As we await new game consoles from Sony and Microsoft this fall, publishers still have plenty of time to make money selling games for the last generation of game consoles.
The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are expected to arrive by November, and so game publishers are rushing out their last remaining Xbox 360-only or PlayStation 3-only games. The obvious big game coming is Grand Theft Auto V, which debuts on Sept. 17 on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Analysts expect it to sell so well that it might very well dampen enthusiasm for the next-generation consoles.
Meanwhile, August is turning out to be a bigger month for game releases than ever before because it is the last chance to debut big games for the Xbox 360 or PS3 before the next-generation mindset — or the GTA V mindset — takes over. In August, we’ll see the debut of Pikmin 3 (for the Nintendo Wii U on Aug. 4), Disney’s Planes (Aug. 6), Disney Infinity (Aug. 18), Saints Row IV (Aug. 20), Splinter Cell: Blacklist (pictured at top, Aug. 20), The Bureau: XCOM Declassified (Aug. 20), New Super Luigi U (Aug. 25), Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn (Aug. 27), Killer is Dead (Aug. 27), and Madden NFL 25 (Aug. 27).
That’s a huge list of triple-A titles, considering the only big game to debut in July was Electronic Arts’ NCAA Football 14. I was a huge fan of The Last of Us, which came out on June 14. I thought that it was by far the best blockbuster game of the last generation, and it’s interesting that it came out so close to the end of the last-generation run. The PS3 debuted in 2006, but it took until The Last of Us, in my opinion, for Naughty Dog or any developer to truly master what the previous generation of consoles could deliver. I will withhold my judgment as to whether The Last of Us is the best game of the whole Xbox 360-Wii-PS3 generation. It is certainly in the running, but there still some interesting games like GTA V to play.
The Last of Us is still topping the sales charts weeks after its release. It will be interesting to see if it has as good a run as BioShock Infinite, the other outstanding blockbuster of 2013. The Last of Us was rare in that it was a major new intellectual property, coming at the very end of a console generation. That may turn out to be brilliant timing, since a popular new game can sell extremely well when it is competing with a bunch of sequels at a time when the installed base of hardware is at an all-time high.
GTA V is a game that could create a huge blast radius, making such a big explosion in the market that it will wipe out sales for anything else coming out at the same time. That could be one reason why the publishers all switched their major releases to August.
This flood of triple-A titles coming in August could be good or bad for the industry. It might give the industry a great shot in the arm or a collective last hurrah. But it could also result in low sales for all of the games. You would think that the publishers could have planned better and spread their releases out through the year. But that might be considered collusion, and that’s a no-no. The risk of releasing in August is that, in a time of declining sales, there won’t be many dollars available to go around, and more titles will be chasing after fewer games. But so it goes in the entertainment business. It’s always risky to launch a game when there is a lot of noise in the market.
“There are many great games coming out from now until 2014, but Grand Theft Auto V will probably be the major sales performer,” said Billy Pidgeon, a game analyst. “Assassin’s Creed 4 will also have big impact. Madden and FIFA should do very well and can indicate how active the seventh generation installed bases will be as the eighth generation sells in. I suspect the seventh generation will be active longer into the transition than was the case in the sixth. Also, Call of Duty: Ghosts should be a strong seller on current consoles. I think Beyond: Two Souls will perform for PS3, and niches outside hardcore, particularly youth and family franchises like Just Dance, LEGO and Skylanders, will bring up software unit sales for Q4 2014. Nintendo will also push up software sales through Q4 with big franchises such as Pokemon, Zelda, Donkey Kong and Pikmin, and Disney’s Infinity franchise could also be a big performer in 2013 into 2014.”
Ubisoft chief exec Yves Guillemot was confident on his company’s earnings call this week. His company is launching six major games between now and the end of the year, and Guillemot thinks that Ubisoft will be one of the clear winners.
Why are there so many August games? Well, you can imagine how the thinking goes. Publishers want to give their top developers enough time to get a game out. They let them slip on their deadlines, but this is one deadline that won’t slip, because no one (except Rockstar Games with GTA V) wants to be spending a ton of money marketing last-generation titles when new generation consoles and titles are coming out. The publishers can either ship in August, change the game so that it runs on the next generation machines, or just cancel it altogether.
In September, we’ll see major releases such as Diablo 3 on the PS3 (Sept. 3), Rayman Legends (Sept. 3), Total War: Rome II (Sept. 3), and, of course, GTA. But after that, most of the big games are going to be cross-platform. Titles like Electronic Arts’ Battlefield 4 will likely sell most of their copies on last-gen consoles. But BF4 will be available on Oct. 29 with both Xbox One and PS4 versions. Gamers will have their pick. Some companies may try a counter-cyclical strategy where they launch a last-generation game in 2014, but that’s swimming upstream, and it will only work for certain kinds of unique games. If everybody does that, it will sink the next generation.
Keep in mind that we’ll be lucky if three or four million of us even get a new console by the end of the year. So this holiday season, there will be around 250 million console owners who will not be able to play a next-generation game. It’s going to be a last-generation holiday in terms of actual sales. But after the new consoles come out, video game publishers will shift their marketing and publishing schedules toward the Xbox One and the PS4. By next year’s holiday season, the last-generation will be a memory to them.
Microsoft plans to continue selling the Xbox 360 for the foreseeable future, mainly as its low-end device (The Xbox One will cost $499, compared to the PS4 at $399, while the Xbox 360 is at $199 to $299, depending on what kind of bundle you buy). That will make for an easier transition for the game makers and give them an opportunity to create games that run on both the last-gen and next-gen for some time into the future. That will help alleviate the traditional dip that comes with a console transition.
I have always wondered myself why so many games come out in time for the year-end holidays, but so few come out in summer, when kids are free. One executive told me once that summer was the time for kids to go outside, not stay inside playing games. But summer movies have always been big. The same ought to be true for games. Well, we’re finally getting a big set of summer games, all coming out at the late end of summer. It will be an interesting moment in time in the larger video game cycle.