Saturday Soapbox: The Madness of Release Date Congestion

It's Viva Pinata vs. Gears of War all over again!

This week marked the fifth anniversary of the release of one of my favourite Xbox 360 games ever made.

Viva Pinata was a cute and cuddly game where you planted seeds in a garden and then looked after the friendly animals who popped in to investigate the trees and plants that grew from them. There were 60 varieties to attract, each more delightful than the last, and as their ranks swelled you could sacrifice some to attract other, more exotic species in their place.

Of course, this week also marked the fifth anniversary of the emergence of another famous Xbox 360 series.

Epic Games' original Gears of War was one of the first really, really massive exclusives published by Microsoft Game Studios during the early years of what we all used to call The Console War. Gears was also wonderful, although in very different ways to Viva Pinata: at its core were these fantastic medium-distance gun battles fought from behind scattered blocks of cover, which gave its combat an intimacy and intensity absent from any other shooter at the time.

Multiple big games are released at the same time as one another every year, of course - hardly an amazing observation to make in the same week both Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim are finally made available to the public - and sometimes it makes you wonder why. After all, the world heavyweight champion of obvious conclusions to draw about this phenomena is that one game must detract from the potential success and popularity of the other.

Let's look at these examples, then. First of all, my beloved Viva Pinata. Surely launching it in the same week as Gears of War resulted in it selling fewer copies than it would have done otherwise? This is certainly what my younger self thought five years ago as I raved and howled in exasperation at Microsoft's apparently amazing feat of self-immolation in the face of potential success.

With hindsight though, while the release timing may not have given Viva Pinata much of a chance among the core gaming crowd, not many of the console's existing audience were likely to find it appealing in the first place. Microsoft invested in Viva Pinata - and indeed in Rare - partly because it wanted to attract a more diverse audience to Xbox 360 than simply young males between 18 and 34. It is still attempting to do this today using Kinect (and with apparently diminishing success, to judge by the horrendous sales figures of Dance Central 2).

You don't have to look at half a dozen Chart Track annual reports on sales of video games in the UK (although I have) to realise that the vast majority of sales occur in Q4 and that, of the many weekly slots available in which to launch new games, the Fridays at the start of November are the best of the lot.

With that in mind, Microsoft certainly didn't send Viva Pinata out to die, as I imagine I wrote at the time. It may even have wanted it to stand as great a chance as possible of catching the attention of people casually shopping for video games at the peak of the shopping season. And with little potential overlap with Gears of War sales, why not give it that opportunity? Who knows - maybe young dads buying Gears would pick it up as well for the kids.

(Perhaps Microsoft felt differently in hindsight, but you also can't fault the platform holder for persistence: it released a second Viva Pinata game, Trouble in Paradise, in a slightly earlier September slot two years later, and even commissioned a Nintendo DS version as well, and a spin-off party game, before apparently cutting its losses and giving up on the series.)

So to Modern Warfare 3 and Skyrim. Do we imagine that they will be negatively impacted by the proximity of their releases? In my case, definitely not. Modern Warfare 3 will probably sell close to two million copies in the UK during its first six days on sale, while Skyrim will accumulate around 200,000 sales here before next Monday. That's roughly what they would have done anyway.

There certainly are a number of gamers who will want both, and I betcha any money that Activision and Bethesda's market research tells them that the group who fall into the intersection of that particular Venn diagram - the vesica pisces, according to Wikipedia - are also the people who are predisposed to purchase more than one game in the same week when the necessity presents itself.

With all that said, those hunting for genuine travesties of scheduling will probably want to keep an eye on the fortunes of this week's Xbox Live Arcade release, Fusion: Genesis. It's the product of Starfire Studios, who are coincidentally comprised of former staff at Rare, and I honestly don't know whether punching it out onto Xbox Live at the same time millions of people around the world are playing Modern Warfare 3 online is a good way of driving people's attention to it or a good way of driving people's money away from it.

Time will presumably tell, as it has with Viva Pinata and Gears of War, but I guess if there's a point to this column it's that, when it comes to ramming stuff down the throats of gamers in seemingly absurd circumstances, sometimes there's more to the madness than meets the eye.

(And if there's a secret point to this column, it's that you should all make up for your mistake five years ago and go forth to purchase Viva Pinata: Trouble in Paradise, which is available via Games on Demand on Xbox Live Marketplace. Quackberries forever!)

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