Self-Competing and Time Blocking

Daniel Ahmad, writing on his new ZhugeEX Patreon blog (paywall):

This trend isn’t going anywhere right now but it is important to note that only a set number of service games can be successful each year. There is a danger of over saturation or poorer sales from self-competing games. We’re not quite at the point where this is a real danger but it does mean that games need to have higher production values and enough differentiation within one of the top super genre’s to be successful. This is probably something to watch out for at the end of the generation.

First and foremost, for my dollar, Daniel Ahmad is absolutely crushing video games industry analysis. He’s a great follow on Twitter (@ZhugeEX) and his efforts are well-worth supporting via his Patreon.

Now, I’ve been meaning/trying to write about an idea that self-competing games use game length as a means for competing. That is, the length and release date of a game can block the sale of another similar game with a proximal release date. I’ve struggled to put together a theory that these proposed “time blocking” tactics are meaningful, coincidental, or off-base:

  • Meaningful – Publisher X purposefully schedules release date of Game X against the release date of Game Y. (I find this hard to believe due to the large lead times and estimations required for AAA games.)
  • Coincidental – Publisher X and Publisher Y happen to schedule releases for Game X and Game Y around the same time. (More likely, but rings a bit too innocent.)
  • Off-base – There are so many massive, feature-rich games released that, like TV series and books, there will inevitably be overlap in release dates.

The latest example of this “time blocking” tactic occurred around March 2017. Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were released three days apart (Feb 28 and Mar 3) and clock in at an average of 45.5 and 72.5 hours respectively. (HowLongToBeat.com) Both games were followed up by Mass Effect: Andromeda (61.5 hours) and Persona 5 (102 hours!) within a month’s time.

One could make the observation that the hours necessary to experience these games as intended puts them on a closer par with a modern television series. (As of this post, there are roughly 55 hours of Game of Thrones episodes, 72 hours of Mad Men, etc.) So, with customers’ appetites for feature-rich gameplay experiences, maybe my concept of “time blocking” is off-base. However, I like to believe that this “appetite” doesn’t actually exist.

I’m currently 50+ hours into The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and only 3/5 of the way through the main quest. No doubt that it’s an incredible experience with it’s unparalleled physics-based sandbox, wide-open exploration, and stunning art style. But for me, 50+ hours is an immense amount of a time to spend with a single game. Unlike a TV series, most of the 50+ hours I’ve spent with Breath of the Wild have consisted of wandering a vast landscape, retracing my steps, or banging my head against puzzles. It’s a fantastic escape of exploration, but I can’t help but think 30 or 40 hours to complete would have felt sufficient.

As a developer, I would certainly want my audience to experience my art and efforts for as long as possible. And as a publisher, I would want to players to adopt an affinity for my franchise over another. But as a player, it’s hard not to feel that the release dates of similarly massive titles, or “self-competing” games, are beginning to overlap. And this overlap has reached a point that players must now choose which experience will block another.

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