Christmas is usually a time of great prosperity for games publishers. But last year’s ill-fated combo of an overly crowded release schedule and the biggest Black Friday event the UK’s ever seen meant a lot of triple-A titles ended up missing their expected sales targets. Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare may have been the UK’s second best-selling game of 2016, for instance, but its Week One sales were 48.4 per cent down compared to 2015’s Black Ops III.
This year, however, the industry seems to have tightened its belt, with many larger publishing houses choosing to double down on a few key titles rather than fill the year with new releases. That doesn’t mean the market’s any less healthy, though, as a lighter release schedule has given several small to mid-sized publishers ample opportunity to create new business.
“Bigger publishers releasing fewer games means there’s a higher overall demand for games,” Soedesco’s executive manager Hans van Brakel says (pictured below, left). “That’s good for everyone.”
Rebellion’s CEO Jason Kingsley (pictured below, centre) echoes this sentiment: “Fewer, better games is better for the consumer, and better for the industry in the long run,” he says.
As a result, neither studio has changed its release date strategy this year, with Kingsley emphasising that the studio’s still very much focused on releasing games when they’re ready for the players, rather than when the company needs to hit quarterly targets.
Other publishers, however, tell us it’s still very much business as usual. “To be very honest, it doesn’t really make a difference,” THQ Nordic’s PR and marketing director Philipp Brock argues (pictured above, right). “Fewer releases results in more ‘noise’ for them, so we just have to consider longer periods of buzz. When the developers and our gals and guys are happy with it, we unleash the kraken.”
PQube’s product manager Matthew Pellett (pictured below, left) agrees, pointing out that publishers with slighter release schedules now have bigger wallets for individual marketing campaigns.
“When you also factor in the continued rise of post-launch services and expansions/DLC, some of which are now being treated as full, standalone games, it’s certainly not as simple a case of fewer titles equalling more opportunities,” Pellett notes. “If anything, the marketing warchests of those bigger titles means it can be hard to break through with smaller campaigns, meaning we need to be nimble and more creative with our strategies to stand out.”
For Wired Productions’ managing director Leo Zullo (pictured below, centre), reaching out to influencers has shown great promise in this regard. “If YouTubers and streamers are engaged, [they] can elevate your title above and beyond. Physical is not dead. Opportunities exist all round us in this industry.”
Despite this, Zullo does admit that scheduling release dates is “getting more and more ridiculous” every year. “Depending which department you talk to, literally every month has an issue – you can’t launch at Christmas; can’t launch in January; can’t launch during E3; BIG SEQUEL Version 7 is launching – can’t launch on that day, can’t, can’t, can’t.
"Then you have to synchronise your launches globally and digitally, which isn’t easy. Fridays are traditionally UK retail, Wednesday is Europe, and Tuesday is America, but the game releases digitally on a Tuesday or Wednesday with the format holders. It is all a load of bollocks. There is never a perfect time to release a game.”
Another publisher, who wished to remain anonymous, concurs, even going as far as saying they now try to avoid releasing in Q4 altogether. “The peak sales time towards the end of the year is almost off limits from a PR and marketing perspective as inventory/PR space is taken. Each year, we are moving more away from the traditional peak sales period for [this] reason.”
Maximum has a different story to tell, however, saying an increased appetite for quality games means Q4 can be highly fruitful. “For titles we develop and publish, ideally, we have at least one key release per quarter,” managing director Steve Powell (pictured above, right) explains. “Consumers have a lot of choice on where to spend their disposable income and we aim to deliver a portfolio of releases throughout the whole year.”
Merge Games’ managing director Luke Keighran (pictured below, left) speaks of a similar experience: “The huge returns demand by big publishers have led to fringe titles not being supported. As a direct result, we have noticed that more experienced devs are now reaching out to us with even better quality, niche titles. Merge’s digital and global retail distribution solutions means we can handle indie titles on the same sort of scale as big publishers and, as a direct result, we are picking up some great opportunities.”
Indeed, the sheer variety of titles has always been one of indie publishing’s key strengths, says Sold Out’s CEO Garry Williams (pictured below, centre), and that there are still many consumers who “only exist in the boxed retail market.” What’s more, their lack of experience with games means “seasonal buying from the family is generally done in store,” according to Williams, making the gifting market still a vital part of today’s industry.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS?
Despite these challenges, most of the publishers we speak to are confident about the current state of today’s console market, with our anonymous publisher stating that now “has never been a better time to release on the current generation. Even when you don’t have triple-A titles, you can certainly capitalise on the higher install base and potential audience.”
Curve Digital’s chairman Stuart Dinsey (pictured above, right) agrees: “2017 is already our biggest ever year,” he says. “But we would expect 2018 and beyond to be bigger.”
That’s not to say there aren’t still some significant hurdles to overcome, however, as Zullo says digital stores are currently “jam-packed” and that there’s still “a fight to get your game covered in the traditional press,” making it a “battle to stand out.”
Keighran also said he expects a slower growth rate than the past two years. “As we approach Christmas, the market will become even more competitive and it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, announces price reductions to try and increase their market share,” he says. “Unless one of the console manufacturers announces a sizeable price reduction, we don’t see dominance altering in specific territories.”
And those price cuts can’t come soon enough for the UK, says Powell: “The UK has its own challenges around Brexit, rising cost of living and so on, which affects disposable income. Add to this a poor Q4 for many triple-As and I think the outlook for 2017 wasn’t as good as it should have been. If everything was normal in the world, then 2017, on paper, should be a good one. Time will tell.”