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Video games in 2024: Eager anticipation, or just treading water?

Bookended by the long-awaited trailer for Grand Theft Auto VI (which rapidly passed 100m views to become the most-watched game reveal ever) and the trailer-fest of the Game Awards, this week has given us a lot of glimpses of in-development games – but perhaps more than anything else, it’s been a great week for aficionados of games you won’t be playing until 2025 at the earliest.

With a few notable exceptions, what we saw this week was mostly the beginning of the process of building hype for games that will appear in 2025 and beyond, which makes it hard to ignore the point raised by many of the analysts James spoke to about the GTA 6 trailer this week: that 2024 is looking a little sparse on the release calendar front, and it’s hard to see what the drivers of industry growth will be in the coming 12 months or so.

Of course, early looks at games that are still a year or two away aren’t so unusual, but I’d argue that it’s a little unusual that we’re seeing quite so much of that at this point in a hardware cycle. Mid-cycle, with the installed base of current-gen consoles hitting a level that’s comfortably able to sustain blockbusters, we normally have more of a balance between games that are approaching their pre-order window, major releases in the coming year, and more speculative looks at games a year or more down the pipeline.

Given how heavily that balance is currently tilted towards the latter – not just in this week’s announcements, but in the publicly announced release pipeline more generally – it’s fair to be a little concerned that the industry could just end up treading water next year.

This is not to give short shrift to the games that will launch in 2024 – there are some big titles in there, of course, especially in the first few months of the year when we’ll see games like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth and Dragon’s Dogma 2 arriving. 2023, however, has been a banner year for game releases, with critically and commercially successful titles being launched all through the year.

Consequently, the annual comparisons were always going to be rough; we’re set for a year of monthly sales figures that need asterisks next to them explaining what gigantic title in the same month 12 months ago is making the growth figures look bad. That would have been true even if 2024’s release schedule was looking pretty busy – but busy it most certainly is not.

To be clear, one reason why 2024 is at risk of being a bit of a slump year – or at least one of sideways motion – is Grand Theft Auto VI itself. Arguably the biggest surprise of the trailer we saw this week was the 2025 launch window, since the game had been widely expected to show up in 2024. It hasn’t slipped, per se – the 2024 assumption was only ever an assumption – but seeing that year pop up at the end of the trailer will have been an unpleasant surprise for quite a few people whose strategic thinking has been predicated on the idea that this all-conquering juggernaut was going to arrive in late 2024.

I don’t think anyone at a publisher actually said “Let’s avoid the entire year when we think GTA 6 will come out”, but the timing of Rockstar’s game is a point that has definitely been raised in discussions about games that were slipping or being moved around the release schedule. The assumption that we’d see GTA 6 next year made publishers a lot more comfortable with having a sparse release schedule in that year than they would ordinarily be; it makes sense to let your games have an extra quarter or two in their development schedules if that avoids them going head to head with what’s likely to be the biggest entertainment launch of the decade.

It’s hard to overstate just how much impact GTA 6 is expected to have on other games in a sizeable window around its launch. No other game has its cultural and commercial impact, but even far more niche titles can have knock-on effects on rival games when they do really well commercially. The success of Baldur’s Gate 3 (which few people expected to be quite such a huge hit) has seemingly had a major impact on other games in adjacent genres this autumn; now consider that GTA 6 is going to do that, but more so, to almost every mainstream genre. Its predecessor, GTA 5, enjoyed such evergreen success that it arguably impacted sales of other games for years after launch; with the exception of some niche genres with audiences a long way outside GTA’s incredibly wide demographic profile, everything else launching within months of GTA 6 is going to feel a commercial effect.

Given that reality, a lot of publishers were pretty relaxed about the idea of titles slipping well past their projected GTA 6 arrival window; many of those calculations will now be in disarray given the 2025 arrival, and I’d imagine some companies are having urgent discussions about whether games they’d internally earmarked for 2025 launches can somehow be brought up the schedule to arrive ahead of GTA 6 in 2024 instead.

As impactful as the GTA franchise is, though, it’s not the only reason for 2024’s release schedule looking unusually light at the moment. It’s not even the main reason – because it’s really the extraordinary nature of 2023’s release schedule that’s to blame for 2024 being set to be the calm after the storm, at least to some degree.

The sheer quantity of huge releases in 2023 was really the effect of the software pipeline being unclogged, as we finally saw the launch of many games that had been held back due to various effects of the pandemic. Some games were simply delayed because of difficulties in development; others were held back (or at least given more time in development) strategically, a response to the supply chain issues that led to slower than expected growth for console installed bases. 2023 cleared the backlog, in the best possible sense; but that means that a lot of the industry’s best development teams and talent find themselves simultaneously working on the early stages of new projects.

The good news is that this situation will rectify itself given time, as the quite varied nature of development cycle lengths means that dev teams will quickly end up being back out of sync. We won’t face a situation where the effects of the pandemic ripple onwards for years, giving us regular “on-years” and “off-years” for game releases due to the unusual clumping of major titles hitting the finish line in 2023; but for 2024, at least, the crest of the wave does look like it will be followed by an inevitable trough.

Of course, we still don’t know everything about next year, and some companies play their cards closer to their chest than others. It’s reasonably safe to assume that we’ll see new Nintendo hardware next year, and that will likely mean some major software launches we haven’t heard anything about yet. The Switch did very well out of launching during what was arguably a (less severe) mid-cycle lull for the PS4, so Nintendo may seek to capitalise similarly next year.

There are also quite a few titles still remaining as “expected 2024” on the schedule, but a lack of recent updates and no more firm launch information is probably a bad sign, and many of those are certain to slip into the following year. There was a possibility of a new Dragon Age game next year, for example, but that seems highly unlikely now that we know that EA doesn’t plan to showcase the new game until next summer; a year-end launch isn’t unimaginable given that timeframe, but is nonetheless improbable.

It’s an ill wind that blows no good, though, and it’s worth noting that a quieter release schedule next year will benefit those companies which do have major 2024 titles – especially games which have the makings of cult hits, but might struggle to break out beyond their core audience in a busier release environment. The aforementioned Dragon’s Dogma 2 is one such game (as is Koei Tecmo’s Rise of the Ronin, although that is inexplicably launching on the same date as Dragon’s Dogma 2, which seems entirely unjustified given how few other major titles it has to compete with in 2024). Ninja Theory’s Hellblade 2 is another, which could well be Microsoft’s most compelling first-party release for the year and would benefit from the breathing room of a less crowded schedule.

Companies which operate service-type games will also be very happy at the prospect of a release calendar with a few less attention-grabbing AAA titles than this year’s schedule served up. That goes for new service games like Suicide Squad, but also for existing titles; Bungie could certainly do with a more sparse schedule of major releases pushing players to go back and catch up with Destiny 2 content, for example. Similarly, a quieter year offers an opportunity for companies to focus attention on the merits of their back catalogue offerings, which is an area where Microsoft should hope to particularly excel.

Nonetheless, all the silver lining hunting in the world won’t change the fact that a weak 2024 line-up is likely to drive some quite negative sentiment next year, with comparisons to 2023’s releases being inevitable. Plenty of hope remains for some unexpected gems to change that discourse as the year goes on – but based on what we know so far, 2024 looks like being a year in which much of the industry and many consumers seem to pause and hold their breaths in anticipation of GTA 6 taking the world by storm in 2025.

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