Release dates for games are something we take for granted now, but it didn’t use to be that way. Even big releases generally only had an estimate of what month you might be able to buy them. Super Mario Bros, one of the most important video games ever released, does not have a definitive North American release date.
Sonic 2sday, November 24th, 1992, was a promotion by Sega for Sonic the Hedgehog 2 that led to games having set release dates like other media, and less like toys. This was an event to look forward to, rather than different outlets getting a game at different times and maybe not putting it out for sale for a few weeks. This wasn’t quite a worldwide release, with Japan getting Sonic 2 a few days earlier, but a near-simultaneous worldwide release was an impressive and unique feat for the time and was likely the reason games continued to be released predominately on Tuesdays for years to come.
This project looks at the evolving history of video game release dates, starting with the 5th generation – N64/PS1/Saturn/GBC. I didn’t include games from the 4th, Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s generation, because there were still so many games without an exact release date.
To qualify for inclusion games had to have been released in at least the North America, Europe, or Japan region and have at least one known exact release date. I only included consoles and handhelds from Nintendo, Sony, Sega, and Microsoft. The earliest games were Japan-only Sega Saturn games from 1994, and the latest games have announced dates later in 2020.
In total 31,338 games were included with 58,055 release dates.
Date information was mostly from Wikipedia’s lists of games, but several only had the first release date or no dates at all, so I had to manually look up and enter thousands of dates from MobyGames. I ran many checks on the dates when I was done to find suspicious outliers and made many corrections, but I don’t claim my data to be perfect. My two sources, Wikipedia and MobyGames, also disagree on many release dates and I have no way to confirm which is true.
Sometimes games in Europe are released on slightly different days in different countries. When this was the case I used the United Kingdom’s release date. If there was no known United Kingdom release date I used the earliest known date.
Dates are shown in the mm/dd/yyyy format.
The distribution of Included Games
I’m including these first two graphs to give an idea of the sample sizes involved. 1994 and 1995 were early in the 5th generation and don’t have many games, so averages aren’t very reliable. Most of my data was gathered in early 2020 so there weren’t many games from that year either.
Some systems just didn’t have many games, like the N64, and some, like the GBA, had very spotty information so many games couldn’t be included.
Here is the average percent of games released in North America on every day of the year. The year on the next several graphs and charts are shown as 2000 because the tools I use won’t accept a date without a year, but it is the average from the full range of years used in the study. The dotted line at 0.27 (1/366*100) represents the frequency we would expect if every date saw an equal number of games released.
There are several outliers but there is a general trend of releases becoming rarer in late November and hitting rock bottom around the end and beginning of the year. Releases pick up slowly but steadily through February and March but then abruptly fall with the start of April. Things are slow but steady until the end of June which sees a surge of releases, before abruptly falling again as July starts. The end of March and June surge may have to do with financial quarters ending. Releases then grow quickly through the end of summer and throughout the fall as holiday shopping picks up, with the biggest release days in November.
Europe follows much of the same trends as North America. February and March see a few more releases, more spread out. There is another end of June surge. The fall flurry is a bit more spread out too, never reaching the same peaks, and ending a bit later.
Japan’s near total lack of releases in the early part of the year is more pronounced than North America’s or Europe’s. Very differently from the other two regions, Japan sees many releases in the last week of every month, but not quite at the very end of them. The middle of the year has fewer releases overall, but not by much.
(I suggest opening these in new tabs) First is the exact percent of games of every date, and second is every date sorted with the total number of games released on that date.
January 4th in Japan is the date with the smallest number of releases, at just one! The game in question was a DSi game known as Trajectile in North America and Reflect Missile in Europe and Japan. Unfortunately, I can’t say for sure it really came out on January 4th, wikipedia says it did, while Nintendo Life says it was the 20th. Regardless, January 4th may get so few releases in part because Japanese workers return from their New Year’s break on this date.
Speaking of Japan, holidays don’t have much of an impact on game releases. Golden Week is a series of 4 holidays on April 29th, May 3rd, May 4th, and ending with Children’s Day on May 5th. But April 29th is pretty average for an end of month date, and early May sees some of the fewest releases. August 15th stood out to me as an unusually light day, but some googling reminded me that this is the day Japan surrendered to the Allied powers, a somber day of mourning those who died in the war.
I was surprised that Halloween is the most common release date in North America, and only slightly less popular in Europe. It’s not a day I associate with buying video games. July 4th, the USA’s Independence Day, is among the least common, and Christmas Eve and Day also see few releases in either region.
North America and Europe have many holidays that can occur on different days of the year, making it difficult to determine if they have any impact.
Days of the Week
Sonic 2sday is sometimes credited as being the reason North American games continue to be released on Tuesdays as well as Tuesday just being the day books, albums, and DVDs come out, so of course video games do too. But is that really true? It wasn’t until 1998 that Tuesday became the most common release day, and it was a pretty small lead until 2003.
If you google when games are released in North America you’ll find plenty of articles and discussions about Tuesdays, but this actually stopped being true a few years ago. Thursdays have taken over and no one seems to have noticed.
Fridays have also seen a surge in releases, while Mondays and especially Sundays have become less popular. Wednesdays have stayed pretty stable.
Europe is pretty similar to North America in terms of dates of the year, but not in terms of days of the week. Friday long dominated releases until the early ’10s, when Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday all got a larger share. Saturday, Sunday, and Monday have always had few releases.
This article discusses several factors contributing to the history of Friday game releases in Europe, such as it being the traditional pay day, and to differentiate itself from other media that releases on other days of the week.
Japan, meanwhile, also has its own thing going on. Friday seems to be the big day for the mid 90s (remember that I had very few 1994 dates), but that changed very quickly in 1997 and 1998, instead becoming Thursday. Thursday continued to see most releases for many years, but lost ground in the 10s before reclaiming much of the ground it had lost. I don’t have a lot of 2020 releases for Japan, but it seems like it may have seen another sudden shift, back to Friday.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays have seen a smaller number of releases since 2008, while Saturday, Sunday, and Monday have had very few.
I can’t find any information about why games are released this way in Japan.
Here is a chart showing the exact values for the previous three charts. If we exclude 1994, 1995, and 2020, the lowest value is Sundays in 2018 in Japan, at 0.10%. The highest is Fridays in Japan in 1996 at 92.42% of releases, followed closely by Thursdays in Japan in 2005, at 91.77%.
Days of the Month
I have put the days of the month into 6 groups here because 31 nearly identically sized bars wouldn’t be very enlightening. We don’t hear about what days of the month games come out very often, so I was curious if there would be any interesting trends, and alas, they are almost equal, other than the first part of the month seeing a few less releases.
In the first part of the 25 Years of Games Project, I noted that almost all computer game release dates from the mid to late 90s seemed to be on the last day of the month. I was not sure if those games really did overwhelmingly release on those days, or if the exact date was unknown but every source I could find just said that they did without acknowledging the uncertainty. What I did not notice was a smaller, but still significant, portion of console games with listed dates on the last day of the month too. Looking through them it seems to be more common with N64 and PS1 games than Saturn. I still don’t know if this is a case of a legitimate industry trend, or poor record keeping of the time. 1995 would likely have shown the same bias towards the last day of the month if I had more data from that year.
Europe’s day of month releases look very similar to the North America’s, except that mysterious last day of the month trend is not there. In my findings fewer European releases have exact known dates, so I would expect there to be more uncertainty, more rough estimates, not fewer.
Japan’s major difference from North America and Europe is fewer releases in the beginning of the month, and more at the end, as we saw from the dates dot graph. The difference is still less extreme than day of the week differences, and has seen much less change over time.
Here is every single ungrouped day of the month, with all years combined. The 25th, 26th, 27th, and 28th stand out among Japanese releases. North America and Europe stay pretty similar to each other, with a few exceptions like the 1st, 7th, 18th, 29th, and 31st.
I provide these huge tables so you can find patterns yourself if you really want, and to “show my work” and be transparent about my data.
The distribution of months hasn’t changed much in North America over time. The holiday shopping season of October and November has gotten fewer releases over time. 2019 stands out, with May having more releases than October or November after being one of the slowest months for many years.
Europe is not too different from North America in terms of months of releases. 1999 was quite an odd year with over half of all games releasing in October or later.
Japanese releases are more spread out through the year, with a small bump at the end of the year. January and May have few releases in all regions.
Here is the overall month distribution of each region. I didn’t mark it but 8.33% is where the these bars would be if every month had an equal number of games. I’m not sure why March is so popular. It may get some games that were intended for September-November but got delayed, or maybe there is just a need to get games out before the slow spring and summer season. Japan has quite a large drop from December to January.
This is all of the month data. January 2000 in Europe was the slowest month in the years included in the study, just 1% of the games that year. On the other side of the spectrum, in North America one fourth of the releases in 1998 were during October.
That is all of the detailed date data I have for you. With this data set I was also able to learn a lot about how many games are released in different combinations of regions, and how long it takes for games to release outside of their home region, so please come back next month for part 2.
Wikipedia’s lists of games by system – for release dates
MobyGames – for release dates
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 – information about Sonic 2sday
Happy Sonic 2sday (almost) – more information about Sonic 2sday
Al Nilsen – former Sega employee for the Sonic 2sday sticker image