Every single year. A new Call of Duty. A new Assassin’s Creed. A new Far Cry, now, apparently.
Annualised releases have been a part of games for at least as long as I’ve been playing- I’ve bought 10 ‘Call of Duty’ games in 12 years, saw my classmates go crazy over the same FIFA’ game every single year, and my younger brother played every single ‘Assassin’s Creed’ up until Unity. And that’s given me a perspective on the issue; the juxtaposition of these radically different styles of franchise demonstrates, I think, a kind of awareness that led to many an argument throughout my teenage years, eventually culminating in the kind of awareness of game industry culture that led me to be writing this article for you today. So, what are these different types of annualised release schedules? Should we be giving them the boot? Let’s dive in.
Fundamentally, there is nothing special about an annualised release schedule that separates it from any other kind of release schedule. Most game series don’t follow a schedule, simply releasing a new title as and when the time is right- think Fallout, for example; there’s no regular, repeating schedule, the games just come out when they’re finished (although that is timed to hit certain release windows).
Only a few select types of titles are released on a regularly repeating schedule. The annualised release is by far the most prevalent; most often associated with licenced sports releases like FIFA or NBA, or mega-popular series like Call of Duty. But there are other release schedules for different games- ‘World of Warcraft’ releases its new content every 2 years, whereas ‘Hearthstone’ gets a new expansion thrice annually. Episodic games are another example, usually releasing a new episode every 2-3 months for the duration of the season. Some games thrive on whole new releases, others on updates, others on expansion packs and others still sell their content for a fixed price and then release what was bought slowly over time.
And there’s nothing wrong with that, surely. A regular release schedule keeps the fanbase’s plans intact, as they have the knowledge to say “I think I’ll skip this year” or “I know I like this series, so it’s something I can reliably come back to”. As a massive Hearthstone Fan, I’m even able to plan my in-game actions around it, choosing which cards to craft based on what expansion they’re from and what expansions are rotating out soon. Episodic releases force an audience to digest an experience over time, and this web of schedules can provide a semblance of structure as fans of certain franchises dip in and out at different times of the year- I tend to get new multiplayer games around Christmas and then catch up on the discounted single-player games in summer, for example.
But obviously, that’s not the whole story. The word ‘Annualised release’ has some sinister corporate energy to it, and many people who consider themselves principled consumers consider it as a dirty word, up there with ‘Always Online’ or ‘Microtransaction’. Why is this? Well, as obvious as it may seem, it’s because the practice has been used to the detriment of games for the exploitation of the consumer’s wallet. And so, I return to the various heated debates my 17-year-old self would have with my FIFA fanboy pals over a bagel in my 6th form canteen. Annualised sports titles.
It’s a sad truth that for every well-meaning savvy gamer who thinks about the implications of their purchases, they’re 2 dozen more who will simply pay money whenever they’re asked to, within reason. FIFA is the prime example- a game that is released every single year, with nary a change in sight most times. And yet, every year, it lingers in the top 10 charts for months, beating out creatively designed, artistically deep, and ultimately more worthy and fulfilling products every time. This is the ugly face of annualised releases- done wrong, they are the assassins of creativity, and anyone raised on FIFA will come to think this is normal. That is, when you come to accept such a small change- add and remove a few players, tweak some stats, maybe change the lighting engine a little bit- as an acceptable update worthy of a brand-new £50 purchase (and starting your microtransaction team all over again), you going to spend your money and time playing the same thing over and over- and since nobody has infinite time or money, this means that one other product that could be a brand new experience is going to pass you by completely- in other words, thoughtless compliance with the re-release of a product that does not make effort to be an improvement on the previous one is actively taking money away from creative, well-crafted products far more deserving of the money. Maybe this is why Titanfall 2 was so criminally undersold.
There are far lesser examples, of course. CoD in its heyday spread itself across 2 dev houses, with one exploring modern settings while the other stayed historic, each offering a new twist on a core formula- and, ultimately, several tangentially related sub-franchises. Some love Modern Warfare, other Black Ops. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that CoD is perhaps the best example of an annual release schedule out there- that was, of course, until they started carving out large chunks of the game to try and quickly snap up a part of the Battle Royale pie, leaving the skeleton of the series mainstay campaign on the cutting room floor.
Why would you buy the same dinner every night? Why would you buy the same winter coat every year? Why would you go to see the same movie every week? It makes zero sense, and yet we tolerate it as a collective- sure, some savvy consumers see right through it, but 99% of the gaming audience simply wants to chill out and doesn’t think about the ethical or business side of things. So take it from me: if this year’s CoD doesn’t set your loins aflame, if FIFA’s starting to be ironically lacking in kick, maybe try a new series instead? Might surprise yourself, who knows.