Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Nathan Brown takes cover from the end-of-year release crush
Ah, review season. It’s the time of the year when nary a Friday goes by without the release of one potential system seller and a hatful of games that you’d have had a lot more time for three months ago. I’ve always been baffled by the way so many publishers put their games up against the year’s biggest hitters like this. I mean, I understand it: this is the busiest time of year for game sales, and it’s thought that even a middle-tier release will sell more copies up against Halo in October than if it had the third week of June to itself. But it’s an old-fashioned way of thinking, one rooted in an era where a game only really exists for its first week on shelves. After that, it’s a slow slide down the charts, off the purchase orders, and into the pre-owned section.
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. So long as this industry holds true to the ‘Q4 rules all’ mantra, it will continue to be the case that Q4 does indeed rule all. But looking back on 2015, would The Witcher III or Bloodborne have done so well had they come out in the same week as Fallout 4 or Black Ops III? CD Projekt Red and From Software were forced into new release windows by delays in development, but I doubt they can have many regrets. Things are improving year on year, I think – the summer drought is no longer so parched – but not by enough, and not by design. Bloodborne came out in February because it wasn’t ready for Christmas, not because Sony decided it would be better to give PS4’s best exclusive yet a clearer run.
Sony is unlikely to have taken too much from its success, either. As a platform holder, it simply has to have a busy release slate in the lead up to Christmas – it is in the business of selling hardware too, and a steady flow of exciting new games is the best way to shift systems. But The Witcher III is a case study that suggests publishers would be well served to look at the other nine months of the year when setting their release dates. Six million sales in six weeks; even when the big hitters have come and gone, The Witcher III will be one of the fastest- and best-selling games of 2015. It came out in mid-May.
Had The Witcher III come out in November, I’m sure we’d all still have bought it, but how much would we have played it? There’s a certain rhythm to being a videogame player when the clocks go back: games are bought every Friday, played for a few hours, then put aside for the next big thing. We go to the checkout once a week with that slight twinge of guilt. This is a time for spending on other people, not ourselves. Yet here we are, buying another game we don’t need right now and mentally
rewriting our Christmas lists, cancelling nights out, and wondering if cellophane wrap and a carrier bag might be fashioned into a free makeshift nappy (a surefire route to a very different pile of shame).
And while it hurts us, as players, it’s hurting developers and the games they make even more. While there’s been nothing so far in 2015 (I’m writing this in late October, so there’s still time) broken enough to rival last
year’s dismal run of DriveClub, Halo: The
Master Chief Collection and Assassin’s Creed Unity, it’s clear that the need to hit the most lucrative release window of the year is resulting in worse games, or at least games not being as good as they should be. And given the increasing reliance on day-one patches, it’s also clear developers are working at full tilt right up to the last minute to knock things into shape. Then that team of developers has to watch as a game they’re maybe 80 per cent happy with sells well for a week, OK for a month, then next to nothing as the second-hand market takes over.
The more I think about it, the more I fail to understand who benefits. Not the publisher, which has to spend nine months of the year reassuring its stakeholders that everything will be OK after Thanksgiving. Not even the retailer, which would surely prefer it if releases were spread out a bit more instead of packed into what is going to be its busiest time of year for footfall.
But despite the ever-growing pile of shame, the stress of the increased workload, the bugs and disappointments and the inability to see much sense in any of it, I’m not sure I’d have it any other way. We play games because they excite us, and there’s nothing more exciting than all of them coming out at speed, hot on each other’s heels. Maybe Mum doesn’t need that expensive present. If I don’t go out, I can play games. And maybe it’s high time we potty trained the kid.
Had The Witcher III come out in November, we’d all still have bought it, but how much would we have played it?