Special: They never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games!
Frontlines: Fuel of War, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Mario Kart Wii: What do all of these games have in common? They are all crucial releases for the publishers behind them and all slated (or delayed) to release after this year's holiday season. These three aren't the only ones coming after Santa has tucked away the sleigh, but given their importance for the companies behind them you'd think they would be coming during the holiday season?a time which can be responsible for up to half of the year's revenues. This is the tip of an emerging trend in a maturing game market. The business is starting to respond to the fact that unlike the game industry's cranky ever more senile relative, film, timing has very little to do with success of a title. For gamers it's all about quality.
Game development has always been and still is benchmarked against the film industry-- a business all about timing. There are seasons for Oscar hopefuls, blockbusters-- even ?mistakes' that are expected to do poorly. Specific timing decisions, like which weekend to release on, is of even more importance. It's a priority in film marketing departments as they balance the release schedule against competing films coming out at the same time and a myriad of other factors. Poor timing decisions are blamed for box office failures every year and the importance of this aspect of the business cannot be understated.
Filmgoers are markedly different than gamers as consumers though. A study released last week by Electronic Entertainment Designed and Research noted a key component of successful games: reviews. The study found, ?games with a Metacritic score above 90 grossed sales of up to 531% more than the industry average.? An article in the July 11th New York Times drew the same conclusion and noted the difference between games and film consumers. As a result of the larger time and money investment of video games, the article guessed that gamers probably spend more time researching buying decisions. In addition, there is the fact that what consumers ask for from a movie, an entertaining few hours, is at its core a separate endeavor than a video game that attempts to hold a gamers' attention interactively and repeatedly. With the notable exceptions of Super Troopers, Office Space and a few things Lucas did pre-1990; few of us can or even want to watch a movie several times over.
Adding to the situation is the well known fact that next generation development is getting rapidly more complex and less predictable. As one game developer recently remarked to me, "Making a game now-a-days is essentially large scale software innovation and it's awfully hard to put a timeline on innovation." Faced with this kind of market, the business model seems clear to some developers, in particular Blizzard. Blizzard's president, Mike Morhaine spoke on this topic in an interview with Next Generation recently, ?Nobody looks back at Diablo and says, ?oh, man wouldn't it have been great if it was released three weeks earlier'? they think of it as a game that they really liked.? At the time of its release, Diablo was lambasted for missing its initial deadline and being released weeks after the holiday season. For Morhaine, the decision was an easy one. The market demands quality and the work required for the game just couldn't happen in time for the holidays.
Examples warning publishers of pushing titles out early are also very common. Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness was rushed out by Eidos in an effort to meet quarterly financial targets. As a result, the game had numerous bugs and a poor control scheme. Though it sold somewhat well it was the worst reviewed and least purchased game of the Tomb Raider series and ultimately cost the creators at Core Design the franchise, which is now being continued by Crystal Dynamics.
Frontlines: Fuel of War was originally planned as a mid-summer title, Grand Theft Auto IV as well all remember was coming in October and many were surprised to find out Mario Kart Wii is being prepped for an early 2008 release. These titles are all extremely important for their publishers. THQ is a success in its own right, but lacks original franchises and is desperate for a solid FPS franchise to stick its flag on. Grand Theft Auto IV is a badly needed success for Take Two, who currently only has BioShock keeping its head somewhat above profitable waters. Nintendo has had a phenomenal run with the Wii so far, but needs franchise releases like Mario Kart Wii to live up to expectations and keep things rolling into 2008. For the developers and publishers behind these projects, the decision must have been relatively easy to make. Designers always leave numerous features on the cutting room floor, but adding the extra time to develop these products into quality well rounded and reviewed releases is simply a requirement for success.
This can be frustrating for gamers. Titles that were months away are suddenly seasons away. Forums, blogs and chat rooms certainly burn through plenty of electrons discussing, theorizing and criticizing this aspect of the business but when the cash comes out for games, it's quality that walks away the winner. As much as it can get under your skin, there is something to be said for there being a solid business argument to give artists time to create a quality product. Good for Michael Bay the same isn't true for the movie biz.
Be sure to check back with Gaming Target over the coming weeks as we profile some of the big releases that will make the first half of 2008 a very interesting time to be a gamer.