As Christmas once again creeps up on us, the sound of chiming cash registers echoes across the land. And nowhere is it louder than in your local games emporium, for every year a veritable avalanche of new titles reach shelves just in time for Santa to stuff them in a stocking and drop them down your chimney. We spoke to Activision and Take 2 Europe to find out what's behind this annual festive insanity...
As you might have guessed, the short answer is that it's all the fault of the Americans and their damn turkeys. "Our big titles this Christmas are driven primarily by US demand", explained Roger Walkden, Activision's Director of Strategic Marketing for Europe. "The key US shopping time is Thanksgiving [and so] game releases target this weekend, although they do not always make it. Which is why, with PAL conversions and European localisations, we follow a couple of weeks behind." As a result Activision are releasing some of their most anticipated titles, such as Tony Hawk's 3 and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, within a few days of each other. And they're not alone, with the major publishers putting out as many as a third of their annual releases in the last couple of months of the year. But how does this happen, and why do certain games get picked out by publishers as future stocking fillers? "Quality titles take time to develop, and they are ranked in terms of likely market response", Take 2 UK PR manager Nick Boulstridge explained. "With Grand Theft Auto 3 for instance, research showed that a pre-Christmas launch was needed to cater for the demand from those consumers who wished to buy the game as a gift, as well as gamers who wanted to play it before Christmas."
Lost In The Crowd
There's no doubting that Christmas is the busiest time of the year for the gaming industry, and this encourages publishers to ship as many titles as possible to cash in on the yuletide bonanza. As Nick succintly put it, "the more quality products are sold, the more can be produced to ensure a steady stream of games throughout the year". From a gamer's point of view the end of year scramble looks counter-productive though, as many of these titles are directly competing with each other and the sheer quantity of new releases each week means that many of the less well known titles will inevitably get lost in the crowd. Unless you have a true triple-A product that can lift itself above the melee, the danger is that it will sink without a trace. Obviously none of the publishers we talked to were keen to portray their own games as anything less than shining examples of game design, and Nick was quick to point out that "if a game is of a high calibre in terms of entertainment, it will sell regardless of how many other titles are out there". But while that might be true for the likes of Grand Theft Auto 3, which Take 2 recently sent to the top of the charts here in the UK, with so many high profile titles being released at the same time surely everyone suffers?
The situation on the PlayStation 2 in Europe this Christmas is particularly crazy. After a year of relative disappointment, console gamers are now faced with a flood of high profile new releases such as Pro Evolution Soccer, Devil May Cry, WWF Smackdown, Silent Hill 2, SSX Tricky, GTA3, Tony Hawk 3 and Half-Life, all appearing on shelves within the space of just a few weeks. The annual November release rush inevitably results in some casualties, with PC games in particular being kicked out the door before they are really ready just to fit into a comfortable pre-Christmas release slot. Surely it would make more sense to hold these games back for a few more months to be properly tested and polished, and then release them in February or March when gamers are gagging for something new? And the question remains, are high sales in the run up to Christmas driving the publishers to release more games at this time of year, or is the annual flood of new games helping to make Christmas look more important than it really is? After all, some of the best selling games of recent years were released during the notoriously quiet spring and summer months. Missing Christmas didn't hurt the likes of Diablo II or Black & White. In fact, you could argue that being delayed by a few months actually helped both games, as the total lack of competition when they eventually launched gave them an even higher profile than they would have had amongst the chaos of Christmas.
This New Year lull has become almost traditional in the gaming industry, and it's not unusual to reach April without a single new triple-A title having appeared on shelves. At least this year in Europe things should be a little different, thanks to the February arrival of Metal Gear Solid 2 and the expected spring launches of the Xbox and GameCube, each with its own range of quality software. Activision apparently won't be falling into the usual winter hibernation trap either, insisting that they could "hardly be accused of creating a lull after Christmas" this year. "In the three months following Christmas we have some of our biggest launches; Soldier of Fortune 2, Star Trek Bridge Commander, Jedi Knight 2, Wreckless and many more". But this is more the exception than the rule, and it looks like a disproportionate number of titles will continue to be released in the festive season each year, as long as people continue to save up their Euros to fill their Christmas stockings with gaming goodies. In the meantime I have a stack of games the size of Ben Nevis waiting to be reviewed... Damn you!