Publishers still don’t get it. On Aug. 2, Warner Bros. announced the release date for Lord of the Rings: War in the North: Nov. 1. You know, the same day that Uncharted 3 and Sonic Generations release, and the same month that promises huge titles like Assassin’s Creed Revelations, Saints Row The Third, Halo CE Anniversary Edition, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and a little indie game titled Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. What the hell was Warner Bros. thinking when they decided to make Nov. 1 the release date? Come to think of it, why are all those games releasing in the same month for to begin with?
Normally, I like to write thoughtful editorials and reviews and save my ranting for YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, but I feel these words must be committed to something more substantial. Again. My very first blog post—ever—argued that publishers should do a better job of spreading out releases of big titles throughout the entire year. After all, gamers play games all year, and they have grown up, so they don’t have to rely on Santa for all their games. Plus, it’s just common sense. I understand that time of year yields the most sales, so everyone wants a piece of that pie, but logic says the more slices of pie, the smaller the slices get. Maybe a small slice of November pie is still bigger than half of a July pie, but for smaller games, the November pie can ensure certain failure. You’re better off getting a bigger slice of a smaller pie. Small games drown in the sea of blockbuster titles like Call of Duty. It seems so obvious—to everybody—that we shouldn’t have to still be talking about game releases being concentrated in the fall. But here we are, with Warner Bros. deciding it’s a good idea to sentence War in the North to certain death.
To be fair, publishers have shown some progress on this issue since I first wrote about it in 2008, and since gamers in general have been lamenting the lack of a year-round release schedule since the dawn of the medium. There is now a healthy amount of big, quality titles released between January and the end of May. This year, gamers got to enjoy LittleBigPlanet 2, Dead Space 2, Killzone 3, Bulletstorm, Portal 2, L.A. Noire, and more during those months. Mass Effect has found its niche in this period; Mass Effect 2 released in Jan. 2010, and the third entry in the series will release next March. Rockstar, in particular, has planted a flag in spring and exploited it to its advantage, releasing titles like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire to huge success. All of these titles are Game of the Year contenders in any month of their respective release years, but despite the proven track record of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Rockstar was smart enough not to pit it against the likes of Call of Duty. The quality of Rockstar’s games can’t be denied, but their brand of daring, narrative-driven, mature period pieces has slightly more limited appeal than a brainless shooter. So they release their titles during spring, in which they make a big splash and continue to sell throughout the year. And their titles are still on shelves in November, and they still get a piece of that pie, long after they’re already certified successes.
But there is still that dead spot—that drought—that starts in early June and completely dries up in July. EA’s NCAA Football remains the largest oasis in that desert. A few small titles fill the drought and—surprise, surprise—find success beyond their publishers’ wildest dreams. Niche title Catherine released only a week or two ago, and it’s already Atlus’ biggest success ever. Gamers are thirsty for a game in July, and they’ll take a chance on anything. Kids are out of school, and trust me, they’re not all playing baseball and swimming and riding their bikes. They have more free time than ever, and they want to play games. So they trade in games and buy COD map packs or used copies of big games that released earlier in the year. And when they buy those used copies of older titles, you know how much of the pie publishers get? That’s right, nothing. Summer is still a huge, gaping opportunity for publishers, and they’ve yet to fill that big, hungry hole.
Which brings me back to Lord of the Rings: War in the North. As far as I know, the release date was never officially announced, but major retailers had it listed for Aug. 23, a much better time frame than November. It didn’t look too hot, but I was excited for the game, not because I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, but because it’s being developed by Snowblind Studios (Champions of Norrath), and it looked like a fun mix of dungeon crawler and the hack-n-slash LOTR games from last generation. My love of dungeon crawlers is well-documented, and while it’s not a pure dungeon crawler because it doesn’t have that top-down perspective, it seems to have retained the basics of the genre—loot, leveling, and co-op. I had it preordered and paid off; I was just counting the days until Aug. 23. Now, I’m not so sure.
You see, while I love the genre, there are simply way too many sexier games releasing in November, not to mention October. I just won’t have the time and money for it, not when I’m investing hundreds of hours and dollars in games like Saints Row and Skyrim. Yes, I already have it paid off, but I can put that money toward Sonic Generations, and still have some left over to help pay off Skyrim. Others will do the same, because smart consumers know War in the North will fail hard in November. It was only going to appeal to a niche audience to begin with, people who like Lord of the Rings and dungeon crawlers, and those people will probably still prefer Skyrim (or something) in November more than either of those enticing factors. Even if not, they know their money is better spent on the big titles, because War in the North will fail, and it will be selling for $40 or less by the time New Years rolls around. And hey, at the point, there will be used copies floating around. At that point, the publishers can suck it, instead of asking me to munch on their pie.