As that one song puts it, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Whether you celebrate the season or not, it’s hard to ignore the effect that it tends to have on people. While the run-up is filled with lots to do, and more than a little stress, in the end, it’s a pretty magical time. Another thing that the run-up to Christmas is filled with is different forms of seasonal media. You’ve got classic TV specials, holiday-themed movies and songs, and even Christmas video games. The only problem with that last one is that you don’t really see many AAA Christmas games, at least not anymore -- but why?
The most obvious answer is that they’re highly seasonal and very expensive to make. That’s certainly true, with the average budget of a AAA video game these days running between $80 million and $150 million according to former PlayStation executive Shawn Layden, but it can’t be the only reason. After all, movies can be nearly as expensive to make, with an average modern budget starting at around $65 million without including and marketing or distribution costs into the mix, which increases it to over $100 million. Despite this, there is no end to Christmas movie releases each year.
So, what’s different about video games? Well, another important factor is just how long it takes to actually make a video game. While big-budget movies on average take a little over two years from announcement to release, video games can take much longer. It's not uncommon to see repeated delays with video games, especially in the AAA industry, so it can take several years of development before anything gets published. This means that it could potentially take twice as long to produce a Christmas-themed video game as it does to produce a Christmas-themed movie. The extra time makes it much harder to properly aim for a specific release window, and on top of that, it means that any flop is much more costly, as it’ll take a few years before the dev team has anything else to make up for the shortfall.
While we still see AAA Christmas DLC, such as How the Saints Saved Christmas, most of the time Holiday-themed games come in a bit of a different form. The big way that we still get Christmas content these days actually comes from "games as a service" games, or at least from games that have a live-service component. Case in point, Hitman 3. The new-ish release features special seasonal content because the developers have been constantly updating with new maps and things to do in-game, partially to make the game last longer, but mostly to get people to spend more money on in-game microtransactions. The same is also true for games like Killing Floor 2, Destiny 2, and even MMOs like Guild Wars 2. They all feature specially crafted content that for the most part feels incredibly Christmassy.
More than anything else, this is where AAA Christmas games have ended up. A small portion of the team is diverted to work on some holiday-themed event, allowing less time and money to go into the content so there’s less riding on it. While this less-risky approach does mean we don’t get full Christmas games much these days, it does mean that we have a lot more variety. It’s not just a Christmas re-skin of Lemmings each year. These days, you can bounce around from an FPS to an MMO and then a third-person stealth game, all with Christmas colors and decorations.
Let’s also not forget the fact that Christmas games do still release, but much like Christmas movies, the majority of them are coming from the same places. Sure, you do occasionally get a big-budget affair like The Man Who Invented Christmas, but each year those big releases are absolutely swamped by cheap rom-com filler from people like Hallmark, Netflix, and Peacock. In a way, the same thing does still happen with Christmas games. After all, while Watch Over Christmas may be a lovely, well-animated Christmas adventure, it’s been in development since at least 2018, yet Casual Arts has been putting out Christmas Wonderland games each year since 2009.
So in the end, the answer to why we don’t see AAA Christmas games anymore is that we sort of do, just in a different way. Having said that, realistically, even before the modern age of the bloated gaming budget, we didn’t really get that many AAA Christmas games, especially not on consoles. The biggest Christmas titles of the day are rarer than ever, with the only major standouts being games based on holiday movies or weird niche titles like Daze Over Christmas. Even Lemmings, arguably the king of retro PC holiday releases, was originally produced by a relatively small team. Unlike movies, video games take too long to make, and with such big budgets, they’re more likely to bankrupt even a medium-to-large-sized studio.
On the plus side, you shouldn’t lose all hope. There are still plenty of Christmas games released each year. Making video games has never been easier or more accessible, so more people than ever are giving it a go. There is no shortage of great Christmas-themed experiences on Itch.io, and even some pretty solid indie titles on the market for festive fun. No matter how you look at it, it seems like Christmas games have more of a presence than they ever did before, even if it’s less likely we’ll ever see a big Christmas title again with each year that passes.
Do you have any go-to games you play during the holidays? Let us know in the comments below. And Happy Holidays from everyone here at TechRaptor!