You might think that the right time to release a game is when it’s finished, but things aren’t quite that straight forward, especially when it comes to indie games. Launching a game in an unsuitable release window can ruin any chances it has of success resulting in disappointing sales and the inevitable fade into obscurity. The bigger picture can be hard to see if you’re not familiar with marketing, but understanding the industries regular release rhythm can be invaluable. It could just give a game the edge it needs to gain exposure and interest on launch. Let’s take a look at the most important things to remember when releasing an indie game.
Be aware of big releases
So, let’s start off with the obvious times to avoid. When releasing an indie game the last thing you’d want is to compete for attention with a big triple-A game. They take up a large proportion of coverage by games media and command a huge presence in the gaming community across forums and social platforms. When the latest Call of Duty releases the majority of articles and videos in the gaming sphere are going to revolve around that and not just on the release day, but the week surrounding it as well. So it pays to be aware of all the big releases coming out in your release window and plan accordingly to avoid them.
Beyond huge, singular triple-A games there are more broadly two periods in the yearly calendar that you will also want to avoid. The first is roughly early April until late June. Plenty of big titles release around this time and it’s an unnecessary risk for a smaller game to try and compete with the next big thing. The second is what’s considered the triple-A season and that’s mid-September until mid-November. This period is an absolute minefield of big franchises and yearly best sellers, so think long and hard if you want to release during this time.
Everybody loves a sale
Over the last few years, following on from the popularity of Steam’s seasonal discounts, sales have become a regular thing across the games industry. During these periods everybody starts emptying their wish lists buying all the games they’ve been waiting to drop in price. One of the most difficult times to sell somebody a new game is when they’re just bought a bunch of old ones in a sale. Not only is there the financial element of that, but you also have to consider most of their time is going to be taken up playing these newly obtained cheap games. This makes sales the perfect storm to ruin your launch plans and hinder its first week’s initial momentum.
So, let’s look at the specific dates and periods to swerve. The first of the year is the spring sale, and although not as big as the other seasonal sales it still presents somewhat of a risk to a smaller indie game. Usually beginning around March these sales usually offer last year’s peak season games at reasonably discounted prices. The next big period to avoid is the summer. Made notorious by Steam’s hugely successful Summer Sale campaign this highly anticipated seasonal reduction sees significant discounts on a wide variety of games. Usually starting around June this is definitely a big one to stay away from, as nearly every online retailer seeks to cash in on Steam’s previous success. Again, people are going to be looking for a bargain when the summer sales are on so launching a new, full price game is probably not the best idea.
Moving towards the end of the year the biggest thing to be aware of is the winter sales. Equally as huge as their warmer cousins these sales usually encompass Black Friday and Cyber Monday as well. They can run from early November until late December, so best to look at the next year if your finished game falls in this period. Sales can be a great thing for your game down the line, but when you’re building up to a release it’s best to avoid them at all costs.
How to react to when the unexpected happens
Let’s say you’ve got your game scheduled to release in a quiet period and you’ve done all the research in regards to any competitors or sales that could get in your way. One week before launch, out of the blue Valve announce Half-Life 3: what do you do?
The key here is to be reactive, you might have to use this to your advantage from a marketing perspective. So close to launch plans could be locked down and there might be a cost involved in changing those plans. You need to sit down and consider how this news could affect the launch of a smaller game and whether it’s worth rescheduling. This can only be judged on a case by case basis, but if you have a relatively small indie game going up against a massive triple-A title you can imagine which one is going to get overshadowed. On the flip side of that, if you have to, you could work that news angle into your marketing and find a way that the game you’re launching relates to the big news dominating the industry at that time. This is where PR becomes invaluable, as an effective crisis plan could save a project from certain death at such a crucial time.
So when should you release an indie game?
There are quieter periods within the games industry that would suit smaller titles and give them a better chance at coverage. It is often said that smaller indie games have only one shot of making it onto the big gaming media sites – in which case you should use it wisely. Do your research, avoid any triple-A titles lurking on the horizon and be aware of the notable sale seasons. Just these actions are a great start and will encourage smart timing and release window awareness.
In terms of suitable release dates, broadly speaking, late January to early February and late July to early August are considered the release slumps for big titles. Planned correctly these release periods offer strong potential for smaller games to get media coverage and attention from the gaming community. It’s a fine balancing act and, of course, some developers have less leeway when it comes to their release schedule, but, in order to give a game the best chance to perform in the market you should do your research and create a strategy that considers the most effective time to release your game.