If you're a movie buff, you might not even hesitate spending time and money on both consecutively. But what happens when you bump the price up to $60, and extend the temporal investment to something between 8 and 80 hours? Now you see the dilemma squeezed in-between this holiday's most anticipated shooters, Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and all of a sudden one week doesn't seem like much of a buffer at all.
It seems a week's worth of spacing between Total Recall and the Bourne-again franchise is enough to calm hyperventilating Hollywood executives. Telling each other to back off, years in advance, is part of the protocol now. No other major film can perch on November 20th, 2015, because that date already belongs to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2.
If opening weekends are such a coveted currency for films, imagine how valuable they must be for the gaming industry's most elaborate efforts. For the "event" game, the heavily marketed launch week sets the tone for its whole life on the shelf, and if it doesn't make a splash on day one it can disappear in the ripples emanating from the next big thing to drop in (see: Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption). Halo 4 has claimed November 6 with confidence, but its proximity to the latest Call of Duty, launching just one week later, signals a brutal tussle between blockbusters.
It's silly to envision this as a straight slugging match between Microsoft's sci-fi juggernaut and Activision's futuristic spin on Call of Duty. The latter game obviously benefits from a larger audience spread across multiple platforms (whereas Halo 4 is exclusive to Xbox 360), and has sustained annual appeal in much the same way that sports franchises like Madden NFL do. And I, much like others who consider gaming a primary hobby, will probably end up buying both.
People like me, however, aren't representative of the majority, who operate with a limited pool of funds, likely reserved for games that can guarantee good, albeit familiar, bang for the buck. It's not that Halo 4's $60 withdrawal from the pool is problematic on its own, but that a fan of first-person shooters must consider making a second, equally expensive purchase just a few days later. In the span of two weeks, the dedicated gamer (or someone who would like to be one) is faced with spending $120+ on two major games in the same genre.
Though Call of Duty and Halo may not be in deliberate competition, there's only so much time, money and attention to go around. Both games will vie for longevity with extended multiplayer support, and Halo 4 also promises episodic expansion of its robust cooperative mode. More importantly, both games are worshipped juggernauts, and could likely succeed wherever they landed on the calendar. So why are they right next to each other?
Asking for more collaborative, coordinated release dates throughout the year is probably hopeless and naive, especially when publishers can barely focus on anything but their own bottom line. When Call of Duty and Halo start rubbing shoulders, they underline the serious problems in the "AAA" games business perfectly. These games are too substantial, expensive and similar to co-exist comfortably, and the retail market is so strictly structured around the holiday that it dooms the prospects of smaller games looking to secure shelves in the first quarter.
It's an old-fashioned business model, even if it is the one most capable of supporting heavyweights like Halo 4 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. They'll hurt each other this holiday –one more than the other – but both Microsoft and Activision would argue there's an entire world of hurt outside of November. You can be successful in January, just not 6 million+ successful. Get used to being stuck between a rock and hard place for a week.
Ludwig Kietzmann is the Editor-in-Chief of Joystiq.com. He's been writing about video games for over 10 years, and has been working on this self-referential blurb for about twice as long. He thinks it turned out pretty well. Follow him on Twitter @LudwigK.