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Opinion: A Christmas Story: Rethinking The Holiday Rush

In this editorial, Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers the common -- but questionable -- wisdom of publishers' perennial choice to concentrate all their major titles within the same tiny holiday release window.
[In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine's December 2008 issue, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers the common -- but questionable -- wisdom of publishers' perennial choice to concentrate all their major titles within the same tiny holiday release window.] By now, you, as game developers, will now have finished your holiday crunch. If you’re not finished, well, I’m sorry for you -- you've probably missed your holiday release. And if you haven’t had to crunch at all, maybe you should write us an article. Our main feature in this month's issue of Game Developer magazine is about common things that have gone wrong with game development, and most of them tie in to some degree with crunch and schedule problems. One of these is often the cause or the effect of the rest. It’s easy to see how this ties in to the holiday video game retail meat market. 'Tis the Season to Make Money Certainly the holidays are a big spending period, so it’s no wonder that publishers, and even developers, want to get their big titles out and in the minds of consumers 'round about that time. Shareholders, too, want to see or hear things like "holiday blockbuster" in order to keep their investor confidence, and I do think this is a very large part of why we have a holiday glut. But ultimately, is this really helpful? Consider a game like Dead Space. It’s a good one, certainly, and its System Shock-related pedigree gives it even more street cred. But what it isn’t is a holiday blockbuster. I want to be very careful with my phrasing here, because I am absolutely not saying it can’t stand toe to toe with the other releases. But when you have a third-person game in which the primary action is shooting, it would behoove you not to release it against Gears of War 2. People are waiting for Gears of War 2, and you know that they are. They are not necessarily waiting for Dead Space. Had Dead Space come out during a softer period, it might have had a chance to be as much of a financial success as it was a critical success. I don’t know its final sales numbers, but I know it wasn’t on the charts long, which is related to another major problem. One reason that so many companies feel they have to release during the holiday period is because if they don’t, it’s felt that consumers won’t remember the game when that holiday rolls around. And they’re kind of right, because games don’t stay on the primary shelves for that long, partially because so many games are released during the holiday rush. It seems to me that if major releases were more evenly spaced, everyone would benefit. You'll Put Your Eye Out Meeting a holiday schedule has its obvious problems. Unless a game is very specifically planned out to release at that time, there’s a strong chance you’re going to be crunching, rushing, or otherwise cutting corners to get it out the door. Granted, this can happen in projects regardless, but rushing a product with the specific intent to compete in the most difficult, most cut-throat period of the year is not very healthy for you or for the game. There are only so many dollars consumers have to spend, and the problem doesn’t just come up during the holidays. Dead Space and Far Cry 2 released against Gears of War 2 and Fallout 3 -- but Dark Sector also released against GTA IV, and that’s got nothing to do with holidays. Naturally, it’s hard to predict a release window, but the holiday season is a known quantity. You know everyone will be bringing their best and brightest. The Best and Brightest I don’t want to sound like I’m arguing against original IP. I could see reading this editorial in that light, and it’s quite far from what I mean, given my love for gameplay experimentation. Original IP is obviously risky though, there’s no denying it. Returning to the Dead Space example, or even to Mirror's Edge, it does speak well of EA’s new direction that the company deemed its original IPs important enough to launch them against better-understood market movers. But I do wonder if it was worth pushing them to meet this three-month holiday window. Even Far Cry 2, which was a sequel, didn’t really have the mindshare required to survive in this holiday climate. You shouldn’t have to "survive," but that’s often what it amounts to when everyone is scrambling for the same dollars at the same time. Couldn’t the company actually make more money by releasing these games at a different time, all the while increasing quality? I’m far from a financial genius, so it’s possible I’m totally off-base here, but it seems like a less ambitious release window for original or lesser known IP would yield better results, so long as doing that doesn’t relegate it to lower status within the company. In fact, it seems to me it could even raise its profile and importance. As per usual, I welcome your thoughts and criticisms.

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