MMO Release Dates: Timing the Market
Editorial by Garrett Fuller
It is November, holiday time, shopping time. How many MMOs are coming out before the end of the year? Has anyone seen ads for them? Why don't companies plan their game launches to fit into this popular time frame. Is it because of the Wii and PS3? Sure lots of kids and adults will be getting those big items as gifts, as well as games to go with those items. Still, PC gamers have little on the horizon over the next few weeks and it is a prime time for selling games. Not just because of the holidays, but because of the winter season. Most players in the North half of the world are stuck in doors during the months of December, January, and February. There is little to do each night at 5 pm when it gets dark. My feeling on this is to light up those screens!! Get the games in the hands of the players so those dark hours of the winter don't go unused. I know some games are released during the summer and have success in that area too due to the lack of school. Still, people go outside over the summer. Will your player base be strong during those months? I don't think it will be as strong as the winter when players want to stay inside.
Enough about the seasons and trying to time the holiday market, my next question to publishing companies is how are you planning your release in terms of the game market? Major film companies compete for summer weekends to launch big films. How do games plan to launch against each other? Or do they? I don't know the strategy of marketing firms who represent games, but I would like to know if MMOs held back this season knowing the WoW expansion was coming out. More importantly how many game companies have designed their products to be the great WoW killer? Is that really a plan to go with for better gaming? I don't think so. It is like any other industry, once the business side steps in and money starts changing hands; there is a whole new compromise that must be made with the product. Soon you have market research firms telling you when you should launch your game. What do they know about gamers and what we want? There are plenty of examples in video games that show players will always go back to fun games. I certainly don't speak for everyone but I know that most gamers I am friends with always enjoy exploring new worlds and building new characters. Role-playing can cover vast areas of genre, theme, and even learning. Whether you are carrying a sword or a laser gun, you still want to somehow grow by playing a game. Whether it's through role playing, questing, raiding or pvping, you hope to get something back for your time. I guess my point is if the game is fun people will play it. If the game continues to grow and you grow with it, then it will sell to gamers regardless of the market competition.
The other big question deals with the life of an MMO and what is considered successful. Most MMOs launch and have a leveling curve to get to a certain end game. This being somewhat of a norm in the industry begs the question when has a game reached its peak? WoW continues to add accounts and grow. The majority of those may be coming from parts of the world that have yet to play Warcraft. After two years of the game are players bored with WoW? Has it lost its peak? Will the Burning Crusade add the boost it needs? I am not sure; I only know that games as old as Ultima Online and Meridian 59 are still out there and being played. Funcom hopes that Age of Conan will go on for a decade. Is that an unreasonable goal? EvE Online is another great example that a game can start small and grow vastly over its lifespan so that we're not sure it has reached its full potential even after three years. From what I have seen people play MMOs in bursts. At launch they level and enjoy the content (some rush to get to the end game) and maybe take a break after a few days, weeks, or months depending on your threshold. After being away for a time, you go back to it and pick it up again. Many gamers I know like to try new things or take breaks from games that can be very intense. After months of pvping in Dark Age of Camelot it was nice to take a break and play Zelda for a few weeks. I was still having fun in the video game world, but I was not in competition with other people, I could play in my own time. I think gamers are looking for an experience. No matter what it is we enjoy trying to accomplish something. Whether that something is logging in for a half hour to get in a quick pvp game or following an epic quest for months to further your character's goals it still is allowing you to grow as a player. It is fun to walk into work the next day and have someone ask "hey did you watch -insert random boring TV sitcom here- last night?" Only to reply, "No, but I got a kick ass helmet on a raid and was still able to get 200 kills in the arena before going to bed!" I believe the life of an MMO should be measured in its ability to give players a reason to play and more importantly grow.
There is one very important issue that I am not covering here and that is development and beta testing. Those two pieces do play a part in launching a game, but really I wanted to focus on the MMO market as a whole in this editorial. Development and Beta testing will get their own articles in the time to come. Most of all I guess there is a part of me that would like to see game companies launch good games at the right time of year for players to get the most out of them. If you are a kid and the game you've been dying to have come out launches in June, just before your month long trip to Grandma's where the TV is from 1971 and there is no computer. It can be a real bummer. My hope is that MMOs will get better at launching their games so players can start to grow when there is time to do so. As gamers this is the best place to tell developers how you feel about games you play, are looking forward to, or have gone back to because they were fun. Instead of discussing how games are developed, what are your thoughts on how and when games are launched?