A reindeer and Santa were riding bicycles in the snow, and it didn't end well for Santa.

Why Do Bad Holiday-Themed Video Games Keep Coming Back?

Every year when the holiday season rolls around, hundreds of seasonally themed video games appear on the gaming market.

These games can be as simple as a match-three puzzle game that has been reskinned (the industry term for “visually redesigned”) to fit the holiday season, or they can be original adventure games starring Santa Claus and other holiday figures.

Of course holiday themed video games are going to come out during the holiday season, right? Grocery stores carry Halloween candy around Halloween, so this is the same thing….

…or is it? 

In short, no: The gaming market is much more fickle and particular than the candy market.

In contrast to best-selling game franchises such as Super Smash Bros, I’ve never met a person who just couldn’t  wait for the brand-new Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer puzzle adventure game.

There seems to be little mainstream appeal or demand in the gaming market for holiday-themed games, so why do they keep appearing? Who is making them? Better yet, who is buying them? Despite appearing to have little audience and a small market, there must be something redeeming about them if they keep returning year after year. Right?

Here’s a prime example of the sort of game I’m talking about:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (2010)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Wii Game

This Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer game adaptation of the time-honored and beloved Rudolph movie was released for the Nintendo Wii in 2010 — and unsurprisingly, it wasn’t well received.

  • IGN gave the game an official score of 1.5 out of 10, which lands it among the worst-received games on the website. According to IGN, “these reindeer games are a disaster.” No other major game journalist/reviewer chose to evaluate the game.
  • In terms of user reviews, the only two existing reviews for the game on Metacritic give the game a humbling 0 out of 10. The user reviews page on the Gamestop website provides a larger sample size, but not better scores. The median user score is 1 out of 5.

This game was published by Red Wagon Games, which published numerous other holiday themed games of similar quality in 2010 and 2011. I speculate that it is no coincidence that Red Wagon Games has not published another game since 2011.

Anyone who has ever dug through the clearance bin at a Gamestop has no doubt seen games of a similar caliber as Rudolph. Holiday games like this have been around for decades, with Santa Claus Saves the Earth and Daze Before Christmas among the infamously bad.

So Why Are These Games Being Made?

Santa Clause is holding a video game controller and excited to play.

It’s clear that people aren’t making or buying these games because they’re good. There must be a more realistic explanation than that, such as the games being made by Santa himself to brainwash children into giving him cookies.

The question of just who is buying these games every year might be answerable. While researching this topic, I was reminded of a familiar feature shared by many websites like Amazon and Gamestop. When viewing the Rudolph game on such sites, for example, you can view a list of other items that are frequently bought by people who also purchased that game. This feature helped me shed some light on what video games our Rudolph fans bought during the other 11 months of the year.

It turns out that people who bought these low-rated holiday games also frequently purchased games of similarly low quality and ratings, such as Crayola Colorful Journey and Six Flags Fun Park. The two consistent traits throughout all of these games are that they are targeted toward children, and the subject matter is easily recognizable to the general public. More specifically, the subject matter is recognizable to parents, who might not be in touch with what’s popular in the video game world. Believe it or not, there are some people who probably wouldn’t be able to tell you who Mario is, but if they saw Crayola Colorful Journey on the shelf, they would go straight for it because they know Crayola and that kids love Crayola.

As someone who was once a child, I feel like I have some authority in postulating that most children would rather have been playing Super Mario Galaxy than Crayola Colorful Journey back in 2009 (and the critical reception of the games in question backs up my hypothesis).

The holiday games that materialize year after year are likely not bought by the general gaming market, but rather by parents finding an easily recognizable subject among the shelves at the video game store for their child. And perhaps the publishers have achieved their goal if these parents are, in fact, their target audience.

The games themselves may also not be intended to be “good” games. They may simply exist as a form of alternative advertising. In the case of Rudolph, the game could be there to remind people of the 1998 animated movie that the game is based off of and motivate people to go and buy the DVD.

Holiday video games might not be so different from Halloween candy after all. Candy is available year round, but applying a theme to the candy around Halloween turns it into its own advertisement. Similarly, a holiday-themed video game could merely serve as an advertisement.

If the question is “Do holiday games accomplish their goal?” then I think the fact that they’ve recurred for the past two or three decades speaks for itself. We may never know the full truth behind the mystery of holiday games….

…but it’s probably that thing I said about Santa and brainwashing.


Bradley Kern is a Software Engineer for the BitLoft game development team. For quality game development services, contact BitLoft. Merry Christmas, and a joyous holiday season to all!

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