Last week, EA announced that “Army of Two,” its new third-person shooter, would miss holiday release. And the game industry shrugged.
Missing Christmas used to be a major disaster for game developers. It’s shopping season, after all — the time of year when frantic moms prowl the shelves at Best Buy, list in one hand, credit card in the other. If your game isn’t front and center, it’s bargain-bin city come summertime.
Or … maybe not. “Grand Theft Auto 4,” “Metal Gear Solid 4” and “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” are skipping the holiday hullabaloo and shipping in early 2008 — and about two dozen other titles are following suit. What gives? Does Christmas not really matter anymore in this red-hot game market?
That depends, says Michael Pachter, analyst with Wedbush Morgan. It matters if you’re an annual franchise like “Madden” or “Need for Speed.” It also matters if you’re a movie-based game like “Harry Potter,” and drafting off the film’s advertising and marketing. But most of all, he says, Christmas matters if your game looks a lot like a gift — something mom and dad would put in Little Johnny’s stocking.
“’Spongebob’ matters. ‘Finding Nemo’ matters. But no, it doesn’t matter if ‘Army of Two’ or ‘Mercenaries’ slips,” he says.
Why? Those are hardcore games. They’re aimed at an older audience — the 18-34-year-old crowd. And that crowd isn’t waiting for Santa to bring “Grand Theft Auto 4” down the chimney. They’ll buy it for themselves — no matter when it hits shelves.
Although analysts had predicted that "GTA 4," “Halo 3” and “Madden 08” would account for a third of all game sales this holiday, Take-Two Interactive, the game’s publisher, acknowledged in August that the title just wasn’t ready for prime time. Or more specifically, the PlayStation 3 version of the game wasn’t ready for prime time. Take-Two won’t comment on that part, but it’s about as big a secret as Joan Rivers’ plastic surgery.
The fact that game developers are having a difficult time with PlayStation 3 development is also no secret — the tech inside the high-performance machine is very technical, very complicated stuff.
Take-Two won’t confirm that it held the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of “GTA 3” due to an agreement with Sony. But shipping one version of “Grand Theft Auto 4” several months before another gives a decided advantage to whoever’s first out of the gate.
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“If it’s a big title, it’s going to help to sell actual hardware,” says Nick Williams, an analyst with IGN’s GamerMetrics. “This is all about Sony trying to get back in the game and Microsoft trying to stay on top, and that dynamic is playing out on specific titles. [Console-makers] are thinking of them as assets that you need to have on your side to grow your installed base.”
One such asset for Nintendo is “Super Smash Bros. Brawl,” the company’s much-anticipated fighting game for the Wii. The game, a huge hit on the GameCube, was widely expected to be a system seller for Nintendo — the type that convinced hardcore gamers to finally pony up for the family-friendly machine.
But George Harrison, the company’s vice-president of marketing, says that it needed a few more months of spit-shine and polish. Plus, the crowded holiday launch schedule gave them pause as well.
“We’ll have a better window with less competition from other titles and a bigger base of hardware once we get through Christmas,” he says. “People will have newly purchased hardware and will be looking for their new title.”
Pachter says that Nintendo’s other holiday title, “Super Mario Galaxy,” helps to take some of the sting out of the delay decision. What’s more, he says that the two games could have ultimately ended up cannibalizing each other’s sales had they released within a month of each other, as originally planned.
“Realistically, most of the Wii owners wouldn’t have bought both at the same time,” he says.
Holding a big game by a couple of months probably isn’t going to eat into overall, lifetime sales by a whole lot. But what if you’re a brand-new franchise, without a built-in fan base, like Bioware’s “Mass Effect” and Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed?” For those titles, it makes sense to release when there’s a critical mass of shoppers in stores — particularly ones who may be looking to scoop up multiple games to accompany brand-new consoles.
“Most of our games come out in holiday and in the spring, because we want to capitalize on those purchases of software that go along with hardware purchases,” says Ubisoft’s Jaime Borasi. “If people are out buying an Xbox 360, we want to capitalize on that.”
Timing is everything with game releases, there’s no doubt about that. Midway’s “Stranglehold” probably would have sold a lot better if it hadn’t hit shelves 10 days before “Halo 3.” But will “Halo 3” see its sales drop off come mid-November, when the competition intensifies — and game reviewers are trumpeting about the next cool thing?
One thing’s for sure: The video-game market is big enough and profitable enough to sustain strong sales at times other than Christmas.
“The seasonal effect is still there,” says Williams. “But it’s much less extreme than it once was.”
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