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The Biggest Stories Of The Week (October 19, 2013)

After a quiet couple of weeks, we've been very busy. This week saw major layoffs at 2K Marin (possibly leading to the studio's closure), game delays, and related financial fallout at Ubisoft. If you've been waiting for something big to talk about, this is your week. 

Ubisoft's No Good, Very Bad Week

If you had asked me last week which next-generation launch title I thought was going to perform the best next month, I would have, without hesitation, told you it would be Watch Dogs. Ubisoft has worked hard to improve and polish the open-world action genre. Watch Dogs' hacking conceit and emergent gameplay are different enough that the experience I played at Gamescom in August felt fresh and fun. Just last month, the Watch Dogs marketing team was so confident that it boasted this image (still up on the game's Facebook page):

You may have heard that Watch Dogs has been delayed (along with Ubisoft's open world racing game, The Crew). These aren't minor delays either. Both have been bumped past March 31, 2014, and into Ubisoft's next fiscal year. The financial ramifications have been severe.

Ubisoft has cut its sales forecast by one third and dramatically shifted its overall earnings profile from $148 million to $168 million profit to a loss of $54 million to $94.5 million. In the 24 hours following the announcement, the share price dropped by 25 percent. While some may argue that this is a simple shifting of the numbers from one cycle to the next, the implications are farther reaching than a simple eraser mark on the page.

First, let's clear something up. While we found out about Ubisoft's Watch Dogs delay exactly a month before its release on PlayStation 4, that doesn't mean the decision was made yesterday. Between the end of September (and Ubisoft's financial quarter) and yesterday, the company was in a quiet period. No major news is announced that can swing the share price. This (clearly) includes game announcements and cancelations. 

Unfortunately, that delay does cause some problems. For starters, retailers were offering launch bundles that included Watch Dogs. Those pre-orders are safe, but the confusion caused was not readily cleared up. This leads me to believe that retailers found out when the rest of us did, and they were unable to prepare a response to coincide with the delay announcement.

The delay also puts pressure on Sony, who has been a frequent partner of Ubisoft. Assassin's Creed games typically have additional content that's exclusive to the PlayStation platforms, and Watch Dogs was set for the same deal. This comes with a healthy expenditure of co-marketing funds that have now been devalued.

Additionally, Ubisoft is likely going to go quiet on Watch Dogs until into 2014 (especially now that Assassin's Creed IV must be the sole focus). That means that awareness will dip and the PR and marketing campaigns will need to be rebooted to adapt to a changing environment. So much is in flux during the first year of a console cycle, that the current innovations that Watch Dogs brings to the table (and its status as one of the first truly next-gen games) aren't likely to be as relevant.

Furthermore, we have no idea what's going on with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game. At next-gen launch, cross-platform makes a lot of sense. Given that we haven't seen the current-gen iterations, I would not be surprised in the least to find out next year that they've been scrapped. As for the Wii U, Ubisoft's support has been more consistent than most publishers. Now that their financial breathing room has been severely limited, that very well may change. I would not be surprised to see reduced support very soon.

As for Ubisoft as a whole, the financial situation is a stark contrast to the good news we've had coming out of the publisher. A recent investment from the government of Quebec came with the promise of five hundred new jobs over the next seven years. It is my sincere hope that the company is able to weather the storm, but any layoffs or studio closures would be likely be enough to panic the economic development group that authorized the nearly $10 million financial contribution. It's almost guaranteed that if jobs are going to be cut, it won't happen in Montreal. 

Then there's the matter of The Division. The title is extremely ambitious, and just a few months ago, Ubisoft pegged the game for a late 2014 release. I will be impressed if it arrives during fiscal 2014-15, especially if we look at the arc of the Watch Dogs surprise announcement in relation to its current status (and it's a far more conventional experience than the Tom Clancy-inspired MMO shooter). 

I agree with everything Tim Turi said in his opinion piece about why the delay is good for Watch Dogs and those excited to play it. At any other point in the year (and, for that matter, the console cycle), the delay might not even have such severe implications for Ubisoft and its partners. However, the combination of the holiday season, the new consoles, and a fiscal year already struggling in sales thanks to weak performances of Splinter Cell: Blacklist and Rayman Legends means that this delay is a perfect storm for financial catastrophe.

Is Ubisoft in long-term trouble? Probably not. However, it did just suffer a serious setback in a year that should have set the foundation for a console cycle full of successes. And then there's Sony...

 

Sony is having problems of its own

As if the Watch Dogs delay wasn't bad enough for Sony (because of the co-marketing money spent on the title), things ended up getting even worse yesterday. Sony had three first-party titles slated for the PlayStation 4 launch: Knack, Killzone: Shadow Fall, and Driveclub. The latter of those is now delayed until 2014.

Sony has instead lined up Compulsion Games' Contrast as a free PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection title. For those that aren't racing fans, this delay is actually good news as nothing is lost and a promising title is added to the mix. It doesn't send a good message that Sony's in-house team wasn't able to meet deadline, though. 

For all of the studios that Sony has access to (Naughty Dog, Insomniac, Santa Monica, San Diego, Bend, and more), only Guerrilla Games and Japan are going to be on the console on November 15 here in the United States. We know that Ready at Dawn is hard at work on The Order 1886 and Sucker Punch is looking good for a February 2014 release of Infamous: Second Son.

All isn't lost, and to be clear, delays often result in better games. Sony is simply facing a perception problem that it must start working to fix. User experience videos, more detail about features, and examples of how we'll interact with friends in a real environment (and not a glitzy music video) would go a long way towards rebuilding the hype that this pair of announcements have eroded.

 

Quick Hits

Previews and Reviews

 

Coverage of The Order: 1886 from the November 2013 Issue

 

Announcements and Release Dates

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