Staggered video game releases a good idea

By Peter Nowak, CBCNews.ca.

If the size of Microsoft's annual holiday video game preview was any indication of the general health of the industry, then gamers might have cause for concern. This year's event, X'09, was certainly much smaller in terms of the number of game developers and titles present, which is not surprising given the abysmal summer the industry had.

Much of the floor space at This Is London, the Toronto club where the event was held on Tuesday, was reserved for already-released games, such as Halo ODST and Beatles Rock Band. Even the food on offer for always-hungry journalists was scanty compared to previous years (brownies and potato chips instead of pizza and sandwiches, a sure sign of recession).

But don't let the restraint of X'09 fool you — the event itself might be proof that developers are taking steps to reverse the recent slide. Call it a "market correction" in the making.

For much of the video game era, game makers have become increasingly addicted to holiday game sales. Producers of all stripes typically stack their big releases for October and November in hopes of getting all those December holiday shoppers on board. The strategy usually works, but in many cases, it backfires.

Last year's holiday release schedule was so stacked with the likes of Call of Duty: World at War, Rock Band 2, Gears of War 2, Little Big Planet, Fallout 3 and Guitar Hero: World Tour, among others, that a number of really good games, such as Prince of Persia and Far Cry 2, didn't even make it onto top 10 sales lists.

This year, however, is looking a little different. There are a few big holiday releases scheduled, such as Assassin's Creed 2, Forza Motorsport 3 and Dragon Age: Origins. The biggest, no doubt, will be Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which hits stores on Nov. 10 and was one of the showcased games at X'09. Call of Duty games and their addictive online multiplayer action always top year-end sales lists and this latest installment — which looked and played awesome at the demo I sat in on — will definitely follow the trend.

What I found reassuring was that the other big showcased game, the hotly anticipated Splinter Cell: Conviction, isn't releasing until February. This is another title, designed by Ubisoft Montreal, that looks awesome — here's the latest trailer:

The Feb. 23 release date is ostensibly so that the Ubisoft team could put some finishing polish on the game, but it may also be part of a general rethink by the industry of putting all their eggs in one holiday basket. February seems to be a perfect time to release a big game — it's cold out, the holiday credit card bills have generally been paid off and all those games you got for Christmas have been played out (except, of course, Call of Duty, which typically dominates the life of a hard-core gamer until around July).

A new Splinter Cell game will sell well no matter when it's released, but it's certainly encouraging to see Ubisoft deciding against following the standard industry logic. Gamers everywhere would benefit from a more staggered release schedule.