For gamers, the first few months of 2022 were like a blockbuster boss rush. Even before they’d finished digesting the feast of fall titles from 2021, more massive courses were served, at a time of year that typically 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. That’s only a partial list; the big names and big games kept coming.
And then came May, when the tentpole tap turned off. According to market research company the NPD Group, Evil Dead: The Game was the only new release among that month’s top 50 sellers in the United States, a possibly unprecedented dearth of fresh, high-profile product. “It’s very rare,” says NPD executive director and video game industry advisor Mat Piscatella. “I’ve been looking at this data since 2005 and I don’t recall it ever happening.” June was slow too, featuring only one new release (Mario Strikers: Battle League) among the month’s top 11 sellers, and two (including F1 22) among the top 15. Not since May-June 2020—and prior to 2020, December 2014 to January 2015—had NPD reported back-to-back months with no more than one new game in the top 10. Across all months since the start of 2010, the average numbers of newly released games in the top 10 and top 20 sales lists are 3.4 and 4.8, respectively.
Granted, there’s a significant seasonal trend to these tallies, as shown by this graph of the average number of new releases in the U.S. top 10 and 20 by calendar month.
Summer, like late winter, is often low tide in the cyclical ebb and flow of the video game release schedule, which typically ramps up at the end of the fiscal year in March and around the months when many Americans are making holiday lists (or earmarking future gift cards and cash for the juicy sequels that often cluster toward the end of the year). But industry developments over the past few months thinned the crowd of mega-games that were once expected to bolster the second half of the year, dampening predictions about 2022 being a banner year for games. While the pace of big-budget releases from major publishers was slowing to a trickle, a number of highly anticipated Triple-A games slated for the holiday season were wiped 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: Frontiers of Pandora, and (probably) The Lord of the Rings: Gollum were all postponed to 2023.
Granted, delays are nothing new for big games, all of which are works of such surpassing complexity that it’s a minor miracle they’re ever released. And there are plenty of 2022 games based on big IP still standing. Despite the Zelda delay, the Switch’s lineup looks strong, sporting Splatoon 3, Mario + Rabbids Sparks of Hope, Pokémon Scarlet and Violet, and Bayonetta 3. (Action RPG Xenoblade Chronicles 3, which was published by Nintendo to great acclaim last week, actually had its release date bumped up.) And it’s not just the Switch: On other platforms, the next month will bring a big reboot and remake in Saints Row and The Last of Us Part 1, respectively, and the fourth-quarter 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 reduced publishing presences from Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, and Electronic Arts and a shortage of first-party titles from Microsoft. “The number of major title releases for 2022 is at the lowest level ever,” read a recent report from video game market research firm DFC Intelligence. “Furthermore, the traditional major video game publishers have little to offer.”
The surprising takeaway from this supposed drought, though, is that many gamers might not even notice it’s happening. Yes, the waits will be longer for some significant releases, but even with fewer big titles on tap for 2022 than there once seemed to be, there are still too many good games rolling out for any one person to play. With fewer “major titles” to monopolize players’ time, some games that otherwise might have seemed “minor” have seized the vacant spotlight and proved that they’re worthy of being headliners, perhaps inspiring sequels instead of ceding attention to them. (This is, as DFC said, “a year of sleeper hits.”) What’s more, some of the postponements may be symptoms of a healthier approach to development, one that yields more favorable working conditions and improved results. It may smack of galaxy brain to conclude, as 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 has been caused by COVID (as well as the war in Ukraine). It’s no surprise that the pandemic has disrupted game development, as it’s disrupted everything else, but the full effects weren’t felt at first. Many games that were close to completion when the coronavirus struck crossed the finish line on schedule (or at least without additional delays). But as some game makers told GamesIndustry.biz in a feature from June entitled “What has happened to all the video games?”, designers who still had lots of R&D to do, as opposed to comparatively simple polishing, often suffered ill effects from the sudden, unplanned shift to remote operation. Greater receptiveness to working from home may be beneficial in the long run—[he happily writes, at a desk far from the office]—but under the circumstances, the adjustments sometimes threw an OmniWrench into already difficult proceedings. It became clear last year that the resulting delays would produce a packed first few months of 2022, but now that those backlogged blockbusters have hit the market, a subsequent wave of delays has created a second content trough.
On one level, at least. In actuality, though, there’s a ton to play. For one thing, many of the hit titles from earlier this year are really fricking long, supporting “completionist” playthroughs of close to (or more than) 100 hours. For another, numerous great games have continued to come out—in many cases, courtesy of smaller publishers and independent developers. At last year’s E3, an absence of big-budget games allowed less-funded and less-hyped titles to shine. The projects teased then are playable now, as are others just as worthy.
Indie prestige publishers such as Annapurna Interactive and Devolver Digital have picked up the Triple-A slack by delivering visually inventive, genre-blending nexuses of uniqueness: Neon White and Stray, and Weird West and Card Sharks, respectively. (Annapurna previewed more upcoming games at a showcase last week, and Devolver’s Cult of the Lamb will be out on August 11.) Steam is teeming with sensations like Vampire Survivors and sensation imitators like 20 Minutes Till Dawn. Thousands of Switch owners are smitten with Live A Live, a remake of a formerly Japan-exclusive, SNES RPG originally released in 1994. Narrative adventures like The Quarry and As Dusk Falls are there for those who prefer their on-screen stories lightly interactive.
On the opposite end of the button-mashing spectrum, TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, from Tribute Games, is a note-perfect, um, tribute to side-scrolling brawlers that brings me back to the time when my cousin tripped on a gamepad cable and broke my NES—only now controllers don’t have cables to trip on. If you want to fight furiously with other cartoon characters, you can order Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course or make like the Warner Bros. Discovery executives who are squabbling over streaming services and pit 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 budget prices as well as mercifully manageable playtimes—a welcome change of pace and length after being bombarded by ever-bigger games that can’t be beaten in 10 or 20 sittings, let alone one. You probably don’t need me to time travel from 2008 to spread the news that indie games are good, and I’m not enough of a gaming hipster to pretend that I don’t also want to play big-budget, well-branded, bells-and-whistles spectacles that aim for 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 an easier sell.
Neon White, which a Kotaku headline called “The Best Puzzle-Platformer-Time-Attack-Card-Slinging-Dating-Sim of the Year”—as apt a description as any—lets me feel like a speedrunner without being that good at games. Stray, a combination cat simulator, platformer, and puzzler with a surprisingly riveting story, boasts a well-crafted, compact campaign that doubles as meme and mod material. The cat, of course, has become a bona fide internet celebrity, but as a dog guy who’s allergic to felines, I can vouch for the virtues of Stray over and above the potent, Twitch-friendly cute-kittie factor. So can many others, some of whom might not have made time for it had the calendar been cluttered. “Stray is great and all,” Piscatella says. “But I think it’s pretty apparent it’s been a much bigger deal without a bunch of other releases with which it has to compete for air.” (NPD’s sales rankings are revenue-based, and because Stray is a $30 game that’s available only for PlayStation and PC, it may not make the not-yet-finalized July leaderboard, though it’s been a big seller on Steam. Piscatella estimates that roughly three new releases could crack the top 20, though Elden Ring’s reign at the top could continue.)
More than 7,000 games have been released on Steam in 2022, on track to top last year’s record total, and some of the storefront’s buried treasures are more likely to be unearthed when gamers aren’t swamped with wall-to-wall high-profile 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 might mean more time for Far: Changing Tides or OlliOlli World or Tunic or Norco and now I’m just listing names of games. The point is, there are still many to list, even though several of the ones we thought we’d be about to dig into by now needed more time in the oven. Thus, my pile of shame is as massive as ever, though it’s easier to ignore now that it’s on hard drives or the cloud instead of discs or cartridges. (Per Piscatella, the average share of game revenue from digital sales rose from 2 percent in June 2012 to 74 percent 10 years later.) And my to-play list will only get longer. (One word: Rollerdrome.) If the list of forthcoming blockbusters is the burning background, then I’m the Elmo with his arms up; for now, at least, I’m not feeling the flames at all. I’m power washing them.
Which isn’t to say that no one is feeling the heat. Last month, DFC declared that “ironically, having only a handful of high-quality games for consumers to pick from can generate more revenue than overwhelming consumers with mediocre choices.” Perhaps it’s true that video games may be mostly recession-proof and engineered to survive and thrive during release droughts—some sources still project the global gaming market to grow slightly from last year—but consumer spending on games has declined of late relative to recent years, thanks to continued supply problems and hardware shortages, fewer cooped-up people than there were during gaming’s peak-pandemic boom, and yes, a lighter release slate. Those reduced revenue streams might lead to layoffs. As Piscatella tweeted last month, though, “New games that reach market are doing very well, there are just fewer of them.”
As Peak TV (possibly?) peaks, it’s almost a relief that one entertainment sector isn’t operating at a record clip. Thus far, though, I’ve focused on recent, original releases—and snapping up new games is only one way to play. Never-ending live-service games keep pumping out content, making many publishing giants less reliant on regular releases. Remakes and remasters apply fresh coats of paint to past successes and resell them. The video game medium doesn’t make its back catalog as accessible as books, music, movies, or TV, but instead of trying something new or recently repackaged, this might be the time to revisit or catch up on a classic like NieR: Automata.
Many gamers have come to that conclusion and decoupled themselves from the calendar and the tyranny of the new: Even as software sales have sunk, usage of game subscription services such as Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, and Switch Online has increased. Microsoft may not have many 2022 exclusives to debut, but its offerings on Game Pass will prop it up until the 2023 tentpole cavalry arrives. In this respect, gaming isn’t dissimilar from the movie industry, where theaters are showing fewer films than they did pre-pandemic but streaming services are stuffed.
When the development pileups and fender benders from pandemic-driven production delays and supply-chain snafus unsnarl themselves, the gaming assembly lines will run somewhat smoother. But it wouldn’t be a bad thing if individual publishers’ outputs never return to their previous highs. Perhaps some delays were wakeup calls, proof that games have gotten too huge and expensive to make without repeatedly postponing them and pressuring employees to tolerate crunch. Delays don’t guarantee reductions in crunch, but if more humane working conditions and an emphasis on quality take precedence over speed—whether out of genuine concern for workers and consumers or just a fear of bad press and disastrous, Cyberpunk 2077–style launches—longer waits would be well worth it.
It’s not as if that would mean much of a sacrifice for players. As DFC observed, “The emergence of subscription services, season passes, and low-cost PC games has meant consumers are never at a loss for 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 spawning slightly less often than enemies in horde mode, but we can collect gems even while we wait for the follow-up to Breath of the Wild. It’s fine to pine for the blockbusters. Just don’t turn your back on the strays, and the Strays.
Thanks to Mat Piscatella for research assistance.