Should video games be released annually?

As fans and critics become less tolerant of minor changes and overhyped developments from yearly releases, is it time we asked whether the practice should be scrapped?

Take the poll and tell us what you think: should some video games be released annually?

EA recently announced that it would not be releasing its major title Battlefield on an annual basis. According to IGN, EA Chief Financial Officer Blake Jorgensen asserted that the company did not have the resources to release the game annually without an accompanying drop in quality, arguing: “The challenges are you’ve got to most likely do it out of two studios because it’s hard.”

Speaking at the UBS Global Technology Conference on 19 November, Jorgensen stated: “Battlefield takes us about two years to develop and so you want to make sure that you’re sharing talent across studios… You also want to be really careful that you don’t destroy the franchise along the way.”

See below for the IGN video announcing EA’s decision not to release Battlefield annually:

Annual releasing is a practice employed by many games franchises. The development of the Call of Duty series is currently split between Infinity Ward and Treyarch, with each company spending two years developing the next iteration in the series. EA itself releases many of its sports titles every year to keep up with the sporting calendars.

Yet many, many others buck this trend, with publishers often allowing breaks of several years between titles. And even certain sports games – usually known for being released yearly – do occasionally do this, with games such as Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport seeing larger gaps between releases.

So is it a good idea to continue to release games that exist as part of a series every year? The practice is certainly not without its problems, and doing so can put a huge strain on developers. Never mind the fact that there is often not enough time to implement every change that the developers would like to, many games are often released with crippling bugs, necessitating a swift and embarrassing patch on the part of the games company. It seems developers often do not have enough time to iron out all the problems, never mind implement the game-changing improvements that fans crave.

Show me the money

Yet there are of course advantages – publishers would not do it otherwise. Releasing a game every year, and making sure the public know that you will do so, can be a vital tool in building momentum for the product. The fans of the series know they have something to look forward to every year, and this can be a sure way to drive sales. Knowing that a new iteration of a game series comes out every year gets everyone excited – the media goes half mad in the build up to the big day, piling on the hyperbole and generating much needed attention for the game.

Call of Duty launch day consumer sales

Call of Duty launch day consumer sales. Ghosts is not included because only retail sales figures are available. Source: Activision

And there’s the simple issue of the money involved. Many modern games have enormous development budgets, and annual releases provide a regular, consistent means to recover much of this. The Call of Duty series is a frequent record-setter in terms of launch day consumer sales, with 2012’s Black Ops II taking half a billion dollars in its first 24 hours of sales alone. Although Ghosts, the latest in the series, actually represented a drop in initial takings, it still made $1bn in retail sales on its launch day. Though this counts only copies sold to stores, not consumers, it is still a mind-boggling figure.

So what’s the problem?

The issue is that, for many companies, there is just not enough time to create the type of product that meets every fan’s expectations if they are releasing games every year. It is just not possible given insatiable fan appetites. Yet because the games are such money spinners, they get released every year regardless of whether the final product justifies it, often to the disappointment of those who shell out for them.

Added to that is the major concern of sports licensing. One reason EA’s FIFA games consistently sell better than the rival PES series is the attraction provided by the fact that FIFA is fully licensed, while PES is not. Simply put, most fans would rather play with the Southampton of FIFA than the ‘Hampshire Red’ of its competitor.

In the case of sports games, one occasionally hears the suggestion that publishers release a game only every two years, spending the added time on creating a better game while releasing roster updates and patches to keep players happy during the wait.

Simply put, most fans would rather play with the Southampton of FIFA than the ‘Hampshire Red’ of PES

While this would likely lead to improvements in the gaming experience for players, it will surely never happen simply because annual releases make so much money for games companies. What publisher in its right mind would pass on the chance of making $500m on launch day every year? Not Activision, for one.

And for a sports game like FIFA, declining to release an annual edition would either mean reneging on their exclusive league licenses (handing a massive lifeline to PES) or paying for licenses that it would not use. Neither is a particularly attractive prospect.

Where next?

These challenges are not going to go away. The gaming industry is growing all the time, and as consumer demand for ever more regular, satisfying content grows, so the pressure will mount on publishers to meet this demand – and reap the financial rewards that come with doing so – through yearly releases.

Whether publishers can take the heat is the issue. Many smaller publishers certainly will not be able to, as they simply cannot muster the required resources. For larger companies, the decision is less straightforward. Dropping out leaves a potential gap for a competitor to fill, but ploughing ahead runs the risk of producing inferior content stymied by time and resource constraints. It is a dilemma many companies will be contemplating following EA’s move.

EA have already backed away with Battlefield. Will more follow? Will we see changes in the frequency with which games are released? Only time will tell, but expect a bumpy ride.

What do you think? Are annual releases an integral part of the gaming industry, or do they cause more problems than they solve? Take the poll, leave your thoughts in the comments below or tweet us: @NextLvlGamingUK.

Call of Duty launch day consumer sales figures from Activision. See information on Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, Modern Warfare 3 and Black Ops II. Information on Ghosts not included because Activision only released figures for sales to retail outlets, not sales to consumers.

2 thoughts on “Should video games be released annually?

  1. Fantastic article. Extremely well written with good, reliable sources for the information. Mad to think that Activision own the call of duty series, and blizzard. They should continue to produce games each year providing they are still making profit and increasing employment figures!

  2. Pingback: Game on: retro classics live on in the modern console era | The Next Level Gaming

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