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The Rockstar Effect: How Mega-Budget Games Change Release Dates For Everyone Else

The fall video game release schedule is usually a non-stop sprint from late August until the first week in December. Titles large and small crowd into the busy holiday shopping season, fighting for a piece of the pie. According to market research firm NPD, an average 55 percent of United States video game hardware and software retail spending happens between September and December.

In order to give games their best chance at visibility and sales (two related, but distinct metrics), developers and publishers large and small keep a weather eye on the release calendar. Even amongst AAA games, some titles have a larger footprint than others.

This year, October 26 is radioactive. As soon as Rockstar announced its plans to release “Red Dead Redemption 2”, the publisher’s first game since 2013’s “Grand Theft Auto V” (not counting re-releases on PC and current-generation consoles), everyone else scattered.

Activision abandoned its normal first week of November Call of Duty release to get into consumers’ hands before “Red Dead Redemption 2.” Battlefield V, originally slated for a week after Rockstar dropped a nuke on the release calendar, moved clear to the end of November.

By comparison, the last Friday in October 2017 saw “Assassin’s Creed Origins,” “Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus,” and “Super Mario Odyssey” vying for attention, with “Destiny 2” making its PC debut earlier that week. In past years, the week has also been home to “Titanfall 2,” “Dragonball Xenoverse 2,” and “World of Final Fantasy,” “Halo 5: Guardians,” “Divinity Original Sin Enhanced Edition,” “Lords of the Fallen,” “Sunset Overdrive,” and “NBA Live 15.” In 2014 through 2016, the last week in October also saw the annual WWE game arrive.

This year, a handful of small indie titles, an anime-inspired Bandai Namco game (targeted at a niche audience) are the only games willing to exist in Rockstar’s shadow. CD Projekt Red is also releasing its Witcher spinoff, “Thronebreaker,” on PC (where “Red Dead Redemption 2” won’t be releasing), but it’s holding the console launch until December.

Bethesda senior vice president of global marketing and communications Pete Hines says that the key driver for AAA release date decisions in most cases is when a tentpole game will be finished and ready for sale rather than considering external factors.

“If we’re picking a release date during a window with known launches, we will certainly look at other, known dates,” says Bethesda senior vice president of global marketing and communications Pete Hines. “But often times we’re picking a date before we know about any other release dates in our window.”

However, AAA publishers know what they’re getting into in the holiday season. It’s always a fight for attention. No matter where you look between September and early December, you’re going to be facing competition.

“It’s more of a general ‘how much will be going on, what other games will be out there that will have an impact in a variety of places…ads, retail, digital storefronts, etc.’ If it’s a holiday window, you know it’s gonna be a mess and mostly just accept that it’ll be a bloodbath.”

Even with the holiday season’s minefield, there are reasons some developers and publishers might forge ahead. While huge titles like “Call of Duty” draw eyeballs, there isn’t always overlap with niche games. That leaves an opening for publishers with highly specialized audiences.

“Speaking as a mid-sized publisher that focuses on niche hardcore titles, we end up in an interesting situation with Q4, which normally is a terrible time unless you’re really big,” says Paradox Interactive vice president of business development Shams Jorjani. “Few people who religiously play Hearts of Iron 4 or Stellaris will be enticed by whatever big shooter/open world game is dropping in the same time window.”

Small publishers don’t have that luxury. Releasing against a behemoth like “Red Dead Redemption 2” or “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey” can severely impact sales and media attention. That means keeping options open until later in the development cycle.

“We try to avoid locking in a date that is too far into the future,” says Raw Fury co-founder and CEO Jonas Antonsson. “Because, with our size and weight, we need to be able to be flexible and agile. Quick to jump on opportunities that might not reveal themselves until closer to release. So we rather try to identify a few potential windows and then we follow up on those as we get closer. Then, of course, we try to avoid big triple-A launches, especially if they hold a similar theme or game elements to whatever it is we’re working with, at any given time. But avoiding triple-A can also be platform specific. So we might decide on a staggered release plan if there is a great opportunity on one platform while another is going to be tough because of a big release. Finally, we try to avoid relying on the past to predict what might work in the future. This is an ever-changing space and things that worked well aren’t necessarily set to work well again.”

There was never a surefire strategy for releasing a game. There were always times to avoid, especially for independent studios with smaller games, but a launch date magic bullet was fantasy. And it’s only gotten harder in the past few years.

“A lot of good people at studios, publishers and outside firms work hard to tilt the odds, but there’s still plenty of luck and a confluence of events required,” says Alexander Sliwinski, who handles operations at Bithell Games. “An independent developer can avoid direct competition with a major publisher launch, but that won’t help avoid the dozen of announced and stealth launch titles coming out daily now.”

Sometimes, there are good reasons to avoid your first choice release window. You’re going to be selling your game on one or more digital storefronts, like Steam or the PlayStation Store. Those partners might have something to say about your preferred launch date, and you’d be smart to listen to them (even if it might mean giving up an October launch for a scary game).

If Valve says, ‘You can’t make a Halloween launch, but what if you did it the week after Halloween and we give you one of those top rotating slots on Steam for eight hours?’ No matter what your PR can do from a media standpoint, if you get on that rotating carousel on Steam, or if you get on the App Store in one of their promoted slots, or if you get on Google Play’s rotating slot, that level of promotion is going to trump whatever sales your media can drive for you,” explains Tinsley PR founder Stephanie Tinsley Fitzwilliam. “That’s going to give it to you ten times or twenty times over. If you’ve got some tangible level of interest in your game that you’re launching, and you’re not Warner Bros. and you’re not Activision, if you’re an indie team, listen to what the people are telling you that want to help you promote that game. They’re going to make money if you make money. They’ve got a vested interest in your game succeeding.”

The last Friday in October is usually packed with new games. “Red Dead Redemption 2” changed the face of October’s calendar, with far-reaching implication.

In recent years, publishers have started taking advantage of the first quarter in the calendar year, which for many of them coincides with the end of the fiscal year on March 31. “Red Dead Redemption 2’s” release inspired heavier crowding in February and March.

“It’s been an incremental change going on ten years now,” Sliwinski explains. “Once upon a time, one could expect AAA to stick to the Q4 ‘holiday season.’ But then over time due to delays, those titles started creeping into Q1… then Q2, but now it’s a full year affair. For independent developers, the fourth quarter is still doom, but there’s no clear time to launch a game nowadays to get through the noise. Even when we talk about a “secondary hot season” like Q1, there’s still climate change across the calendar year. It’s always hot! There’s no obvious time. You can look at release calendars, pick a time that works best for you… but that still won’t prevent numerous titles seeing the same gap and launching at the same time.”

February 22, 2019, is currently packed with EA’s “Anthem,” Deep Silver’s “Metro: Exodus,” and “Crackdown 3.” Until last week, it was even busier. Sony announced it was making a change to open-world zombie game “Days Gone” to “move the release of Days Gone from the crowded February timeframe to April 29, 2019.”

Making the decision to shift a release date isn’t an easy one, but it’s also not a given that your game should move. If you’re a small game or a niche title, you might be able to stand fast and still have a successful launch on the same day as a heavy hitter.

If you do decide to make a change after you’ve announced a release date, you’re going to have misinformation out there. Every Google or YouTube search has the chance of spitting back your outdated release info, which causes confusion among consumers.

“You have to make sure you’re over communicating your new release date in every single thing you do from that day forward,” Fitzwilliam explains. “Knowing that you’re going to have misinformation out there means that you need to step it up and be ultra clear and get your new release date out there as much as humanly possible. If you have a game that has a fanbase, whether that’s a franchise or a game that a lot of people have been following, be honest. Tell them, ‘We want to give you the best experience possible. We want this game to succeed and be the best it can be at launch. The launch window is looking crowded. We’re going to be move to this date, which gives us a little more time to polish the game and make it even better.’ All of those things are absolutely true. Communicating directly and honestly with your audience is a key element. The onus is on you to make sure that all of those fans understand that there is a new launch date. Reiterate in every bit of communication that you have a new launch date.”

Often, you’ll see release date changes happen by months rather than a few days or weeks. This often has the effect of shifting a release out of the original fiscal quarter or even the fiscal year. This can wreak havoc with a company’s earnings and its stock price. Moving a tentpole title into the next fiscal year often results in a sharp share price decline.

Given the financial impact, why not nudge things only slightly out of the way of an oncoming train? It’s not that simple.

Generally speaking, for AAA launches, if you’re going to retail, there are so many moving parts to a retail launch that once you’re in that date, that’s it,” Fitzwilliam says. “You can’t move it by a couple of weeks. It’s going to be a 90-day move, if you end up having to move. You’ve got global teams, global retailers, global distribution… there are so many things to pull back and then plug back in. It’s expensive to move your launch date if you’re at that level. If you’re working with global retail distribution channels and you move your launch date and it’s already been out there, that is a hard turn to make. There’s a lot of reprinting. There’s a lot of redesign. You have to pull everything out. That’s why you’ve usually moved it a whole quarter at that point. Your PR team usually had a lot of things in motion for a launch like that, not to mention your marketing team and the ad spends. Every single thing has to move. It’s a huge course correction. It’s like watching a cruise ship do a U-turn. It takes forever, and it’s not pleasant for anybody.”

There’s no recipe for the perfect release date, but you can set yourself up for success. Research and communication is a factor in launch planning.

“Ask other developers when they plan to release and why,” Antonnson suggests. “Look at what is coming from bigger players and when. Think about how different platforms behave in different ways and during which times. Think about when to launch on which platform. Think about what you have to have ready well before your release date – like a solid PR and outreach plan, along with all the materials you’ll need to support that. Look for new opportunities on established platforms. Look for new platforms. Don’t blindly believe that what worked in the past will work in the future. And if someone tells you there’s such a thing as a sure-fire time to release your game, just nod and smile but don’t follow that advice.”

The date is only part of the puzzle. Building toward a strong release takes a long-term strategy of investment in marketing and public relations.

“Build a community, associate with influencers, get to know the press,” Sliwinski advises. “I haven’t seen an ‘overnight success’ in years who didn’t quietly do early access for a while or wasn’t backed by influencers. I wouldn’t focus so much on a release date as I would the community and influencers who can maintain chatter.”

And even if a developer builds that community, avoids games like “Red Dead Redemption 2,” and has a solid PR plan in place, there’s no guarantee that launch will be booming success. The most developers and publishers can do is give it their best bet and hope that everything out of their control falls into place.

“Be prepared to fail even if you feel you have picked the perfect launch date and everything leading up to it seems to be going your way,” Antonnson cautions. “Any launch can be affected by unforeseen variables and circumstances in the market that could potentially derail well thought out plans. The best thing you can do is to maximize your chances of succeeding – but you can never guarantee success.”

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