It's the same every year.
For nine months, we receive a smattering of sizeable game launches, and then suddenly all the big AAA releases arrive in the same six week window.
Christmas is, of course, an important time to release games. The festive sales window is hugely lucrative and, for some companies, can account for up to 60% of their annual business.
But it's also a hugely competitive and expensive time to release games. Last year it was a bloodbath, and for every successful product there were two that didn't achieve the results that were expected.
Some publishers have avoided the festive period and pushed their games into Q1 this year, but that has resulted in as competitive a February as we've seen so far; Anthem, Crackdown 3, Far Cry: New Dawn and Metro Exodus are all due to arrive within seven days of each other. Not all of those games will be happy once the week is done.
Of course, sometimes these situations can't be avoided. A release date might be dictated by financial pressures, development schedules, distribution pipelines, or a need to get ahead of the competition. However, whether you're an indie developer or a AAA publisher, there are certain things to take into account when picking a release date. And looking through past interviews and sales patterns, we've come up with ten to consider.
1: Is launch day important for your game?
This week, New Super Mario Bros U Deluxe is launching on Nintendo Switch, just two weeks after the Christmas period. Typically, this would be a poor time to release anything; the Q4 blockbusters are all on sale, and potential customers are still working through their Christmas presents.
"When it comes to family titles, the key thing to consider is when to promote your game, rather than when to release it"
However, in this specific case it doesn't really matter. Mario games are evergreen and Nintendo is known for promoting its products continually. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe, for instance, sold more copies in its second year than its first.
When it comes to family titles, the key thing to consider is when to promote your game, rather than when to release it. Just Dance, for instance, often launches with little fanfare, only to receive marketing closer to the 'party' season of Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. If your game is more about consistent sales over a longer period, then your launch window simply isn't that important.
2. Does your game have a very specific audience?
January is usually awash with Japanese games from the likes of Bandai Namco, Koei Tecmo, Square Enix and Capcom. These publishers typically have a specific audience that will buy their products regardless of when they launch. Kingdom Hearts III fans will purchase the game irrespective of its release date, so why not release it in January?
In fact, a window with reduced competition is a potential opportunity to attract new customers. If you want the best case study for this, check out Monster Hunter: World, which was released in an empty window, backed by strong reviews and a vocal community, and went on to be a huge success.
"Marketing costs in the early parts of the year are cheaper and you're competing against fewer titles"
3. Consider your marketing budget
As we're talking so much about January releases, it's worth discussing marketing. Last year we spoke to indie developer Snapshot Games about its upcoming XCOM-alike Phoenix Point. The team backed the game with a Facebook ad campaign to drive pre-orders. It resulted in very little initially, as the campaign started in October and was struggling to be seen, but by January pre-orders had spiked.
Marketing costs in the early parts of the year are cheaper and you're competing against fewer titles. If you have a small marketing budget consider these windows; it's where your money will travel the furthest.
4. Consider the media
If you don't have any marketing budget and are relying on PR to drive your sales, then make sure you're tuned into what the media is doing. Online media is driven by traffic. Although most websites will try to write about interesting subjects regardless of the amount of eyeballs they attract, the success of these sites are still ultimately defined by the size of the readership. That means that journalists and editors will favour more popular games over smaller products.
Take for instance The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup by Gory Detail. The developer released this game alongside a medley of blockbuster releases last October, including Red Dead Redemption 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Now, Gory Detail's game isn't exactly competing with these products, but when it came to getting press to cover it, the job proved impossible. Journalists were too busy writing guides for Red Dead and reviewing the next batch of big releases.
5. Consider the sales.
Sales events, whether it's Black Friday or the Steam Winter Sale, can be like a second launch for some games. If you release a game too close to one of these events you'll be unlikely to offer a discount. If you do, you risk the anger of those who bought the game at full-price. During 2018 we saw a spate of games released in September and early October. This meant that, come Black Friday, they had all been on shelves for long enough to justify a price cut.
6. Really consider the sales
Last year, GAME CEO Martyn Gibbs suggested Nintendo had been very smart about releasing games on - or near to - Black Friday. The thinking is that with so many people shopping, even full-price games were bound to benefit from the sheer number of shoppers.
Pokémon, however, has a very specific appeal, and this strategy has its risks. During sales events, you're not just competing with new releases, but older releases at heavily discounted prices. It's worth considering whether a possible competitor might be getting a discount during the sales period in question.
For instance, if you're launching a new 3D platformer on Switch during the eShop Winter Sale, make sure you find out if Super Mario Odyssey or Yooka-Laylee will be available at a lower price. You might find your $50 game is going head-to-head with a similar product at half the cost.
7. Don't be afraid to delay (but running isn't always the answer)
Looking at the February release schedule, Sony made a smart decision in delaying the new PlayStation IP Days Gone until April. It's not just a safe move for the product, it's also pro-consumer; it gives gamers the chance to experience everything on offer.
"Multiplayer titles live for a long time, and so giving your competition a sizeable head start is often not an option"
One of the popular arguments we hear from publishers that choose to release games close to the competition is that either 'our game is better' or 'our game appeals to a different audience'. The second argument is rarely true.
The most ridiculous example of a publisher sticking to its (excuse the pun) guns was when Battlefield 1, Titanfall 2 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare all launched within 14 days of each other in 2016. It turned out to be a disappointing situation for all involved, but there is a reason behind holding your ground.
Multiplayer titles (online or otherwise) live for a long time, so giving the competition a sizeable head start is often not an option. 2K's decision to release Battleborn so close to Overwatch may look foolhardy in retrospect, but would Gearbox's game have done any better if it was released later, once Blizzard's shooter had built up a sizeable fanbase?
The same is true of the upcoming 'battle of the kart racers'. Team Sonic Racing will be released in May, with Crash Team Racing following a month later. This isn't an ideal situation for Activision or Sega, but if one decided to simply push its game back a few months, doesn't that just hand the market to the other? Sometimes it's best to just put the game out and let the customers decide.
"You are not just competing with other games, so check the cinema release schedule and your TV guide"
8. Consider ALL the competition
Planning a release isn't just about whether there are similar games in similar genres coming out at a similar time. It's also about understanding your target audiences' overall interests.
We live in a peak attention economy, where people are never short of things to do. Sometimes there is little you can do to avoid it. There wasn't much Ubisoft could do about the fact that Starlink (already a risky concept) was trying to attract the exact same audience as Fortnite. Nevertheless, it's still worth thinking hard about what your target audience might be talking about during launch week.
There was a busy week in 2017, with Super Mario Odyssey, Wolfenstein II and Assassin's Creed Origins all scheduled for launch. Yet that wasn't all; it was also the same week the second season of Stranger Things and Thor: Ragnarok were released. Midia Research found that there is a huge crossover, for instance, between Assassin's Creed and Stranger Things fans.
Ubisoft and Bethesda found themselves going up against other big entertainment properties in terms of share-of-voice, social media buzz and, indeed, time. There will have been customers who decided to wait on the games and spend their time that weekend binge-watching Netflix.
You are not just competing with other games, so check the cinema release schedule and your TV guide.
9. Keep an eye on the mid-February/early-March window
Ubisoft is the master of this release window. Almost every year, it will release a major game (or two) either at the end of February or in early March (or both), which will sell huge numbers. In 2018, that game was Far Cry 5.
It helps when those games are of the right quality, but they also typically arrive at the opportune moment - six to eight weeks after December 25th - when people are finished playing with their Christmas presents and looking for what's next.
Unfortunately, more and more companies have recognised that fact, and this year's mid-February to early-March release window is absurd. Ubisoft is here, as usual, with a new Far Cry (February 15) and a sequel to The Division (March 12). EA is here with its big new BioWare RPG Anthem (February 22), Microsoft has a highly anticipated sequel in Crackdown 3 (also February 15), and there's Deep Silver's Metro Exodus (again, February 15th). That's five AAA releases in 26 days.
10. Speak to your retailer
Digital and physical retailers have an idea when games are going to land (they need to plan for them, after all), and though they won't tell you what's launching precisely, they can give you a steer.
Should you go for that late August/early September window and mimic the success of Spider-Man or BioShock or Saints Row? Or is someone else likely to be there? Is there a lack of kids games this Christmas again? Has the industry forgotten about Easter for the third year in a row? If you launch your indie metroidvania this summer, how many others are planning to do the same thing?
Games stores tend to prefer games being spread out. And, of course, they're not always thinking about what's best for your game long-term. However, if you want to avoid a congested period, it's best to speak to your retailers.