It’s ‘Be Late for Something Day’. As is our way, this got us thinking about games, and just how many of them turn up long after they were supposed to. Despite the industry having grown up considerably from the cowboy-like days of the 1980s, why are there still so many missed release dates, and is this such a bad thing?
We’re currently waiting for imminent releases of South Park: The Fractured But Whole, Crackdown 3, Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom and Gran Turismo Sport, all of which have been delayed by a little time or a lot. Then there’s Red Dead Redemption 2…
You’d like to believe that you’re on the right track thinking that if a game’s delayed, it means things are being improved, right? That what’s being hyped as something truly kick-arse is going to sink slipper into buttock so deep that exploratory surgery will be needed to find it? Of course you would – but it isn’t always the case.
While recent late arrivals such as Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last Guardian and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild all support this theory, you don’t have to look too far back in time to find titles that hit the shelves without initially delivering on their promises – from Assassin’s Creed Unity to Halo: The Master Chief Collection, and some would put Mass Effect Andromeda in there.
With so much riding on adhering to release dates, why are there still so many delays? With so many moving parts in developing a game, there can be myriad reasons. Harking back to those early industry days back in the 1980s, big name properties were licensed to be let loose in game form at the hottest dollar-spinning times of year – so, usually towards December. Advertising for these titles would often be in the public’s faces even before a line of code had been written, and sometimes things just didn’t come together. This trend even continued through the 1990s (hello Spice World, Shaq Fu, Superman 64), and it could be argued that it still occasionally occurs today.
Advertising for these titles would often be in the public’s faces even before a line of code had been written…
Legendary UK games company Ocean were masters of this licence-and-be-damned practice, in fact Commodore 64 owners never (officially) saw the heavily-advertised Street Hawk, based on a short-lived TV show. Basically, the game as it stood was crap, they couldn’t make it less crap in time for it to be worth releasing and it was scrapped. It should also be noted that Ocean released some absolutely horrendous licensed howlers into an undeserving world, so Street Hawk really must have smelled exceedingly strongly of poo.
As we mentioned back in the intro, the games industry has matured considerably since those early days, yet the same basic flaws in the marketing and scheduling process exist. A title is planned, it’s locked into a publicity/advertising/hype timetable, and the programmers beavering away at the thing are expected to get it completed on time – and games programming in 2017 is almost infinitely more complex than it was back in the 1980s. It’s now more like making a movie, often involving hundreds of people, and the coordination of many development teams.
Some franchises – Mad Max for instance – are big enough to succeed whenever they’re eventually unfurled. But if you’ve got an Olympics tie-in or similar, then you really have to get that puppy finished in time or potentially miss out on tens of thousands of spinoff and hype-driven sales.
There are basically two dominant streams of thinking when it comes to releasing games that have suffered delays. You can spend extra time to get the thing right and hope to keep the hype plates spinning long enough to maintain demand, or you can just ‘publish and be damned’. The latter phenomenon was once prevalent, but is rarer now, as too many instances of the practice in the past saw companies taking critical hits to their reputations. Sometimes even terminal hits.
Also, a saviour of sorts has arrived more recently for games companies, developers and end users alike in the day one update – and ongoing ones. For the most part, the days when you could rush home with a newly-bought game, jam it into your console and instantly get playing are long gone, when often several gigabytes of data need to be downloaded before you can play the game as intended. That may be a pain in the backside, but when games are continually improved over time following release it does give the impression that the publishers actually do give a damn. Although it could also be argued that they may have gone the No Man’s Sky route and rushed something unfinished out the door to hit its planned release date, knowing that they have the luxury of later fixes that wasn’t possible in pre-internet times. Those review scores though…
Meanwhile, if you have an already well-established and previously successful game IP, you can get away with more delay-wise, as there’ll always be that massive Katamari-like ball of hope amongst gamers that this release will be the greatest thing since pizza. Look at Grand Theft Auto V or Metal Gear Solid V. Their series’ have built a huge amount of goodwill over the years from gamers, so Rockstar and Konami took however long was needed to get things right (disagreements with talent permitting), in hopes that fans would feel that their patience was rewarded. In the case of these two titles, it worked.
Ultimately though, how do we as fans end up feeling when a highly-desired title is promised then delayed, often repeatedly? Generally, as long as the product is good when it eventually lobs then all disappointments are forgiven in a frenzy of total immersion. Release something sucky though, and the knives come out – regardless of that ability to update post-release (hello again, Mass Effect Andromeda). It’s a malaise that isn’t unique to the games world though, as sometimes artistry just can’t kowtow to a marketing schedule. Just ask Quentin Tarantino about the elongated process to bring 2009’s Inglourious Basterds to life, which began back in 1997. Or ask any Guns ‘n’ Roses fan about the album Chinese Democracy – which took 14 years to see the light of day.
In the end, as punters we can’t do anything about game delays, so we have no choice other than accepting them. Are they ultimately bad for gamers, though? Not if we get better games, as in the end that’s all we want (what we really, really want).