Aug 11, 2023 - Technology

The wait between major video game sequels is getting longer

Data: Axios research; Chart: Kavya Beheraj and Sara Wise/Axios
Data: Axios research; Chart: Kavya Beheraj and Sara Wise/Axios

Big video game sequels are taking more years than ever to make it to players.

Driving the news: Whether it's Zelda or God of War or Assassin's Creed or Forza, new installments take more time to develop than they did a decade ago, as annual releases or two-year gaps give way to dev cycles lasting five years or more.

  • There are exceptions: the still-annualized Call of Duty, made by rotating development studios, and the clockwork-like, iterative yearly sports games from EA and Take Two.

What they're saying: "Used to be two years was a reasonable window for a sequel," Cowen analyst Doug Creutz tells Axios. "Now, I think three years is bare minimum."

State of play: Experts tell Axios there are myriad reasons for the slowdown, including the recent disruption of the pandemic, the increased complexity of modern game development and changes to gaming's core business model.

  • Fans expect bigger, more graphically detailed games each time out, several developers mentioned to Axios, which requires bigger teams and richer budgets.
  • The often-painstaking process of finding the fun in game design, requiring multiple iterations and the scrapping of lots of work, doesn't get any faster with more people on board.

Meanwhile, each big new game, sequel or not, is a high-stakes, eight- or nine-figure investment that has to soar to make a profit.

  • To make their money back, publishers have de-emphasized quick-turnaround sequels by diverting resources into a single big game's expansions and seasons of post-release content, chasing recurring live-service game revenue.
  • One technique that used to mask long sequel gaps — the release of smaller semi-sequels, often made for dedicated handheld systems like Sony's PlayStation Portable or Nintendo's 3DS — have disappeared, as that kind of hardware has gone extinct.

Between the lines: Exhibit A of the industry's sequel slowdown is Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto, which next month will hit a decade without a new release.

  • GTA V debuted in 2013, coming off a then-record five-year wait since GTA IV.
  • GTA games used to be abundant, including three major releases from 2001 to 2004, including GTA: Vice City, which was developed by Rockstar in one intense, crunch-filled year.
  • Even before GTA V's release, the rising demands of game development caused Rockstar to put more of its developers on fewer games, which would lead many who worked on GTA to shift to 2018's Red Dead Redemption 2.
  • But the company also pivoted to expanding GTA V repeatedly, releasing what is now a decade's worth of new content added to that game's popular online mode.
  • GTA VI, which still isn't officially announced but was leaked last year, won't release until mid-2024 or early 2025 at the soonest based on publisher Take Two's expectation of a 45% increase in net bookings revenue for that timeframe.

The bottom line: "At the end of the day, management teams are looking to minimize risk and volatility of results," Cowen's Creutz says.

  • That means sequels still might be favored by executives over original games, but even those sequels are no longer abundant from the biggest publishers.
  • "There just aren't as many games being made overall," Creutz says.

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