The Quarter Four War

Gaming’s maddening insistence on releasing absolutely everything all at once.

I worked for a high street video game retailer for a large portion of my early twenties. To say I didn’t enjoy it is quite the understatement. Being a massive snob it brought me no end of pain to see the swarm strip the shelves of the latest dudebro shooter while copies of Katamari and Shadow of the Colossus gathered dust. It was also troubling to be surrounded by the thing you love and have no money to pay for any of it. “Gamblers shouldn’t work in casinos”, as they say.

Anyway, I remember the impending feeling of dread when the point of sale for Fifa started trickling in. This marked the start of the Silly Season. Every week from the release of this game until Christmas would be hellish. The store would heave under the strain of a thousand discs. The piles of preowned would reach to the sky. The place resembled one of those indoor soft play areas; packed to bursting point with overexcited, over stimulated children. Their bemused parents staring dead and glassy eyed at boxes and boxes of stuff they didn’t understand. It may sound like I’m exaggerating here, but I often finished a Saturday shift feeling shell-shocked. Like I’d just done a stint in Vietnam. You weren’t there man; you don’t know what it was like!

The video game industry isn’t unique in coming to the conclusion that it makes sense to release hundreds of titles in the same time frame, but at least the film industry has the good grace to separate the summer blockbusters from the Oscar bait. After a period of three months where I’ve bought approximately naff all, I’m now looking at getting Metal Gear V, Super Mario Maker, Lego Dimensions, Transformers Devastation, Rock Band 4 and The Nathan Drake Collection within a matter of weeks. I’d also quite like to buy Disgaea 5 and Persona; Dancing All Night but there’s absolutely zero point because unless I find myself under house arrest or build a flux capacitor there’s literally not enough hours in the day for me to play them. Quite who the big-wig is that thinks it’s a good idea to release a rhythm action spin off to a Vita JRPG right in the middle of Call of Duty, Need for Speed and Fallout 4 I don’t know, but from where I’m sitting he needs a good telling off.

It’s hardly fair to the developers either. I’ve seen this in action; niche titles die at retail in the winter. They’ll be picked up by fans in the first week and the remainder will hang around on the shelf until the staff pop along and stick a big, red reduced sticker on them. They’ll never threaten the charts, they’ll never sell. They’ll barely make the front page of the gaming sites before they’re whisked away to make room for another reworded press release trying to make sense of all the pre order bonuses for the latest Ubisoft title. It’s hard enough for lower budget games to make a splash as it is without putting them shoulder to shoulder with the full marketing clout of the publishing giants.

It seemed that back in the late 00’s Microsoft spotted this issue and tried to resolve it with their excellent Summer of Arcade promotions on XBLA. This was designed to throw the spotlight on download only arcade titles during the long summer months when there was bugger all else out. It gave these games a moment to be the headliners and the space they needed to generate some word of mouth and get the sales they deserved. It never quite reached the dizzying heights of year one for me (Geometry Wars 2, Braid and Castle Crashers – oh my!) but it was at least some attempt to readdress the balance and drag indie titles into their own dedicated time slot.

It strikes me that the circular reasoning that leads to all this nonsense is not helpful to anyone. The idea that “most games sell in the winter, so let’s release our games in the winter” probably affects sales of the larger titles too. I can’t imagine that Bethesda are having too many sleepless nights worrying about the sales forecasts for Fallout 4, but I won’t be buying it purely for the reason that there’s too much other stuff available at the time. If I were in charge, I’d genuinely consider holding it back until the first week of February. Everyone would start to have a bit of cash in their pockets again after Christmas, it would have next to no competition and they would have an extra little bit of time to make sure it’s not the bug-ridden, crash-happy mess it’s almost inevitably going to be in November. I may be being a bit harsh with that last point, but on past form it’s a brave gamer that Day 1s a game of Fallout’s scope that was only announced a few short months ago. You only have to look at the state of last year’s Assassin’s Creed Unity to see the damage that rushing to get a game out for Christmas can do to a game and an entire franchise.

I reckon that Fallout would easily be top of the sales charts for weeks stuck out in spring. As it is, it’s likely to be flavour of the week before being replaced by Star Wars Battlefront. Chart positions are hardly the be all and end all but they certainly can provide a game with a bit of exposure or prestige. Call of Duty is released two weeks before Fallout; do they really think that stores are going to be dusting their hands, taking down all the promotional material and saying ‘well, that’s that then’ before replacing all the pictures of gruff marines with pictures of Pipboy? They’re going to be fighting for the exact same advertising space while Master Chief and Lionel Messi try and mug their way into the picture. Nintendo, for reasons known only to itself, has decided to release Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash and Star Fox Zero on the same bloomin’ day. So a platform holder, currently holding a platform that nobody else is holding, chooses to release its first pair of big releases in months on the same day in November. The mind boggles.

Compare this to the middle part of the year when Batman and Geralt could waltz their way happily through stores and sites with barely any big name competition. Rewind a couple more months and you’ve got the sight of Bloodborne’s hunter, standing alone and proud while the afflicted clamber at his feet, desperate for something to play. From Software’s latest sold incredibly well for a platform exclusive. The same could be said for the excellent Splatoon, which had the entirety of the summer to itself on the Wii U. Neither of these titles are exactly the kind of games that you expect to sell to gangbusters; a brutally unforgiving, near impenetrable endurance test and a day-glo, kawaii, kid-friendly shooter, but they both did the business. Surely the timing of their releases contributed something to their success?

Of course, the sensible option as the consumer, is to just ignore all this and wait for everything to get reduced a few months down the line, but we all know that’s never going to happen. Gamers are a notoriously impatient bunch and often half the fun is being wrapped up in the excitement and shared experience of playing at launch. I’ve started to get a bit huffy if an online retailer doesn’t get a game to me a couple of days before it’s supposed to be out, so the idea of picking up Metal Gear next year isn’t really one I’m willing to entertain . And for games with an online component, you’ve normally got to get in early to make sure that you don’t just spend your time staring at a lobby for hours on end.

This situation seems to be getting worse if anything. Contrary to the actual weather, I can’t remember a summer quite as dry as the one we’ve just had. I’ve basically played Rocket League for months. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great, but I like a bit of variation in my gaming diet. It seems like we’re destined to run this cycle until a big name flops spectacularly. My money is on Assassin’s Creed and I’d entertain a bet if I didn’t need every last penny to feed my family as well as my gaming habit. We all lose here. Big games lose sales, smaller games lose even more and players bankrupt themselves trying to keep up. And the poor retailers. Won’t somebody please think of the retailers? Another Christmas spent in recreation of Apocalypse Now. Where’s their God damn parade?