For as long as most folk remember, games have launched on Fridays in the UK and on Tuesday in the US. That's the way of things. Sometimes they converge for a glitzy worldwide launch but mostly they don't - they stick to the norm, and Europeans wait.
But why? Who decided on Friday, and who decided on Tuesday? If some games can be released on a Tuesday worldwide why can't all games be? More pertinently, why do we stick to the same rules for downloadable games? If everyone can buy and pre-install a game on Steam at the same time, why can't they play at the same time - why must someone in the UK wait until Friday but someone in the US can play from Tuesday?
Where do all these rules come from and, more to the point, can they be changed?
How UK Fridays began
In the olden golden days of home computers, there was chaos. Games came from everywhere in the '80s and shops flung them on shelves whenever they turned up. "It was just release whenever you could," recalls Andy Payne, a veteran of the UK industry. "Stuff would release every single day." Even the bigger shop-chains in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras joined the scrum, buying stock from wholesalers, amassing it at warehouses then racing it out to stores to go on shelves "as quickly as you bloody could".
That's what Graeme Struthers tells me, and he should know: he was a games buyer for Dixons Stores Group (Currys, Dixons, PCWorld) at the time. "And we were by far the biggest retailer for 16-bit," he - wait, was he boasting?
Big operators like Dixons weren't happy. They had order for other goods in their stores and they advertised them in newspapers on Fridays and Saturdays. The prospect of stock turning up late and missing the weekend wasn't a good one, so the big shops did something about it.
"Dixons basically started sitting down with the supply chain and saying, 'If you release products on a Friday that means we can include it in our advertising; that means we can promote you.' It's carrot and stick," Graeme Struthers explains. "I wouldn't say that Dixons were the company that made it Fridays, but it was the retail chains that said having product just turning up ad hoc is useless; having product that's got a defined release date means we can all orientate our distribution to get it into all of our shops for a Friday so that we've got the weekend business.
"It was basically retail bringing order to a very chaotic supply chain. Within about six to eight months, everyone was selling things on a Friday. It was very quick to reach that agreement and understanding."
"It was basically retail bringing order to a very chaotic supply chain. Within about six to eight months, everyone was selling things on a Friday.
Dorian Bloch has been researching UK game sales for over 20 years, for some reason. He too remembers that Friday pact made between shops, ELSPA (Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association) - now UKIE (Association for UK Interactive Entertainment) - and his company Gallup (now GfK Chart-Track). "The theory was that this was a clear differentiator to music/video releases on Mondays and gave retailers another window of sales opportunity and some great products to sell for the weekend, also giving publishers a clear and unique window in which to release titles," Bloch recalls.
They weren't enforced, those release dates - there weren't any penalties like there were for music. "It was just good for the industry as it brings a bit of order to something," Struthers shrugs, "and everyone seemed to be happy with it for quite a number of years."
Having no proper penalties did have downsides of course, especially as there were many more shops, each wanting to one-up the other. What would you do if stock turned up early one week, on a Wednesday or Thursday, and you had other shops within a stone's throw to compete with?
"Put temptation in front of people and guess what happens..." Payne rolls his eyes. But routine helped, and the cogs of the giant retail machine were soon well oiled and efficient. "Having worked in retail," says Struthers, "if you've got 600 shops, and you've got staff who do lots and lots of things, if there is no routine, if there is no process, the chances of it happening become lessened. If you just say 'hey this week the release date is a Monday', chances are: less compliance."
Friday was really cemented for the UK when home consoles boomed and home-grown games petered out, and when platform holders strode onto the scene. Not so much the NES or the Master System or even the SNES: it was the Mega Drive that went "absolutely bat s**t mental", recalls Graeme Struthers.
By the sounds of things, so too did Sega, flinging adverts all over papers and television, and doing "some amazing quite daring marketing", all the time reinforcing Friday, Friday, Friday. "When I was a kid I knew when I went to the record shop on Tuesday at 4 o'clock that's when all the new singles would be out," he remembers. "I guess there's kids out there who know you go into a shop on a Friday you're going to find what's been released."
And so Fridays came to pass, and so Fridays have remained. That model has stuck for a quarter of a century and today "it's virtually the same as it was" says Don McCabe, who established games shop Chipsworld/Chips in 1986. "They [the games] come in brown boxes, you unpack them, you put them on your system and you put them on your shelf."
That Friday feeling
There's no denying it: one feels a trifle jollier on a Friday than on any other day of the week, presuming you slog nine-to-five or study. But why does that make Friday a good shopping day - why did shops pick it?
"Well Friday inherently was always pay day," Don McCabe begins. "You put the products out in front of customers when it's pay day. That's how it started off years and years and years ago - 26 years ago - everybody got paid at the end of the working week. It made perfect sense to put the product out on the day they had money in their pocket."
"What's the best day to create a buzz - Monday morning?" Andy Payne rhetorically asks. "I would say that Friday is still, if you're going to pick a day, probably the best day, because it's getting towards the weekend when people have more time on their hands and they've got more time to play games."
"If you go out yourself on a Monday or Tuesday into retailers you'll find they tend to be tidying their shops up, putting new displays in place and taking down point-of-sale because they have no customers," adds Graeme Struthers. "We're at work, we're doing other things."
There are practical considerations, too. "Friday gives you a whole week to prepare, get that stock ready in your stores," explains HMV games manager Andy Pinder, a man with 20 years of retail experience, most of it at GAME. "Whereas if you're trying to launch on a Monday or Tuesday, you're relying on things being delivered on a weekend, which doesn't necessarily always go smoothly.
"I like Fridays, Fridays feel right; I've worked my arse off all week and I can fully justify kick-back gaming time."
"You've got the whole of that week in which to generate pre-awareness, not so much amongst the core shoppers but for your more casual shopper; there's an opportunity to get that buzz building over the week, climaxing on the Friday, then you go into the weekend when people can buy it, play it, enjoy it.
"The arguments for a Friday release are actually quite compelling," he goes on, "particularly given that music and film is currently releasing on a Monday. It means games have got that day all to themselves. From a retail point of view they get much better stand-out, it's more of an event when you reach a big release and it's out on a Friday. Retailers can make more of a fuss out of it."
"Any retailer in the western world will tell you that the vast majority of your sales will occur Thursday through to Sunday," Struthers chimes in, explaining that Thursday is when the state traditionally pays its workers, the teachers and police and nurses of the world. "If you're a retailer you do something like 60 per cent of your business Friday to Sunday."
Codemasters' long-time director of communications Rich Eddy puts it more bluntly: "I like Fridays, Fridays feel right; I've worked my arse off all week and I can fully justify kick-back gaming time."
Friday releases also helped people think of games as "an acceptable part of the weekend entertainment make-up", Eddy adds, and charts stories on Monday about opening weekend sales made snappy, movie-like headlines. Bombastic weekend launches might have helped publishers fight piracy too, suggests Andy Payne, by flogging as many copies as humanly possible before the inevitable knock-offs circulated.
If Friday is so great, why did America pick Tuesday?
"It started with music," famed US video game analyst Michael Pachter informs me, "then VHS tapes and DVDs. Retailers were very slow to stock shelves, so distributors asked for entertainment products to release on Tuesday so retailers could have them in stores by Friday when consumer traffic picks up.
The early game publishers used music and movie distributors, and games were shipped" - hence the "shipping to stores" hangover we have now - "to the distributors on Tuesday along with CDs, VHS tapes and DVDs. The distributors then sent a single truck to the retailer with a variety of different entertainment products and the retailers put everything on the shelves Tuesday."
It wasn't so much a case of picking a Tuesday as being lumped with it, and one doesn't simply change the US distribution model.
"Retailers were very slow to stock shelves, so distributors asked for entertainment products to release on Tuesday so retailers could have them in stores by Friday when consumer traffic picks up."
"To understand US logistics," Graeme Struthers says, "think of pushing stock out to the corners of Europe, up to the icy climbs of Finland and down to the toe of the boot of Italy. It becomes less a street date issue and more of simply filling distribution channels with stock to achieve everyone getting the product at roughly the same time."
He once worked for Take-Two and was invited to see the warehouse of Take-Two's American distribution company. "OK, it's a big building..." he says. "But when I went in there I was bemused because this place… Its scale was ridiculous. It was full of TVs, Hi-Fis, washing machines, video games, video game consoles. So then I understood that these trucks that are going out to these different points are not just taking a copy of Halo 4, they're taking a huge variety of product, and economically I guess it makes sense: to cover those distances you have to do many things."
That's not to say there aren't benefits to launching on a Tuesday. Shelves can be restocked for the weekend if needs be, for instance, and boring Tuesday is transformed into exciting new game Tuesday, and shops make more money as a result.
Publishers have their own distributors now for games, but Tuesday has embedded itself as the US day to sell games.
Global launches already happen, particularly for Blizzard games; World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria arrived in shops across the US, Canada, Europe, Russia, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and Brazil on the same day!
More commonly, a global launch means a simultaneous US and European launch (I don't know enough about Middle-Eastern, Asian, Australian or African dates to speak with any authority, unfortunately). Just this week we've had Hitman: Absolution (Tuesday 20th), and last week we had Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (Tuesday 13th). A week before that we had Halo 4 (Tuesday 6th). What's more, the number of Tuesday launches in the UK is sharply on the rise.
There will be 18 different games released on a Tuesday this year, GfK Chart-Track's Dorian Bloch informs me. Last year there were 11, and the year before, eight. But in 2009 there were only two: Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 3: ODST. There were three in 2008: LittleBigPlanet (on a Wednesday!), World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King and Grand Theft Auto 4. And there were two in 2007: Halo 3 (on a Wednesday!) and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. But in 2006 there were none. And in 2005 there were also none. And in 2004 there were none again. I mean, I could go on - all the way back to 1993. Nothing, nadda, zilch.
"The first notable Tuesday release was Sega's Sonic The Hedgehog 2 for Mega Drive back on 24th November 1992," Dorian Bloch enlightens me - and that day Sega dubbed "Sonic 2sday". "This was followed in 1993 by the first multi-format event release for Acclaim's Mortal Kombat on Mortal Monday (13/09/93) on Mega Drive, SNES, Game Boy, Game Gear and Master System," he goes on. "However, the practice went out of fashion and 'event' titles released outside of Friday in the modern era essentially began again as of 2007 with World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade."
"The first notable Tuesday release was Sega's Sonic The Hedgehog 2 for Mega Drive back on 24th November 1992."
We often refer to them as midnight launches because they tend to involve crowds queuing on Monday to buy the game at a minute past midnight on Tuesday morning. These midweek midnight launches upset the usual way of things, yet they're accepted all the same. That's because they benefit the machine.
Shops like them because they get to make a song and dance out of the whole event and flog a load of copies of - and merchandise for - what is probably a very popular game on a very unpopular day of the week. If you're selected as the official launch partner it's even better, HMV's Andy Pinder assures me. Publishers like them because they make their games stand out from the crowd. They also get a full week of sales for the chart. And you lot must like them otherwise why else would you stand for hours outside on the cold November night?
But as midweek launches increase in frequency, piled on top of the existing Friday schedule, they can cause problems. Shops lose track of what goes when, particularly outlets like Asda or Argos whose staff typically don't know as much about games, and where catalogues are vast and varied. When stock for a Tuesday arrives in the regular delivery cycle on Wednesday or Thursday the week beforehand... That's when accidents happen. "I'm getting double release dates every week," winces Chips' Don McCabe. "I'm having to tell the staff, 'No you can't sell this before this date, no you can't come out before that date.' 'Oh I thought we couldn't sell it yet?' 'Yes, yes: sell it!'..."
"What I want is a consistent release date," he pleads. "What I don't like is the current situation where some games are released on a Friday and some games are released on a Tuesday. I would be happy to switch to a Tuesday as long as it became common, the norm."
Nevertheless, the UK retail machine can clearly handle a Tuesday launch, so why can't we do it more often, or even move entirely to it?
"We probably can," says Andy Payne. "I don't see a reason why we can't. I see no reason why anything can't be moved, frankly. There's no reason why all games shouldn't be sold on the same day, there's no reason it shouldn't happen. But there's always reasons that will get in the way of that happening." Those reasons being a mixture of self-interest, logistical and "no-one ever thought of it".
"You'd have a lot fewer people skiving off college or skiving off work if a game's released on a Friday than if it was released on a Tuesday."
Tick HMV off under self-interest. HMV likes Fridays, and you can bet your pay packet that GAME and probably supermarkets feel the same way too. "I don't see why we should move to meet [Tuesdays] because that would actually diminish our prospects of maximising interest and sales," Andy Pinder puffs. "There's a strong case for a Friday that's been built up over time, and if anyone's looking to move and accommodate, it could well be that the rest of the world's markets should actually synch with UK and European releases which typically now tend to be on a Friday."
"You'd have a lot fewer people skiving off college or skiving off work if a game's released on a Friday than if it was released on a Tuesday," nods Paul Sulyok, CEO of download service Green Man Gaming.
But not everyone releases games on a Tuesday in North America. One of the biggest players of all, Nintendo, opts for Sunday launches and has for some time (mm, Sunday launches). The Wii U was the most recent of these, arriving Sunday, 18th November.
Tuesday is usually the day, though, and it simply won't budge. "US Tuesdays are unmovable," states Codemasters' Rich Eddy, very matter of fact - I get the impression he's been on the abrupt end of an enquiry about their manoeuvrability before. It's much easier to have the teensy UK and most of Europe fall in line with the gigantic US than vice versa. Also, imagine trying to convince a US-based company to favour another market above theirs, because that's effectively how it would be seen. Not only is there national pride to consider, there's also the size of the market: the US dominates approximately 40 per cent of boxed product video games sales worldwide, Dorian Bloch tells me. Europe accounts for 36 per cent, and the UK 30 per cent of that. On this table, the US holds most of the chips.
None of that matters on Steam, does it?
"Gaming's a global business these days and consumers of games are global," announces Green Man Gaming's Paul Sulyok. "It's a bit unfair if gamer-one and gamer-two are members of the same gaming community yet one's played the game for three days and is chatting about it on the forums and the next one is saying 'well I haven't got my copy yet, it's not live in my country'."
"If you're part of a clan and you're working together and you're excluded: that's wrong," declares Andy Payne. "It's going to fragment, and gamers don't want to be fragmented; they don't care much about borders, they care about the game and they care about their mates."
Sulyok continues: "Any gamer will tell you, if they're active in a community, that they've got mates who are in Russia, in the US, in Canada, in Australia, because that's just the gaming community and how the gaming community operates."
Community is the key word: the games with the strongest communities are those most likely to launch simultaneously around the world, not least because there would be pandemonium if they didn't. Case in point, Football Manager 2013, which launched globally on Steam at 00.01 GMT Friday, 2nd November.
"In the digital age, this will be first year that we've actually completely held our release date," Miles Jacobson from Sports Interactive tells me, at the time, hours before launch. "Even last year, which was the first year through Steam, we ended up going live at about eight or nine o'clock in the evening. This year we've said from the outset it will be released at 00.01 GMT on November 2nd and that's the time it will be coming and I'll be the person pushing the button."
Pressing that button, incidentally, was as tricky as having an MSN Messenger conversation with his production team at SI and a couple of people at Steam. Steam then asks if he's ready to go and he says yes and they press go. There's no actual big red button for Jacobson to press, although there is for patches, apparently. Football Manager 2013's launch was both unusual and exciting because it revolved around a Friday and the UK. Mind you it was developed in the UK, and SEGA America didn't resist "because they can't give away Football Manager", Graeme Struthers quips.
"...gamers don't want to be fragmented; they don't care much about borders, they care about the game and they care about their mates."
"Digital distribution obviously offers more freedom," Rich Eddy from Codemasters accepts, but says as long as there are boxed counterparts for sale in shops then regional release dates will come into play. "It is the model that makes it fair to both digital and physical distribution partners," he stresses. In other words, don't piss off the shops - it's probably hard enough getting shelf space for boxed PC games as it is.
"Those kind of things do come into play," Graeme Struthers nods. "If I was back in my retail days and I was sitting there and I was prepared to give you a purchase order for stock and you said, 'You know we're going to sell this three days before you get it into your shop...'" he trails off. "Yeah, thanks," he quips sarcastically, "why don't you have some more of my cash." I spoke anonymously to someone from a major publisher who reinforced not-pissing-off-shops as a major reason for all this.
Don't be hoodwinked by the notion that boxed sales of PC games have disappeared, either. Another contact tells me boxed and download PC sales only reached parity in July this year in the UK, so boxed sales are still significant enough to matter. And in southern Europe and South America there's "a large portion" of PC games sold on discs, Green Man Gaming's Paul Sulyok says.
That digital freedom is caged further by multi-platform marketing campaigns. If your game is Dishonored and it's on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, you want people to remember one thing: the release date. Watering that message down with different dates for different versions could ruin it all. "I wouldn't separate digital and physical," Paul Sulyok tells me. "You can't just look at the digital distribution element in isolation. If you're going to pay money for a poster or you're going to pay money for a bus stop, you want to make sure that a console gamer and a PC gamer - or whatever platform customers decide to consume that game on - that all of those different stock keeping units are available at the same time."
There are other more boring issues hampering downloadable release date synchronisation. Simple technical issues like dealing with lots of day-one DLC or wanting to staggering load for bandwidth purposes; localisation concerns such as translation or regional age ratings. Germany is particularly tough on blood in games, and publishers might hold up launches in other territories so Germans don't shop elsewhere. "It can sometimes be really, really boring admin issues with age ratings," says Graeme Struthers knowingly - he who helped found Get Games. "Some of that stuff can slow you down."
There's also tax and the "outdated" laws that don't transition online where there are no physical borders, Andy Payne adds. "And what happens when people find it difficult is they start making rules up," he tells me, "simplistic rules that seem like they're the right thing to do; but in the context of future-proofing they don't work." They might try and limit a UK-based download shop to selling to UK customers, for example. "'Oh OK," says Payne, sarcastically, "so we're an online business and we're only allowed to sell in the UK....'" He reveals that his Get Games business signed content deals that "restricted what we can and can't sell".
"There are so many things going on in the background," reiterates Paul Sulyok. "Yes you could have a global unlock, however there is a bigger picture that needs a bit more consideration."
So where do we stand, part 1: will boxed dates unify?
Only if we can convince the entire establishment it's worth the upheaval of change. "That long term established process has seen the many, many, manufactures, packers, distributors, logistics companies, warehousing, to-store-deliveries, work their systems around the end result of a game on a shelf on a Friday," stresses Rich Eddy, voice of the publisher. "To change that would take a unilateral acceptance that there is a need to change across all sectors involved in production and logistics - it's a way bigger consideration than just publishers' desire to change."
"Across the board no, it's unlikely," Andy Payne adds. "I can't see the absolute case for doing it. It'll be tough to see the whole industry rallying behind one worldwide release date.
"It's a free world," he shrugs, "it's not impossible that you'd have the two biggest games of the year going out on the same day and one of those game makers will turn around and say, 'Actually we're not doing that. We don't want to go out on the same day as those guys, we'll pick a different day and to be different we're going to say we've got FIFA Thursday or whatever it may be.'
"You're always trying to get attention for your game, and if all the media are geared up to a day of the week then they kind of fall asleep for the rest of the week. It's a free market out there and people are going to use every advantage they can to make the best of their game - and more power to that."
So where do we stand, part 2: will download dates unify?
"We shouldn't be talking about regional release dates for core games we download onto our PCs," Graeme Struthers sates flatly. "That should stop. It should stop now. It certainly shouldn't be around next year.
"Yes, it will change," he adds, "because the retail box business is going away. I can't think of any other reason why you would hold it back."
"We can all see where this going," Andy Payne agrees, "but it's not going to go as fast or as direct as theorists or economists or analysts might say; you've got vested interests, it's as simple as that." The "inexorable" tipping point he believes will come when the EAs, the Take-Twos, the Activisions, the Bethesdas, the Ubisofts decide its in the best interests of their businesses to leave boxed sales behind. Although don't expect boxed sales to disappear entirely, cautions Struthers - expect them stick around like vinyl has "after its demise has been celebrated so many times".
Bear in mind, too, that unified dates might not suit all games, and some companies might not need or want them. "If PopCap want to release the next version of Peggle and they want to stagger the release for whatever reason, I don't think it makes a big deal, no disrespect," Andy Payne points out. "It doesn't matter as much as if you're on Warcraft or Rift or League or Legends or something like that."
"Our preference would be for there to be one single unlock day for a product," Paul Sulyok pipes up. "You're going to see it in the very near future. The games industry is an industry that evolves and adapts very quickly to changes in consumer requirements. If there's consumer pressure to go for one single launch, the industry will recognise that and will cater for it."
"This is a problem that will disappear as more and more people - and guys like yourself - are using their voice."
Graeme Struthers agrees: "This is a problem that will disappear as more and more people - and guys like yourself - are using their voice and saying that if a game's coming out on a digital platform like Steam and it's released on this day and I've got it, I've pre-ordered it, I've pre-installed it, it's a nonsense, it's a fundamental nonsense that it's not available for me to play.
"It's like giving kids a Christmas present on the 25th and saying, 'Can you f*** off and come back on the 28th? You can look at it, you can't f***ing touch it.'"
So what have I learned? That despite the ubiquitous appearance of the internet, underneath is a world of different cultures that for a quarter of a century have honed their methods for delivering games to their people. To change that, to unify that - to convince the myriad cogs of each machine to do things differently - would take a colossal effort as well as one hell of a convincing reason why. "It's not fair my American friend gets to play three days earlier than me" just won't cut it.
In the UK we're lucky because we're geographically small and therefore nimble, so we're able to make exceptions and synchronise with US Tuesday dates. Moving entirely to Tuesdays, though? It doesn't seem to suit the shops that control retail Britain. They like Friday, they like their routine, so they'd block it or make it hard to achieve. Vested interests.
Online, downloadable games are shackled by those decades-old, entrenched boxed-market habits, and will continue to be until the day boxed games pale into insignificance. On PC, that time will come sooner than consoles because of Steam, and because we don't yet know what next-generation masterplans Microsoft and Sony have.
But that "when" also depends on you - so kick up a stink, bray, petition about the Steam version of a game not being available at the same time in the UK (or wherever you live) as in the US. Chances are, if you shout loud enough, appeasing the mob may become a publisher's top priority for business. And when that happens, all other obstructions to a unified launch will seem to miraculously fall away.