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Why a new huge video game is being released every week

Part-pandemic, part-shifting calendars

Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

If you feel overwhelmed by the number of big new game releases, you’re not alone.

The next two months are noticeably swollen from video game release dates: Blockbuster titles like Pokémon Legends: Arceus, Horizon Forbidden West, Destiny 2: The Witch Queen, Elden Ring, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, and Kirby and the Forgotten Land lead out these first few months of the year, surrounded by plenty of other notable titles. Babylon’s Fall, Dying Light 2: Stay Human, Sifu, Ghostwire: Tokyo, and more. If your backlog was already filled to the brim, the first few months of 2022 aren’t going to make it any cleaner.

This appears to be temporary, a side-effect of years of delays from the COVID-19 pandemic that bumped games months or even years from their originally planned release dates. And those adjustments, across 2020 and 2021, have disrupted the familiar rhythms of the game release calendar. But the schedule adjustment also appears to have been shifting for years now.

Why are so many big games willingly competing against one another? Is this the new normal? And is this healthy for an industry notoriously operating on tight deadlines?

Historically, it’s been the fall release window — leading up to the holidays — that’s been the most crowded with video game release dates. It made sense: Huge new titles would launch before the gift-giving season, when people typically have a bit more free time during a holiday vacation, and plenty more are spending money on gifts. The Call of Duty franchise, which typically has a new game released annually, and the Assassin’s Creed franchise have long staked out the fall release window, nearly guaranteeing a successful holiday season. But 2020 and 2021 were different: There were still a lot of games released in the fall, but those tentpole releases largely got pushed out into the beginning of 2022. Or in some cases, big franchise entries were released incomplete with chunks of the game being added months later.

It’s not only the pandemic delays that pushed us to this chaos, though. They simply added fuel to the fire. The release calendar has been changing gradually over the past decade, and this new trend of early-in-the-year big releases might become permanent. While November used to be the de-facto busy season, there are now two times of year that stand out: October to November and February to March.

Two anthropomorphic pot boys in Elden Ring Image: FromSoftware/Bandai Namco

“I think it’s a natural evolution of Q4 being the last packed window,” Devolver Digital’s Robbie Paterson told Polygon. “People get sick of it. Maybe they’re less reliant on retail, or relying on retailers and the Christmas rush, with everything being digital now. I think naturally people started to look at January, February as wide open spaces where, yeah, they may miss that Christmas buzz, but have a clear run in January without competition.” Paterson pointed to Capcom, which has been using the winter release window for its Monster Hunter franchise since 2015.

Monster Hunter: World, in particular, blew up with its January 2018 release — and it felt like there were no other games besides that one for almost three months of that year. “It just fucking exploded,” Paterson said. “It was huge. And it was a good game, but it also had no competition whatsoever.”

Other developers seem to have noticed this: Despite a growing number of releases moving to February and March, that window is clearly still yielding results for game companies. But the rest of the year has begun to have a steadier cadence of releases as well because of a generational shift in how video game companies promote their wares.

In the ’90s and ’00s, the video game industry relied on a handful of annual events like E3 and Tokyo Game Show to attract attention from the mainstream press and casual fans. But traditional marketing events, like E3, are on the decline, and have been for a while. In 2011, Nintendo started running its own Nintendo Direct events, taking control of its announcement schedule. Twitch and YouTube live streaming made these sorts of smaller events more easily accessible. That led to Sony pulling out of E3 in 2019, the first time in the show’s 24-year history. Sony realized that it didn’t need the big press conference to reach players and fans, instead developing its own schedule and making its own online livestream events.

Kirby is chased through a dilapidated amusement park in Kirby and the Forgotten Land Image: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo

Of course, the next year changed everything for everyone, when E3 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the conference has moved online and the hype of a week-long wave of games news has waned. Instead, companies are spreading out their announcements over the year in smaller, Nintendo Direct-style online events. E3 no longer had to be the “deadline” for developers to finish demos or announce release dates. Now fans can look to Microsoft’s own Xbox showcase, Sony’s State of Play, and the Summer Games Fest — all online — creating space for lots of announcements and corresponding releases.

Finji CEO Rebekah Saltsman told Polygon that the decline of these in-person events has evened the playing field for indies, which didn’t have the same access to the major events. “The shift to running online shows, larger companies being very much in control of how they launch things, has opened up the entire calendar,” she said.

“I always felt that the fall launch of everything has been sort of completely blacked out by three big launches,” Saltsman said. “You would have this really cool game that would just get missed because it wasn’t Halo. It wasn’t Destiny.”

Pushing a game out by a few months after the holidays has worked before for Finji, in particular. Night in the Woods, published in 2017, snuck in at exactly the right time and was huge for the company and its developers — despite launching within days of the biggest title of that month, Horizon Zero Dawn. “I remember thinking then, ‘Why is a triple A game coming out in February?’,” she asked. “I thought this month was going to be safe.”

Night in the Woods, of course, was a success — both commercially and with tons of accolades.

When a video game developer is looking at the game release schedule to determine an ideal release date, they might look at their peers in the genre. Finji CEO Rebekah Saltsman told Polygon that Finji’s windows are largely related to when a game will be finished, but she said she still also looks at a game’s competition to find the perfect spot. Tunic, coming from publisher Finji in March, got its window almost a year ahead of time, with a couple months of buffer time. Sifu developer Sloclap’s marketing manager, Felix Garcynski, echoed this sentiment in an email to Polygon: Sifu’s release schedule is largely based on the production schedule, but the game had some buffer space that let Sloclap move the game into early February, slightly before the onslaught of games.

With Tunic, Saltsman is up against the Horizon franchise again with the upcoming Horizon Forbidden West, plus the added pressure of Elden Ring, too. But Saltsman is thinking of the possibilities instead of the competition: These games only take up so much space on the storefronts, which could bring new eyes to Tunic.

“Early on, we were like, ‘Oh no, Elden Ring is coming out,’” she said. “And now I’m like, ‘No, this is fun!’ What a cool cultural moment to be a part of, just in terms of the genre of game we have. What a fun time to launch Tunic, our little foxy Dark Souls.”

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