For years, the industry has been bemoaning the fact that too many games are squeezed into the end of year holiday period. This year, however, it seems things are changing. StarCraft II, Splinter Cell: Conviction and BioShock 2 and others have all been pushed back. If anything, we're worried there aren't enough games coming this Christmas.
Gamers hate the end of year rush because there are too many games to buy and play. Meanwhile, in January or April or July there's absolutely nothing new. The lop-sided nature of the full year's release schedule doesn't make sense.
Publishers hate the end of year rush because they're afraid their titles might get lost in the crowd. Yet they're often just as worried about moving that launch date to January or April or July and missing out on the increased consumer spend spurred by the holidays. If they move their game out of the rush, that's just giving the advantage to their rivals.
In recent years the indications are that the industry is waking up.
"The whole industry is looking at it," says Michael Ephraim, head of Sony's PlayStation business in Australia. "Usually there are some casualties at Christmas. There's a lot of great product out there, so why cram it all into the Christmas period?
"We've got a very broad demographic and at Xmas, to get share of voice and share of customers' wallets, it's a tough job. You're amongst very solid peers and the consumer has a lot of choice."
In 2007, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Assassin's Creed, Orange Box, Guitar Hero III and Mario Galaxy dominated sales from October to December. Quality titles such as PGR4, Uncharted, Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Unreal Tournament 3 and others were simply swallowed up.
2K wisely pushed BioShock out in August, well before the madness. It benefited enormously, both in attention and sales, from being one of just a handful of major titles out that month. How would BioShock have fared up against Call of Duty 4 and Assassin's Creed if it had come out in November?
"There's a clutter issue at Xmas," says Ephraim. "There's a lot of product coming out, so sometimes it probably makes sense to have a bit of clear air where the consumer isn't as pressed for cash or for choice so badly."
Grand Theft Auto IV and Metal Gear Solid 4 sold millions despite being released in April and June, respectively. Nintendo launched Mario Kart and Wii Fit at the same time and neither title has dipped out of the top ten since.
Yet the holiday months in 2008 saw the likes of Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Valkyria Chronicles, Banjo Nuts & Bolts, Viva Pinata 2, LittleBigPlanet, Saints Row 2, Motorstorm 2 and others all but vanish when pitted up against Call of Duty: World at War, Fallout 3, Fable 2, Gears of War 2 and Left 4 Dead.
Resistance 2 couldn't compete with World at War in November, but just a few months later Killzone 2 easily outsold its PS3 comrade in the clear air of February.
"I think it is a phasing of product now," says Ephraim. "We released Killzone in February and inFamous in June and they did huge numbers. I remember four or five years ago, we released Gran Turismo 4 in February on PS2 and it did some astronomical numbers."
Ephraim believes the demographics of the games consumer have changed.
"The demographics of the category now are not just Christmas based, it's not just kids. It's a year-round category now. As the price point comes down and you're appealing to a younger group, that's when I think you need to have younger content. That's why we've got Eyepet and Ratchet to appeal to a younger audience in the Christmas period."
It makes sense. As the age of the average gamer steadily increases, they'll be less reliant on gift-giving periods such as Christmas in order to purchase new games software and hardware.
Sony has done well with Killzone 2 and inFamous this year. As has Capcom with Resident Evil 5 and Street Fighter IV, and Microsoft with Halo Wars all in the early months of the year. They've proved that good games can sell no matter when they're released.
More importantly, they've given us some good games to play at a time of year not normally blessed with quality. So let's not despair the slippage of Splinter Cell: Conviction or BioShock 2 or StarCraft II or Red Steel 2 or any of the recently delayed to 2010 titles. Let's celebrate the fact that we'll have time to play all the good games coming this year... and we'll have something worthwhile to look forward to early next year.