just extremely hard to break."