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Arenít We Smarter Than This?
by Andy Satterthwaite on 07/05/10 03:27:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In a recent Joystiq article (http://www.joystiq.com/2010/07/02/modnation-racers-top-15-finish-sets-slow-pace-for-may-racing/) it was noted that the NPD numbers for May show that three high-budget, high-profile, arcade-style racing games (ModNation Racers, Blur and Split/Second) failed to perform.

It was suggested that the racing genre itself maybe “toxic at the checkout counter” or that “gamers [may] have simply passed over May's hybrid concepts”

REALLY? Could it not be instead that racing game fans, faced with the choice between three excellent titles in the same month, just couldn’t afford to buy all three? (Particularly if they were also part of the trillion people who bought Red Dead Redemption in the same month)

I was certainly interested in all three, but could only afford to buy one of them (and even if I could have afforded them financially, I wouldn’t have had enough time to play them all).

Now, if they’d have been released a month or two apart, then I almost certainly would have bought them all, at full retail price, without really thinking about it ... as it is, I’ll now wait the same amount of time and pick up one (or both) of the others at some appropriately discounted price.

Now, not one of these was a secret, stealth release – they were all well publicised in advance (and all demoed more than a year out from eventual release). Would it really have hurt the various publishers (Sony, Activision, Disney) to actually have talked to each other and tried to organise some release dates that wouldn’t have crippled each other’s sales?

It’s not as if there are many other arcade racers coming out any time soon. Sure there’s Need for Speed coming in the autumn, and Gran Turismo 5 (although that doesn’t exactly count as an arcade racer). But surely even the impending arrival of those two high-profile releases doesn’t justify launching three brand-new franchises within the same two-week period. It’s just insane.

Of course such self-sabotaging release-date hogging is nothing new, and nothing limited to the games industry.

I remember in the summer of 2008 when Speed Racer got completely trounced at the cinema because it was released at the same time as Iron Man and Indiana Jones 4 ... now maybe Speed Racer was the weakest of the three (although personally I don’t think so) but even so, it surely would have done loads better if it had been released in a quieter time of the year (between a Rom-com and some depressing drama about rabies, perhaps?)

But the film companies want their one-up-man-ship - they want their tent-pole title to knock down the other tent-pole titles - and as such, one (or more) of the block-busters tanks at the box office – to no gain, but perhaps some smug-satisfaction on behalf of the victor-studio(s).

I thought the games industry was getting smarter. Ten years ago every game seemed to be released at Christmas, and so only a few survived. That seems to have improved recently, with releases scattered throughout the year, even in the previously dead summer months. But this recent NPD racing debacle seems to show that the one-up-man-ship attitude remains, and self-sabotage in the name of competition remains in the mind-set of the guys with the release schedules. Crazy fools!

So I ask again - Would it really hurt the big publishers to talk to each other? To try to organise release dates that, rather than crippling each other’s sales, or crippling gamers’ wallets – actually ensured a steady stream of well-spaced great titles throughout the year.

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Comments


Kyle Jansen
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There's a simple answer to your question: the law prevents them from coordinating releases. It would almost definitely be a violation of American antitrust law, and I won't speak for other nations' competition law.



I'm not a lawyer, but even I could make a decent argument that dividing up time between releases would be similar to dividing territories, something expressly prohibited. Dividing territories is an anticompetitive practice of, essentially, splitting up the market geographically, agreeing to only sell your products in one area in exchange for getting no competition in that area.



So yes, it would hurt to try to organize releases. Because, even if there is no case law I can find about it, it's close enough to an illegal business practice that no sane company would risk it.

Dave Mark
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John Nash and Adam Smith would approve.



Idiots in Congress that try to control every facet of business and personal life would not be as tolerant.

Eric Seiler
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All legalities aside, publishers have enough problems meeting their own launch deadlines. When they do enforce a deadline, such as for the holiday season, the result is a dramatic reduction in scope thus diminished value. Trying to act in collusion might lead to some interesting drama, but imho would be a complete failure.

Billy Stever
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I'm one of those people who could only afford one of said games. I went with Blur because I got it used for 45 bucks. (off craigslist) The Multiplayer is awesome. And from the demos of modnation and split/second I think I picked the game for my liking.



I would assume that all these companies would want their product out first and could never agree on release dates. But like Kyle said. It probably not even legal to do that.



Years ago I used to set up local concerts. There was a few different promoters in the city I lived in and many times we would have shows on the same nights. Seeing as we dealt with punk and metal only it really split the crowds and money. Even though there was only about 3 or 4 of us we never could agree on dates for shows even when I tried talking with them. Everyone seen each other as the competition and no one wanted to work together. If it can't work between a few guys in a small city I highly doubt huge companies could work together effectively.

Simon Ludgate
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I'm not sure that this is covered by antitrust law. Antitrust law would prevent publishers from making contracts (eg: I'll pay you $5 mil to release your game 2 months after mine) or from monopolizing the market (I'll pay you $5 mil not to release your game at all). The biggest difference between area-limited releases and time-centric releases is that a release is always a singular event in time: you cannot limit or expand it. You can't release your game for the first time in a given market more than once, and that release happens in one point in time, not a period of time. Ergo, colluding to either cause or avoid the overlap of release dates would not be anti-competitive.



However, I think it's limited by basic game theory: if there is an advantage to releasing first, whomever releases first gets that advantage, so you either keep trying to one-up each other by an earlier release or you all simply agree to release at the same time and split the advantage. I wouldn't be surprised if one company announces its release date, then the others match it, or as close as possible. Tragedy of the commons and all that.

Nathan Mates
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TV execs are even more suicidal. American broadcast TV shifts shows to go "up against" each other, so that you can have two (or more) well-rated programs suddenly occupying the same timeslot. This forces audiences to choose one or the other. Some might VCR/DVR/pirate the rebroadcast of the show that wasn't watched live, but a lot of people only watch one.



Movie execs are generally smarter than TV execs, where they'll stake out a weekend a year or more in advance for their top titles, and competitors will generally not open a similar movie that weekend. Smart competitors will open counter-programming, such as scheduling a chick flick against something aimed mostly at teenaged boys. Movies have a shorter window of opportunity/mindspace, where they'll get most of their audience in the first weekend or two, and once the audience leaves the theater, they're done with the product. Not so games, which can take up dozens to hundreds of hours.



Having worked on some action games, we were keenly aware of when Halo XVII (or the like) was releasing, and we were at least a month or two away from it. So there's some sense in the industry, just not enough of it.

Kyle Jansen
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@Simon:



It may not be explicitly covered by current law, but it would be easy for a judge to decide that it does.



The illegal practice I referred to, "dividing territories", does not require any contract or payment. The archetypal example is saying, "I won't sell in your turf, as long as you don't sell in mine". Extending that to "don't sell your game on my month, and I won't sell on yours" would be ludicrously simple.



And yes, it would be anticompetitive. If there are five shooters coming out in one month, many people who only buy one will go with the cheapest. If they come out over a five-month timespan, they can avoid a price war. Ergo, an anticompetitive practice.



Although I completely agree with you on the game theory idea. Even if the law didn't prevent it, I doubt two companies could come to an agreement, simply because they would both want to release first.

Chan Chun Phang
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@Kyle Jansen



Actually, wouldn't it be more complicated than that? After all, just because you sold early doesn't mean you aren't selling later. In all cases, the games are available after the point of time they are sold, so there's no real argument on competitiveness either (especially when considering that by the time the second game is sold, the first game would usually be selling cheaper).

Kevin Reilly
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@ Simon: I don't think your understanding of the application of Section 1 of the Sherman Act to timing of releases is correct. The language of the act is fairly broad and makes any comination, conspiracy or contract in restraint of trade illegal. As an agreement between publishers (formal or otherwise) regarding release dates for competing products would be a horizontal restraint on trade that in effect limits consumer choice at retail it would certainly be scrutinized as a per se or per quod violation of Section 1 and be declared illegal. Even if there are pro-competitive reasons for timing launches, it wouldn't survive a challenge by a competitor that wants open access to the market. Considering anti-trust claims expose publishers to liability for triple damages, I doubt there will ever be any formal process on release dates.



FYI - most publishers know when big games are releasing b/c they announce them ahead of time to retail. I think the recent slow down in sales is a result of combination of factors including seasonal attitude (no one buys games during summer), the weaker than expected economy (large unemployment = less money to spend on games) and the relative affordability of cheaper options (online, iphone, casual etc.). Plus RDR's marketing push far exceeded other similar launches that would influence purchasing decisions.

Shekhar Gyanwali
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sounds better

Jonathan Gilmore
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@Kevin - The thing is, it is well known that the movie industry does this. They pick dates and fight over them. That's why Clash of the Titans isn't released the same day as Prince of Persia. The videogame industry clearly does not do this, I'm not sure if it's because they don't want to, they are barred by law or they can't because it's hard enough for a company like Rockstar to get a game out the door.

Jas Purewal
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I think it is pretty unlikely that companies coordinating when they release their products is going to fall foul of competition laws. It would be an issue clearly if they were coordinating on prices, unit numbers or retailers etc.

Jas Purewal
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Oh and by the way - Andy, great post!


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