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For gamers, the first few months of 2022 were like a wildly successful boss race. Even before they had finished digesting the Fall 2021 party titles, more massive dishes were served, at a time of year that normally brings a post-holiday drought. Pokémon Legends: Arceus and Rainbow Six: Extraction in January. Elden Ring, Horizon Forbidden West, Dying Light 2 Stay Human, Destiny 2: The Witch Queen, and Total War: Warhammer III in February. Gran Turismo 7, Kirby and the Forgotten Land, Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands, Ghostwire: Tokyo and Stranger of Paradise: Final Fantasy Origin in March. Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga and Nintendo Switch Sports in April. This is just a partial list; the big names and big games kept coming.

And then came May, when the sustaining tap was turned off. According to market research firm NPD Group, Evil Dead: The Game was the only Top 50 release that month in the United States, a possibly unprecedented shortage of fresh, high-profile produce. “It’s very rare,” says NPD executive director and video game industry consultant Mat Piscatella. “I’ve been looking at this data since 2005 and I don’t remember this ever happening.” June was also slow, featuring just one new release (Mario Strikers: Battle League) in the month’s top 11 and two (including F1 22) in the top 15. Not since May-June 2020 – and before 2020, December 2014 to January 2015 – NPD reported consecutive months with no more than one new game in the top 10. In every month since early 2010, the average number of newly released games on the top 10 and 20 best sellers lists are 3.4 and 4.8, respectively.

It is true that there is a significant seasonal trend to these counts, as shown by this graph of the average number of new releases in the US top 10 and 20 per month.

Summer, like the end of winter, is often the low tide in the cyclic ebb and flow of the video game release schedule, which typically picks up towards the end of the fiscal year in March and in the months when many Americans are making holiday lists (or scoring future gift cards and cash for the succulent sequels that usually crowd towards the end of the year). But industry developments in recent months have thinned the megagame crowd that was once supposed to bolster the second half of the year, dampening predictions that 2022 will be a standout year for gaming. While the pace of big-budget releases from major publishers was slowing, several highly anticipated Triple-A games slated for the holiday season were swept off the release schedule. Nintendo’s sequel to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, along with the likes of Starfield, Redfall, Forspoken, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chernobyl, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, Avatar: Pandora’s Borders and (probably) The Lord of the Rings: Gollum have all been pushed back to 2023.

Granted, delays aren’t new to big games, all of which are works of insurmountable complexity that it’s a small miracle that they even get released. And there are plenty of 2022 games based on big IPs still standing. Despite Zelda’s delay, the Switch lineup looks strong, featuring Splatoon 3, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, and Bayonetta 3.) And it’s not just the Switch: on other platforms. , next month will bring a major reboot and remake in Saints Row and The Last of Us Part 1 respectively, and the Q4 calendar still includes God of War Ragnarök, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, Marvel’s Midnight Suns, Gotham Knights, Skull and Bones, (parts of) Overwatch 2 and potentially Hogwarts Legacy.

Even so, the schedule is lighter than usual, thanks in part to the reduced presence of publications from Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard and Electronic Arts and the dearth of original Microsoft titles. “The number of major title releases for 2022 is at an all-time low,” says a recent report by video game market research firm DFC Intelligence. “Furthermore, the big traditional video game publishers have little to offer.”

The surprising takeaway from this supposed drought, however, is that many players may not even realize it’s happening. Yes, the waits will be longer for some significant releases, but even with fewer major titles available for 2022 than there appeared to be, there are still plenty of great games coming out for anyone to play. With fewer “big titles” to hog players’ time, some games that might otherwise seem “smaller” have conquered the vacant spotlight and proved themselves worthy of headlines, perhaps inspiring sequels rather than paying attention to them. (This is, as the DFC put it, “a year of dormant successes.”) Also, some of the delays may be symptoms of a healthier approach to development that produces more favorable working conditions and better outcomes. It might seem like a galaxy brain to conclude, as the DFC did, that “overall, the limited release schedule of 2022 is likely to be good for the industry.” At the very least, though, the silver linings of the diminished slate make up for much of the delay-induced disappointment.

Much of the volatility in this year’s release schedule was caused by COVID (as well as the war in Ukraine). It’s no surprise that the pandemic brought game development to a halt as it halted everything else, but the full effects weren’t felt at first. Many games that were close to being over when the coronavirus hit crossed the finish line on schedule (or at least without additional delays). But, as some game creators told in a June feature titled “Whatever Happened to All the Video Games?”, designers who still had a lot of research and development to do, as opposed to comparatively simple polish, often suffered negative effects. sudden and unplanned change to remote operation. Greater receptivity to working from home can be beneficial in the long run – [he writes happily, at a desk far from the office] – but, given the circumstances, adjustments sometimes put an OmniWrench on already difficult procedures. It became clear last year that the resulting delays would produce the first few months of 2022 packed, but now that these backlog blockbusters have hit the market, a subsequent wave of delays has created a second channel of content.

On one level, at least. In fact, though, there’s a ton to play with. On the one hand, many of the hit titles from earlier this year are really long, supporting “completionist” playthroughs of close to (or more than) 100 hours. On the other hand, several great games continued to be released – in many cases courtesy of smaller publishers and independent developers. At last year’s E3, the absence of big-budget games allowed less-funded, less-hyped titles to shine. Projects teased back then are playable now, as are others equally worthy.

Prestigious indie publishers such as Annapurna Interactive and Devolver Digital have taken the Triple-A slack, offering visually inventive, genre-blending nexuses of uniqueness: Neon White and Stray, and Weird West and Card Sharks, respectively. (Annapurna previewed more upcoming games in a showcase last week, and Devolver’s Cult of the Lamb will launch on August 11.) Steam is packed with sensations like Vampire Survivors and sensation copycats like 20 Minutes Till Dawn. Thousands of Switch owners are in love with Live A Live, a remake of a previously Japan-exclusive SNES RPG originally released in 1994. Narrative adventures like The Quarry and As Dusk Falls are there for those who prefer their lightly interactive on-screen stories.

On the opposite end of the button-crushing spectrum, Tribute Games’ TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge is a perfect homage to side-scrolling fighters that takes me back to the time when my cousin tripped over a gamepad cable and broke my NES – only now controllers don’t have cables to trip over. If you want to fight furiously with other cartoon characters, you can pre-order Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course or do as the executives at Warner Bros. Discovery that are fighting over streaming services and pitting the conglomerate’s characters against each other in MultiVersus. And if you want to embrace peace, you can play PowerWash Simulator.

Some of these games were made by small teams and boast affordable pricing as well as mercifully manageable play times – a welcome change of pace and duration after being bombarded by ever-bigger games that can’t be won in 10 or 20 sessions, let alone one. . You probably don’t need me to travel back in time to 2008 to spread the word that indie games are good, and I’m not enough of a gaming hipster to pretend I don’t want to play big budgets and brands either, bell shows and whistles aimed at mass appeal. (Give me God of War Ragnarök yesterday.) But the indies’ appeal is apparent if the masses make time – and during the “drought”, that’s easier to sell.

Neon White, which a Kotaku headline called “The Best Dating Launch Card Attack Puzzle Platformer Simulator of the Year” — as apt a description as any — makes me feel like a speed runner without being so good at games. Stray, a combination cat simulator, platformer and puzzler with a surprisingly fascinating story, has a compact and well-crafted campaign that doubles as meme and mod material. The cat, of course, has become a genuine internet celebrity, but as a dog guy who is allergic to felines, I can attest to Stray’s virtues beyond the potent fluffy, Twitch-friendly kitty factor. As well as many others, some of whom might not have had the time if the calendar had been messed up. “Stray is great and all,” says Piscatella. “But I think it’s pretty apparent that it’s been a much bigger deal without a bunch of other releases that it has to compete with on the air.” (NPD sales rankings are based on revenue, and since Stray is a $30 game only available on PlayStation and PC, it may not make it to the unfinished July leaderboard yet, although it was a big seller in Steam. Piscatella estimates that approximately three new releases could make the top 20, though Elden Ring’s reign at the top could continue.)

More than 7,000 games were released on Steam in 2022, on their way to last year’s record, and some of the store’s buried treasures are more likely to be unearthed when players aren’t saddled with high-profile wall-to-wall IP. For those who don’t have all day to play, game selection is a zero-sum game, so less time devoted to Gollum or the Suicide Squad could mean more time for Far: Changing Tides or OlliOlli World or Tunic or Norco and now I’m just listing game names. The point is, there are still too many to list, although several of the ones we thought we were about to investigate now needed more time in the oven. So my pile of shame is as big as ever, although it’s easier to ignore now that it’s on hard drives or the cloud rather than disks or cartridges. (According to Piscatella, the average share of gaming revenue from digital sales has increased from 2% in June 2012 to 74% 10 years later.) And my list of games is only going to get bigger. (One word: Rollerdrome.) If the list of upcoming blockbusters is the bottom on fire, then I’m Elmo with my arms up; for now, at least, I’m not feeling the flames. I’m washing them.

Which is not to say that no one is feeling the heat. Last month, the DFC stated that “ironically, having just a handful of high-quality games for consumers to choose from can generate more revenue than overwhelming consumers with mediocre choices.” It is perhaps true that video games may be recession-proof and designed to survive and thrive during the release drought – some sources still project the global gaming market to grow slightly from last year – but consumer spending on games has slowed. in recent years versus recent years, thanks to ongoing supply issues and hardware shortages, fewer people confined than there were during the height of the gaming pandemic, and yes, a lighter list of releases. These reduced revenue streams can lead to layoffs. As Piscatella tweeted last month, though, “new games hitting the market are doing great, there are just fewer of them.”

As Peak TV (possibly?) peaks, it’s almost a relief that an entertainment industry isn’t operating at a record clip. So far though, I’ve focused on recent and original releases – and buying new games is just one way to play. Endless live service games continue to churn out content, making many publishing giants less reliant on regular releases. Remakes and remasters apply fresh coats of paint to past hits and resell them. The video game medium doesn’t make its catalog as accessible as books, music, movies or TV, but instead of trying something new or recently repackaged, maybe it’s time to revisit or catch up on a classic like NieR: Automata.

Many gamers have come to this conclusion and separated themselves from the calendar and the tyranny of the new: even as software sales have plummeted, usage of game subscription services like Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and Switch Online has increased. Microsoft may not have many 2022 exclusives to debut, but its Game Pass offerings will sustain it until the 2023 sustaining cavalry arrives. In that respect, games are no different from the movie industry, where theaters are showing fewer movies. than before the pandemic, but streaming services are crowded.

When the development pile-ups and bumper-folders of production delays caused by pandemics and supply chain issues unfold, game assembly lines will run a little smoother. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if individual publishers’ results never returned to their previous highs. Perhaps some delays have been wake-up calls, proof that the games have gotten too big and expensive to make without repeatedly postponing them and putting pressure on employees to tolerate the crisis. Delays do not guarantee reductions in crisis, but if more humane working conditions and an emphasis on quality prevail over speed – whether out of genuine concern for workers and consumers or just out of fear of bad press and disastrous Cyberpunk 2077-style releases – longer waits would be worth it. worth it.

It’s not like it means a lot of sacrifice for the players. As DFC noted, “The emergence of subscription services, season passes, and low-cost PC games means consumers are never short of games to play.” And even if you’re as allergic to old games as I am to tabbies, your options are plentiful. For now, new releases are appearing a little less frequently than enemies in horde mode, but we can collect gems even while we wait for Breath of the Wild to continue. It’s good to look forward to blockbusters. Just don’t turn your back on strays and strays.

Thanks to Mat Piscatella for research assistance.

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