Misconceptions Mondays #4 – Release dates don’t matter

Winter is coming, even though it might not feel like it here in the UK, where we’ve had some very un-British heat waves recently.

The start of September marks the return of the Triple-A industry, who lay dormant most of the summer.

For this reason, from September until January marks the worst period of the year to be releasing an indie game, if you can help it.

Now, I’m not saying you should never release during this period. September to December is four months, a full third of the year, and a bit too big a time period to be able to avoid for many developers.

I’m also not going to suggest that if your game is done you sit on it for months waiting for the perfect release date.

What this misconception is about is keeping the release date up there on your checklist with ‘have a polished, final build’ and ‘deciding on price’ when it comes to things that are important for your games launch.

Simply put: If you’re early enough in development that you can steer your game to release between January and September, you’ll have a better chance of success than if you release from now until the New Year.

What’s the deal with summer releases?

There are a few reasons Triple-A stays away from summer:

  • It’s hot in major gaming countries and more people are outside in general
  • Many people in major gaming countries take this time to go on vacations
  • Some of those people tend to be key staff at developers and publishers
  • It’s a long way from Christmas, so nobody is thinking about buying your game as a gift
  • By the time gift decisions start to be made, your game is considered old
  • Since the 70s, the movie industry trended towards their larger releases in the summer and publishers don’t want to compete for your entertainment money

Christmas is really the big sticking point for Triple-A though. According to retail figures, nearly 40% of people start their Christmas shopping before November.  For Triple-A to reach the critical mass for a profitable game, they need to either be releasing in this period or doing a major discount towards the run up to December.

Despite this, there is a lot of push in the Triple-A world to start releasing throughout the year. Missing Christmas might be a scary proposition, but the pure amount of high-quality releases being pushed into a single window is starting to do more harm than good.

But Triple-A is slow, managed by committee and terrified of making changes to a delicate and previously successful formula. This predictability is good news for you, providing you can schedule your development to take advantage of it.

So, when is the best time to release an indie game?

When everyone else isn’t. The Steam Spy figures are a basic guide here:

 

January and February are very good times to release. Not only is it not busy, but people have a lot of residual money left over from Christmas, and nothing to save up for.

Most people also don’t have any major life events such as vacations, or moving, at this time either.

So not only do you have a more active audience, you also have half as many games to compete with as you might in July.

Within the next few years, the Triple-A industry is likely to start moving into this space, however. We’ve seen it already with some major releases like Monster Hunter, and it’s a far more attractive space for them to expand into than trying to move backwards, taking September releases into June and July.

The rest of the spring and summer months remain good times to release, though Easter can see the first big push from Triple-A games. It’s likely we’ll continue to see retailers pushing Easter as “Christmas 2” over the next few years, as well.

June and July remain good times in terms of game releases, but these are the months when people tend to be away from their computers and gaming less.

Finding hard data on sales by season is not easy. Steam concurrent users are our best bet, but also very flawed, as they show people online, not game purchases. We also have to take into account that Steam steadily grows its user base with new users.

However, you can see a general uptrend of players online that hits around the end of summer.

It’s not rocket science (It’s not even science)

It’s ok to keep things as simple as this. We’re looking at basic market trends and basic competition numbers. If you want to go deeper, you can, of course. You can find out when large games in your genre are releasing, or games with a similar theme or setting. These top-level figures are a good start, though.

There are a few other terrible times to release that aren’t based around consumers. For example, it’s generally unwise to be launching or announcing a game around E3, GDC, Vidcon, Gamescom or any other large industry event where the press or influencers are going to be busy.

Ultimately, there is no such thing as a perfect release date, but there are some months that are objectively better than others. If you want your game to have the very best chance of succeeding, you need to keep that release date in mind throughout your development.

By even thinking about the trends, market and competition you are ahead of the many hundreds of developers who will run head first into releasing a game in November, expecting to compete with time and wallets against games like Assassin’s Creed.

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