Played Out

Some people claim you can never have too much of a good thing. To these individuals, I humbly offer the following retort: Jason X, Survivor: Season 11, any major software title released for PC or console platforms in the last month?

You see, it?s ironic: January through September, we gamers essentially twiddle our joysticks, patiently waiting for releases of note, generally few and far between. Then October rolls around, and suddenly, after going half the year ignoring one Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh! spin-off after another, it?s open season on blockbusters.

Within the space of 12 weeks, more titles ? roughly 1000, if you?re counting handheld, plug-n-play and mobile phone software too ? are released than in the entire previous nine months combined.


They call the day after Thanksgiving ?Black Friday? for a reason? and no, it?s not the result of Public Enemy?s chief politico and legendary MC, Chuck D, successfully lobbying Congress.

No other shopping day of the year is as busy or crucial to retailers, who use its performance as a means of saying, ?See, we told you. Millions recognize: It?s time to get the gift-giving process rolling, even if it?s 5AM on November 25, half the household?s hung over and you can still taste the turkey from the night before.?

Given that gaming is a business ? albeit a $28.5 billion dollar one worldwide, expected to grow to $42 billion by 2010 says DFC Intelligence ? publishers naturally skew product debuts towards this time period. The assumption being, naturally, that a game on shelves in time for the holidays is one which has the potential of selling two, three or even four times as well as normal at retail.

But the reality?s a little bit different.

Say you?re a kid: $50 for a game, or $60 in the case of Xbox 360 software, is quite a chunk of change. Or, perhaps an average American parent, who?d like to spend no more than $100 on a single relative or child this Chanukah or Christmas. At most, common sense tells us the typical nuclear family will pick up a maximum of three to four videogames by year-end. Do the math, and you?ll see for every digital diversion purchased, there are about 997 that go untouched and overlooked.

No big deal, some might argue ? there are plenty of people in the USA (295,734,134 at last count), all of whom have different tastes and interests. The bottom line being that no matter your needs, a piece of software exists that comfortably suits them, so few games, if any, would actually languish or bottom out in terms of sales.

Unfortunately, the reality is that the gaming industry is divided into clear-cut castes of haves and have-nots. Madden NFL 06 is going to sell in huge numbers on any system. Even critically acclaimed releases such as Guitar Hero and Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 for PlayStation 2, the globe?s most popular platform at 90 million units shipped, won?t.

The truth is most holiday shoppers out there are mothers, fathers, and grandparents ? not the type who can tell Aeon Flux from Shadow of the Colossus at plain sight. These buyers (and 31% of American households will be buying in 2005, according to surveys conducted by the Entertainment Software Association) largely rely on familiarity or band recognition when making purchase decisions.

As such, games in popular franchises (e.g. Quake or Tony Hawk) or those blessed with major licenses (e.g. Ultimate Spider-Man, Peter Jackson?s King Kong, etc.) should, by rights, have a distinct advantage. Only things aren?t working out that way this year, because now, publishers aren?t just overloading consumers in terms of the sheer volume of product. They?re also pumping out record numbers of high-profile sequels and games with A-grade properties attached.

Imagine. Dad hits the local software store looking for something for little Jimmy. Normally, he can rely on his instincts: He?s heard terms like Mario, Sonic and Dragon Ball Z bandied about enough times during the course of the daily routine.

But wait, what?s this? Upon arriving, there?s that Animal Crossing title the local newscaster was raving about. Over on that other shelf too: It?s Metroid Prime Pinball? and wasn?t the Metroid series great when he was growing up? Oh, and look; Mario Kart DS is in as well. Didn?t the family have a great time playing that title together on the GameCube? You can see where I?m going with this one?

The situation?s even worse for hardcore gamers. Franchises like Prince of Persia, Call of Duty, and Age of Empires are all suddenly receiving new installments. Plus, Microsoft?s Xbox 360 is just now shipping, and it is getting rave reviews after all, opening up a whole new range of software in which to potentially invest.

Game manufacturers were recently sobered by the announcement that domestic retail sales had fallen to $365 million in October. That?s down 24% from the same time last year.

Really, though ? there?s nothing shocking about the revelation. Audiences are simply too overwhelmed to know whether or not they should be purchasing a new console or hanging onto their old, let alone where to turn for amusement.

The smarter play, in the months going forward, would be staggering top-tier game launches out across the entire annual calendar. That way, you could start with a new Splinter Cell in January. Move onto a fresh episode of Jade Empire by Valentine?s Day. And, of course, just be finishing Final Fantasy XII by March, when the next quarter?s must-have games are rolling in.

Truly though, it appears that publishers have learned little from last year, when so many AAA titles rolled out simultaneously that Banc of America Securities dubbed the videogame industry holiday release lineup ?Murderer?s Row.? But I suspect they?d best wise up soon.

As feedback on November and December sales performance rolls in, the situation will likely only worsen. There?s only so much time, money and excitement one can muster for the hobby, hardcore fan or no. Even if (horror of horrors) it means leaving some of the sector?s supposedly biggest releases, e.g. Dead or Alive 4, looking more dead on arrival.

– Scott Steinberg

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