Summertime Blues: Should Gaming Embrace Summer Blockbusters?

It’s just past Memorial Day weekend in the United States, the traditional harbinger of summertime. In recent years, it’s also brought in the beginning of the summer movie season, where studios push their big-budget releases and all sorts of associated goods and tie-ins. You can’t swing a major tent-pole movie without hitting Movie:  The Action Figure, Movie: The Fast-Food Deal, Movie: The Sports Advertising Tie-In, and, yes, Movie: The Video Game. It’s marketing gone mad, sure, but it creates a ton of money for all involved.

However, it begs the question: where’s the summer blockbuster period for gaming? If it’s proved such a big hit with movie crowds, why not with gamers?

It’s an interesting thought.

Game companies have spread releases out more evenly throughout the calendar in recent years. Just last year, Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption proved that a hit can come at any time of the year, and they’re hardly the only examples. Microsoft has run a Summer of Arcade program publicizing Xbox Live Arcade for the last few years. And in the United States, there have regularly been a pair of major summertime releases in the form of EA Sports’ two football games, NCAA Football and Madden NFL, which come out in July and August, respectively.

But let's turn the question on its head. Gaming has its own blockbuster period: the holiday season. Much how film producers try to crowd big summertime weekends with blockbuster flicks, so do game companies center around the “Black Friday” day-after-Thanksgiving shop-a-palooza. And just as some companies have bent the definition of “summer blockbuster” to include movies released in mid April (Iron Man 2 itself, our cover image, was released in early May 2010), so does the holiday gaming crunch now spread from mid-September until the so-called “Second Christmas” in early January.

If gaming does have its own blockbuster period, why does it need the summertime? The easiest arguments involve free time: beyond kids, teens and college-aged adults being out of school, it’s also a time when adults traditionally take more time off (presumably to spend time with their children). God abhors a vacuum, as the turn of phrase goes, so naturally gaming should play a part. And as the games industry grows year on year that should be reflected by more of the marquee games coming out during the summertime. Right?

Well, again, some are. Plus, the way the industry’s hype-cycle works, there needs to be some buffer time between gaming’s biggest annual show (E3) and when those games are advertised and go on sale (the fall and early winter). Unlike when, say, Apple announces something new and it hits stores a week later, gaming doesn’t work that way; game companies don’t control the entire retail channel, for one (Apple does with its stores for the hardware and its App Stores for software), and the last time somebody tried to launch a surprise like that right at E3 it became the Sega Saturn. So, in many ways, the status quo works.

That doesn’t mean the present model is perfect, though. Many games would be well-served to delay their release until the following spring or to push up a release to the summer to avoid getting lost in the holiday trample. Games like GTA IV, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Gran Turismo, BioShock and more have proved you can be successful avoiding the holiday period. But the mindset of gaming — that it’s an industry equitable to toys and board games, only able to be pushed and sold as presents for the month of December — needs to change, and soon. Moving away from the “TOO MANY GAMES” holiday crush gives gamers a choice, and helps otherwise ordinary games some breathing room away from the AAA games that dominate. Would BioShock have gotten as much press if it had been released the same week as Call of Duty and Halo? Maybe; it’s a great game. But it damn well dominated August, when it had none of the competition. Gamers get time to play these games, and the games get more of the spotlight.

Gaming might not need its own summer blockbuster period, but it can certainly stand for more summer releases.