A breakdown of the yearly video game release schedule
In our video game coverage, we frequently reference things like “the summer dry season” or “the holiday rush” when talking about video game releases. That’s pretty self-explanatory, but as we wait for releases to start trickling in again, we thought it might be interesting to take a look at why we are waiting in the first place. There is a strange graph of video game release trends that has dips and valleys in places you might not expect.
January – Waking up
Everyone needs a vacation including the gaming industry. The first half of January, the game industry is still kind of in hibernation. Everyone is getting back from holiday and good business sense says that any release that hits too close to the New Year will be overlooked as we get ourselves together to begin life again.
About halfway through the month, releases start up again. However, January releases tend to be kept to more niche titles, not mainstream blockbusters. You’ll see the release of remakes, major DLC packs, and games in genres that don’t necessarily have mainstream appeal. Occasionally one of these titles will make a big splash, but usually nowhere near as big a splash as games released during the heavy competitive periods.
February through April – The competitive hill
Speaking of heavy competitive periods, there are two major competitive release windows in the video game industry. The first, and most important, is the holiday season, which we will talk about later. In short, everyone gives gifts for the holidays, which means they are spending money, which means you want to get your big games out right before everyone starts spending.
But what if you can’t? What if you need to delay your game? Or what if the holiday season is already too competitive? Or what if you simply want some time to build marketing buzz?
Well that’s what the first competitive hill is for. We are calling it a hill because the release activity in this period follows a sort of bell curve. Sometime in March, or perhaps in the end of February or beginning of April, there tends to be a bloodbath of major releases hitting within weeks or even days of each other. Last year, Anthem, Crackdown 3, Far Cry: New Dawn, and Metro Exodus all hit within seven days of each other.
The rest of the releases in this period are defined by whenever this high point is. If you don’t want to compete, then you’ll push your release earlier in the year. You’ll be further away from the peak but still will be within the window if you want people to spend their recently acquired holiday cash on you. If you think that your title is actually niche enough that your fanbase won’t be spending their money on anything during the peak, then you’ll probably push your release toward late April.
Where does the peak fall in 2020? It’s looking to hit in late March. Doom Eternal, Persona 5 Royal, the Resident Evil 3make, and Cyberpunk 2077 are all hitting within a week or two of each other. Square Enix is actually sandwiching the peak with two RPG releases, Final Fantasy VII Remake in early march and Trials of Mana in late April. This leaves February for more niche releases like Persona 5 Scramble, Granblue Fantasy Versus, Dreams, and more.
May – The straggler month
May is a bit of an awkward month for video game releases. It’s far enough away from the holiday period that your release won’t get any bump in sales from it. However, it’s also right before E3, so if you don’t get your major titles out now, they will be eaten up by the E3 buzz. On the other hand, if you release a major title right before E3, you can use E3 as a small marketing push for it.
So we call this the straggler month. If you have a big release to get out that missed either the holiday period of the competitive hill, then you push it out in May. The upside? You won’t have a lot of competition in May. Major releases tend to come out this month without anything competing with them for weeks. This means that the fanbases attention is unsplit, which is great for sales.
This year’s stragglers include The Last of Us Part II and Marvel’s Avengers.
June – E3!
Here we are boys. E3. The biggest video game conference of the year. This is when the gaming industry hypes everyone up for the coming holiday season and the years beyond.
If you had a release right next to E3, then we hate to break it to you, but you are going to be overlooked. That is, unless, your release is part of E3. In recent years, many companies have begun planning “surprise” releases, titles that are both announced at E3, and then launched quickly thereafter. These titles do see a decent sales return, but it’s worth noting that they are never as high profile as games that hit during the major sales periods.
July and August – The summer dry spell
And after E3 we all take a bit of a break. We just simply don’t see as many AAA releases in the summer. We get a few months to go to the beach and enjoy the great outdoors.
Screw that! When AAA releases take a break, other areas of gaming step in to pick up the slack. We see a marked increase in major indie releases in this time period. We also see more niche titles from Japan come out during the summer dry spell.
Oddly enough Nintendo has thrown a bit of a wrench into the release schedule. It was the summer dry spell where many major handheld titles came out, so they didn’t have to compete with their console counterparts. However, the Switch is both handheld and console at the same time, and so we have seen more than one major Switch release come out during this period. Last year it was Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
As for this year, we’ll learn more as we head closer to E3.
September – The grab bag
The summer has passed and releases have started up once again. At this point, mainstream gamers are starved for AAA or even AA content from the summer dry spell and as the days get colder they are more likely to spend their money on video games that they can play while taking shelter from the elements. What does that mean?
RELEASE EVERYTHING! Seriously, September is when you release whatever it is you couldn’t find another release window for. Visual novels? Sure. AI The Somnium Files came out last September. Experimental games? Yep! Untitled Goose Game came out last September 2019. We saw remakes, remasters, rereleases, from Links Awakening to Planescape Torment. Mobile game tie-ins? We got that! Mario Kart Tour released last September. We had a fishing game in Reel Fishing, a beat ‘em up in River City Girls, sports games and strategy games and more. September into early October is traditionally the densest release period for video games, and you are bound to find something to play here, even if it’s not the major release you were waiting for.
October and November – The holiday season
Here it is, the fabled holiday season. If you want your game to make major bank, then this is when you want to release it. This is when the yearly Call of Duty release comes out. This is when major companies release games that they have been hyping up all year. November 2019 saw the release of a new Pokémon, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Death Stranding, and even Shenmue III.
There’s another benefit to releasing during the holiday season aside from the inevitable sales spike you get from the actual holidays. This is when gaming outlets release all of their “best of the year” lists. This is when The Game Awards pours over its nominee list. A nod on one of these lists can do a lot for sales. Here’s the secret: people are fallible. Try as they might, they are much more likely to put something that came out in the last few months on their “game of the year” list than something that released in the beginning of the year. So releasing in the holiday window maximizes your chances of being remembered as one of the best of the entire year.
December – Winding down
Finally, we come full circle. Everyone releases the big titles that they were excited for and then… well, we all take a break. A few leftover AAA releases happen toward the beginning of the month, a few indie titles come out in the middle, but by the time we hit the December 15, the release schedule has slowed again. Unlike the summer dry season, where lesser known genres and companies get a chance to shine, almost all of the industry, even the indiesphere, goes into hibernation for a few weeks. We all get to open our presents of new videogames, spend time with our families, celebrate the New Year, and then the cycle starts up all over again.