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5 smart ways that games have incorporated holiday themes

From Sega's Christmas Nights to World of Warcraft's Feast of Winterveil to Animal Crossing's Toy Day, many games have found clever ways to incorporate holiday themes.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

December 24, 2015

7 Min Read

It’s the holiday season! And if you’re a game developer, you’re either taking a much-needed vacation, or you’re crunching to get ready for a January launch...or you're digging through the backlog of unplayed games in your Steam library. 

The holiday season normally promises a weird contradiction for game developers. The games released during this time are games that need to be relevant and playable year round---releasing a game specifically pegged to major holidays during this cycle isn’t just a creative challenge, but a financial one as well. 

Nevertheless, we’ve talked to some of our game development friends and gathered a list of some holiday-themed games--and games that incorporated a holiday theme--that offer instructive examples for game developers.

(Thanks to Emma LarkinsJam BluteChristopher YapJohn RyanElaine Gomez, Josh Green, and Brian Handy for weighing in!)

The Animal Crossing series: Creating content with in-game calenders

Nintendo long ago found one of the most innovative and easily integrated solutions to helping players feel the holiday spirit with the Animal Crossing games. If you haven’t played them yet, the game’s internal calendar system has events, characters, and special scripted sequences that are only available at certain points in the year, meaning the design team can fold in events from all across the year.

The Gamecube version tied these events to the console's internal clock, and an in-game character showed up to give you a tongue-lashing if you tried to reset that clock. Timed events don't show up in many other games outside of Nintendo’s simulator titles or the Easter eggs of Batman: Arkham City. With the increasing pervasiveness of online connected consoles, the opportunity for calendar events that can quietly check the date/time against a server might expand.

World of WarcraftGuild Wars II, and other MMORPGs: Holiday quests as reasons to log in

(via WoW-Screenshots.com)

The holiday season is important time for online games, as no matter what kind of revenue model you’re relying on, increasing the player base and incentivizing any kind of in-game spending can help keep a game’s lights on, or fund additional content down the line. 

Designer Emma Larkins points out that World of Warcraft’s Feast of Winterveil, or Guild Wars 2's Winterday, which mostly include low-cost mob spawns and a few special items, still have value even years after their creation. “As someone relatively new to World of Warcraft, it gives me a chance to connect better with some of the older areas.”

“The holiday content in games is a fascinating extension of the ‘games as a service’ model,” she says. “The updated content adds value to the community, and can be used as a powerful marketing tool --getting users to buy or play the game on certain dates to earn limited items, or play with in-game items that only activate at certain times.”

Larkins admires how this model extends out to Rocket League, which provides free cosmetic items for players who check in at a certain time. It’s a version of holiday inclusion which certainly fits the economic end of the holiday, and also one you can study right now to come up with your own creative player incentives.

Christmas Nights, Parasite Eve, Snatcher, and more: Holiday as Setting

(via GamesRadar)

Multiple games are listed under this section because even across their varying release dates, there’s one thing they have in common---using the holidays, specifically Christmas, as a background setting for the game’s events. Christmas Nights was a promotional version of Nights into Dreams on the Sega Saturn, while Parasite Eve was a suspense title that unfolds in the middle of the Christmas holiday. 

Developers Brian Handy, Josh Green, and Christopher Yap all note that many late 90’s games that featured snow in any capacity seemed to be somehow tied to the holidays.

The trend worth noting here is that these are just a handful of Japanese-developed games that lean on the holiday season as a background for their fictional games. The traditions of Christmas and Christianity in Japan deserve a far longer read than we can explain here, but for all of these single-player games, it’s worth noting that they’re far more comfortable simply using the time as a setting than developers from other regions have been over the years.

A game set during the holiday season doesn’t necessarily need to be about participating in the holiday, and if you’re looking to set a specific mood with your next game, the dark, haunting nights of Parasite Eve or the colorful, playful Christmas Nights may be a solid inspiration.

Team Fortress 2: A time to shake up the power curve

Like World of Warcraft, Team Fortress 2 has been running holiday events for several years since its launch with The Orange Box in 2008, but we felt the way it handled its updates was different enough to warrant its own section. While most online games do ship holiday updates with special features of some kind, they don’t usually contain any major content advancement, as those are reserved for big patches, expansions, or other milestones along the production timeline.

Team Fortress 2, though, has used nearly every holiday between Halloween and the New Year to ship a significant update, and drive player engagement through multiple channels. Per Larkin’s comments earlier, multiple holidays not only come up with new maps and game modes, but often special versions of those maps and game modes to fit the mood, along with limited-time rewards that sometimes can significantly impact the game’s power curve.

Beginning with the Australian Christmas update in 2010, (after many class updates and Halloween events titled ‘Scream Fortress,’) Team Fortress 2 has used both the in-game updates and the TeamFortress.com blog to drive player engagement, making its holiday updates not just about the power bonuses, but also the humor and weird fiction of the Team Fortress games. It’s a unique way of handling online content updates even while the game isn’t in a persistent world, and might even be worth scaling up or down for your next game.

The Sensational December Machine: Small scale, meaningful design can have a big reach

Most of the games on this list, to be blunt, have not been “about” Christmas. They use it as backstory, to drive sales, or as part of a broader game design plan to make players come back to the game. For production and economic reasons, there are a lot of good reasons not to make a game specifically about the holidays.

Simogo, however, dodged most of the production challenges for producing this kind of game simply by not making them challenges at all with The Sensational December Machine.

First, The Sensational December Machine is free. Second, it’s a very short game--playing like an interactive short story, you can finish the experience in a handful of minutes. And third, though it’s called The Sensational December Machine, it doesn’t mention Christmas or any other holiday, creating a mood and feel that’s broadly understandable yet not exclusive to any particular religion or region. 

The length of the game means it could be produced quickly and for relatively manageable costs. The nonexistent price makes it each to scratch the curiosity of players who read about it on Kotaku or Rock Paper Shotgun, and the broad themes and haunting aesthetic help support Simogo’ studio brand and titles like Yearwalk or Device 6. The end result is an inclusive holiday experience that received major press coverage in a usually busy season.

No matter which of these games you find worth researching--we at Gamasutra wish you all a Happy Holiday, and good luck in 2016!

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About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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