David Braben on the politics of release schedules

“Perhaps the time is right to have year-round releases”

It used to be, looking at the world from a publishing perspective, that the time you launched games was mid October. Christmas was coming, and the game should be comfortably on the shelves prior to Thanksgiving in the US.

That was a couple of decades or so ago. There were far fewer games released, and the ‘marketing machine’ was little more than getting the games out on the shelves and maybe an ad and a review in one of the weekly or monthly magazines – and most of those were aimed at computing or electronics – not dedicated to games.

It was from that world that what we now know as E3 started, as a part of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and it made a lot of sense, breaking away from CES as E3 about ten years later. There was prestige in a big shiny show, and a great deal of money was spent there.

Gradually, Christmas started to become crowded, and advertising before Christmas became correspondingly more expensive, especially on TV.

Also, as game development times ballooned to a year or more, the danger of slippage became significant, and January became a common time for games to hit the streets – and often quite an attractive time, as kids had their Christmas money, and advertising was cheaper.

Before long, even January became crowded; retailers still had stock from the Christmas games, so January turned into February, as an attractive time to release games. Following that, Easter started to become a ‘good time’ to release games and, in parallel with the rise of importance of share price for the big players, calendar quarters became ever more important, and pressure to release games into the difficult Q2 each year has meant that June is now quite a popular time. Currently perhaps May, July and August are the only times when there aren’t many games released. I’m sure that will change too.

Over the same period, we’ve also seen the rise of instant games news, worldwide via the numerous excellent web news sites, and the internet has perhaps become the primary source for gamers, especially ‘core’ gamers, of news about new games.

E3’s role as the venue to show games to retailers prior to their Christmas ordering also became diluted by the uber-razamatazz, with publishers preferring to hold private events where they could ensure focus ‘away from the madding crowd’.

Looking at E3 in this context makes the expo seem like an anachronism in this new world.

That’s not to say that it’s not a great event, and an important one for the industry. Ironically, in a sense things have come full circle; it is now the venue of choice for ‘super releases’, and especially hardware.

Things like new technologies and new platforms and their associated software; Kinect, Move, 3DS – as those are still things that have the sort of lead time that is about right for the Christmas season (CES reborn, if you like).

But it then becomes a very noisy time for ‘normal’ games announcements – it is hard to get heard over the megaphone broadcasts of those ‘super releases’ – and begs a question about the logic of using it as a place to announce new games, unless they are related to those ‘super releases’. Perhaps the main function of E3 now is as a group PR event for the industry as a whole?

I for one will be very pleased to see the games market ‘join up’ – so that games releases happen throughout the year – yes, even May, July and August. There is something very arbitrary when starting development of a particular game:

“Well, you have 12 months or 24 months – which is
it to be?”

“Erm, it’ll probably take 18.”

“Well, start in six months then.”

Continuous releases help alleviate this – though there is still the effect that certain kinds of game are best released at Christmas – as would companies reporting monthly, but I doubt that is going to happen any time soon.

We now have shows more or less throughout the year, in various places around the world (E3, TGS, DICE, GC etc) which also help a great deal, so perhaps the time is right to have year-round releases.

The school of thought ‘It’s ready when it’s ready’, is commendable from the development side, but a nightmare from a marketing and financial perspective.

Year-round releases may help make the development process easier to plan. We in development should applaud any changes that make this possible, so let’s get releasing in May, July or August.

You first, of course.

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