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[Gamesbriefers] Are release dates still relevant?

By on January 22, 2014
Creative Commons via catchingcourage.com
Creative Commons via catchingcourage.com
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Question:

Are release dates an outmoded concept?

– The most successful indie game this decade, Minecraft, was available in alpha.

– Free-to-play games have soft launch, hard launch, major updates and so on.

– The concept of a Beta is falling by the wayside

– AAA games get patches and updates and DLC and paid DLC thoughout their lives.

– YET GTA V showed that you can get the public, press and retail behind the “launch” of a title.

So my question: what do release dates even mean in the age of always-on connectivity, and are they are valuable concept or a damaging distraction?

Answers:

Melissa Clark-ReynoldsMelissa Clark-Reynolds Founder of MiniMonos

I think that is the bonus of online….  for online games I believe beta is going to be a permanent feature.  When we took MiniMonos out on Alpha four years ago it wasn’t common for that to be in public.  People pretty much did closed Alphas, public betas.  We are seeing much more of a global move to public Alphas, and long term betas.

Ben Cousins1Ben Cousins Head of European Game Studios at DeNA

On mobile the worldwide release (the point at which you could be featured by the platform holder) is a vital date, and for many the point at which you get the most players and the most money.

Yes, you often soft launch, but this is equivalent to a closed beta to all intents and purposes.

Moving from PC F2P to mobile F2P it was evident that ‘release dates’ are much much more significant events. It feels quite a lot like a console launch, especially if you are luck enough to be considers for a feature.

Oscar ClarkOscar Clark Evangelist for Applifier

For me the transition is about moving to a service and hence Ben and Melissa’s comments both make a lot of sense. The movement to an ongoing ‘Beta’, the ever earlier release of material for testing openly are all valuable approaches as Melisa says. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction of the effect Ben is talking about related to the use of a ‘World-wide release’ and its impact on revenues. I just think they are different phenomena.

What I have found in many of my roles is that predictable regular release dates are extremely valuable as they can deliver a level of anticipation and expectation and buy you time to stagger your development efforts. The more regular and predictable the release the more impact they have. Not least because people have short memories but because this creates a rhythm of expectations. Of course there is a risk that too frequent releases can become overwhelming if there is no time for the anticipation to build or if there is not enough of substance for your players to care.

To avoid this problem found it useful to separate Content releases (i.e. items in the game I can use/buy) from feature releases (introducing new experiences). The pace of content releases should be every week where as a Major feature release can be as infrequent as every quarter (although its probably worth having smaller Monthly or 2 weekly releases as well).

However, all this effort is wasted if its not part of the story you are telling your players about your game and studio; that narrative that forms part of the metagame. I don’t mean it has to actually be part of the narrative of the gameplay itself; for me the Metagame is all those things which emerge from the entire experience of engaging with your game, its community and the brand.

So I don’t think release dates are outmoded. Instead they become like episodic content – another reason for players to return and expect further delights.

Andrew SmithAndrew Smith Founder of Spilt Milk Studios

I look to TV (for once) in relation to this. Regularly scheduled content arose on TV for several reasons. One of the biggest surely was to ingrain expectation and even better build *habit* into your audience.

When you get someone automatically checking your games’website for news without thinking every friday lunchtime before logging on for some playtime, that’s when you’re winning.

A single release date is less important now than a schedule of release dates.

tim wicksteedTim Wicksteed Director of Twice Circled

I recently read a couple of successful Kickstarter postmortems from indie studios (Scraps and Statis) and they both seemed to rely on the timely nature of their campaign launches. Now Kickstarter is quite different from standard release because it’s incredibly time critical, you only have 30 days to raise your money, so it’s important to squeeze all your sales into small window. However both studios seemed to exploit the hype/buzz effect e.g. additional press resulting from journalists seeing the story on multiple sites and jumping onboard.
So there’s a real-life example but now for some wishy washy psychology. I think human nature dictates that we often look for excuses not to do things. Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? or simply “Mañana, Mañana”. That’s why Steam sales work so well, they say “Well yes, you could wait until tomorrow but you’ll pay 10 times as much.” Release dates act as social and psychological cues that say “This is the day you’re supposed to buy it, put it in your diary” which is probably more effective than “Oh by the way, the game’s already been out for a week”.
I agree with Oscar that release dates aren’t outmoded in themselves but their nature has perhaps changed a bit. A release date is no longer exclusively applied to the launch of V1.0 but can be applied to a range of things – the launch of an Alpha, new content for an established game or a Kickstarter campaign as described above.

Mark SorrellMark Sorrell Freemium game design consultant

In general I agree with the sentiments expressed so far, ie, release dates will continue to be important. I think, again as is suggested here, that the definition of ‘release date’ is likely to change, however.

Where this business is one of efficiency and margins then launch dates allow marketing to concentrate on a single push, and as a consequence gain chart position, and the installs that brings and the chart position those installs bring and so on. That applies equally to the launch of a game as it does to an update for a mature title.
Also, a look to Asia sees ‘release schedules’ that bring content updates in from monthly, past even weekly and into daily. I’m not sure if that makes ‘release dates’ more or less important. I tend towards more important, but back that with the ‘redefinition of release dates’ piece. Bring gamers back to your game, ready to play, ready to spend, primed for new content and offers and game-world scenarios is surely good for retention and monetisation.
I’d expect to see most games, presuming their business model isn’t exclusively a single up-front payment, gradually build the pace of their updates as time goes by and an arms-race of ‘freshness’ kicks-off in the West in the same way it arguable already has in the Asia.

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