Spring Gaming The April release of Grand Theft Auto IV may finally push the videogame industry out of the holiday box.

By Damon Brown

In its first week, the fourth Grand Theft Auto videogame is expected to sell six million copies. It will likely shake up even more family-values politicians and concerned parents than its violent predecessors. And perhaps most importantly, it could cause a substantial shift in the videogame industry--simply because of its release today, at the end of April, a full four months past the close of the peak period for introducing new videogames.

Just as blockbusters are put out en masse during the summer months to reach out-of-school teenagers and young adults, videogames are traditionally released during the winter holiday season--when parents are more apt to spend $60 on a new game or up to $300 for a new system. Of the 10 top-selling games of 2007, six were released between August and December.

"There used to be lulls," says Ricardo Torres, editor in chief of GameSpot.com, a videogame culture and review website. "It would be dead the first part of the year, January through April, then there would be a few events or releases in April, and then we'd relax and brace for the fall rush."

During the past few years, a handful of games have been released between January and April--but generally as a result of production snafus. Now publishers are starting to realize that it's actually good business.

"As games come into more households, we see a spreading of release dates," says Mike Hickey, associate analyst of emerging and existing technology companies for Janco Partners, a Colorado-based investment-banking firm. "During the holiday, wallets are more open, so of course they're more likely to spend money. But if you have strong, quality content, you can release it in April--just like the cinema business."

The racy Grand Theft Auto IV isn't the only major game coming out this spring--Capcom's Devil May Cry 4 was released in February; Sony's Gran Turismo 4 Prologue hit shelves in April; and God of War: Chains of Olympus in March, the same month as Nintendo's Super Smash Bros. They have done well--according to the NPD Group, Super Smash Bros. sold 2.7 million in March--but if G.T.A. sells its expected six million this week, the record-breaking results may be enough to convince developers that a nonholiday release isn't only sensible but advantageous.

Ironically, Grand Theft Auto IV was originally supposed to be part of the fall rush--the release was planned for October 16, 2007. But game bugs and internal problems at Rockstar Games' parent company, Take-Two Interactive, pushed back the release. In the past 12 months, Take-Two lost key staff, weathered a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of stock-option issuing, and has been fighting a hostile takeover by behemoth Electronics Arts.

Yet various Wall Street analysts expect Grand Theft Auto IV to sell 5.8 million within the first week and just over nine million by year's end. The evidence is in the preorders: Major online retailers, such as Britain's Play.com, stopped issuing Grand Theft Auto preorder vouchers earlier this month simply because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to fulfill them all.

A few companies have purposely embraced the nontraditional season--but they are by far in the minority. "This January to [April] release period has become really important to Capcom," says Chris Kramer, the company's senior director of communications and community. A decade ago, Capcom faced a G.T.A. IV-like issue when one of its flagship titles, Resident Evil, had to be pushed from October 1995 to March 1996. According to Capcom, the series still sold more than 27 million copies worldwide; it has since spawned movies, action figures, and other paraphernalia.

"We spend three to four years, millions of dollars to make a game, to compete with 75 other games in the same exact space," Kramer says. "I would imagine a lot of companies have been able to run the NPD [sales] numbers and see outside of the three-month window."

Capcom's most recent game, Devil May Cry 4, was released on February 4 and has already sold several hundred-thousand copies, "slightly ahead of projections."

"The biggest reason for moving outside of the holidays is to avoid the clutter, which can dilute P.R. coverage and marketing activities," says Jeff Reese, Sony's director of software marketing. "The cost of media--particularly TV--can also be lower in the first part of the year." Earlier this month, Sony released the highly anticipated racing game Gran Turismo 4 Prologue on the PlayStation 3 and, since 2005, has released a new installment of its multiplatinum God of War series almost every March.

"March provided a less-cluttered time period [for the original God of War]," Reese says. "[It allowed] this new brand to achieve better breakthrough."

However, the loosing of the holiday ties also lies with the consumer. According to the 2007 Electronic Software Association report, the average videogamer is a 33-year-old male. It seems the teenagers who grew up with old Nintendo systems are still playing--and don't need to beg their parents to put a $60 videogame under the Christmas tree. "We don't need freaking Santa Claus to deliver it," Hickey says. "There are adults playing this thing now."

Damon Brown is the author of the upcoming Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider, and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture, available in October.

Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.

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