Codemasters, ShopTo and analyst Michael Pachter all believe change is afoot, and that summer videogame droughts may be the norm no longer. Economic risk, argue the trio, is forcing even the biggest players to keep clear of the crowded autumn release schedule.
"We're beginning to see a change in summer releases," notes Michael Pachter, videogame investment analyst for Wedbush Morgan Securities. "It actually started a year ago, with GTA (April) and Metal Gear Solid 4 (May) having pretty solid success. EA pushed Tiger and Fight Night forward, and will release FIFA and Need for Speed in September, earlier than usual.
"A lot of this is to limit risk from a crowded holiday release schedule. EA had a bad time with too many games in the October-November time frame last year. They decided to spread things out in order to be more competitive. "
ShopTo boss Igor Cipolletta recalls a "majority" of Christmas 2008 games being discounted within "a few short weeks". He thinks shifting some focus to summer is a change worth making.
"Traditionally, the summer and early autumn have been a very quiet period for game releases, and it would seem to be worth a change of focus to advertise and release some titles within this window; customers may have money now, but will they still have that money come the Christmas rush?" asks Cipolletta.
"Sales of certain titles are a given but those titles slightly lower on people's want list, would the publishers rather have decent sales in a pre-Christmas market or are they happy to see their titles as weekly specials or bargain bin fodder crushed under the weight of sales of Modern Warfare 2, FIFA 10 and Forza Motorsport 3?
"[Publishers] debuting or returning franchises that don't have a massive guaranteed pre-order base may want to release their product slightly earlier," he adds. "The earlier release date will reduce their advertising budgets and allow their title to stand out, rather than getting lost under the sheer weight of releases when we reach October, November time."
Codemasters is one publisher doing just that: Damnation was released in May, Fuel at the beginning of June and Overlord II at the end of June. Furthermore, Ashes Cricket is scheduled for July, Colin McRae: Dirt 2 for September and F1 2009 for autumn. The "greater visibility" of the summer is attractive, argues global communication manager Sam Cordier.
"For Codemasters, it's always been about spreading releases to the launch window that makes the most sense - fitting the right game to the right window," he said. "Overlord 1 did very well during the summer when originally released, so it made sense to hit the same kind of release window. It also has greater visibility during the summer than it would have done at peak holiday time.
"Ashes Cricket 2009, F1 2009 and Colin McRae Dirt 2 have launch windows where they are because they are tied in with major sporting events around the world. Ashes Cricket 2009, for example, is maximised as a summer release during the Ashes sporting event.
"The past has proven that using this kind of launch strategy can be very successful if done right as you are giving people the games they want to play, when they want to play them," added Cordier.
Cipolletta admits that we have seen some big releases over the last couple of summers, with games such as Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Battlefield: Bad Company, Mercenaries 2, Soulcalibur 4 and now Ghostbusters, Overlord II and The Sims 3.
Pachter, however, points out that most of these were accidental summer releases resulting from delays. Nevertheless, if they are successful "we will probably see more of the same in the future", he said.
But Pachter reckons we're not there yet, and is adamant that platform holders need to force the issue if they are to turn around what will be depressing sales figures for the coming months.
"July will be sad, August will be better," said Pachter. "Hardware is still a driver of game sales, and the consoles and handhelds are just too expensive for those households who haven't bought yet.
"They have to come down in price to spark renewed interest, and if console/handheld sales are down by 500,000 - 700,000 units in July and August, software sales will be burdened by 1.5 - 2 million fewer units that aren't purchased with new boxes."
Lots of this cagey behaviour follows a turbulent period for the global economy. Cipolletta says a result of this will be less risks and more revived franchises with proven track records. That, he concludes, will please the hardcore, and they, he believes, are the people who drive the videogame industry.
"Hardcore gamers are still at the heart of the major sales in the console market and publishers are realising that spending lavish amounts on licensed product that is likely to receive a lukewarm reception/sales has become too big a risk, especially in the current economic climate," explains Cipolletta.
"Instead they are choosing to revive well established franchises which they can sell to hardcore gamers, who will buy games all year round. Aside from the likes of FIFA, which will always have both a hardcore and a casual audience, the vast majority of consistently high sales are for established hardcore franchises.
"That's not to say we should abandon all hope of fresh and original titles, just that publishers may be wary of the risk," he concludes.
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