Analysis - Game Delays Show Publisher Faith In Developer Vision

by Mike Futter on Mar 07, 2014 at 06:17 AM

There was a time in my life, before I began writing about the video game industry and before other demands made time the most precious resource, that I lamented every delay. What I’ve learned along the way has revealed that extending the development cycle has varied and numerous implications.

With Watch Dogs finally reemerging, and the team talking about what went into the difficult decision to delay, we have a better understanding of some of what’s weighed in that situation. The title was playable in its entirety in Spring 2013, but senior producer Dominic Guay explained that it wasn’t quite good enough.

“As we got closer to the end there, it became obvious we would have to cut corners if we wanted to pull [it] off,”  Guay told Game Informer. “To be honest, we could have cut corners and shipped the game and been fine, but we didn’t want to and neither did Ubisoft. Everybody [stuck] by the original mandate and said, ‘You guys aren’t supposed to ship until you are done with your original vision and we’re giving you more time.’” In addition, Guay told Polygon that the action felt “repetitive.”

Developers can’t always get the extra time needed to improve a game. But when it does happen, the end result is usually better for it. Unfortunately, there are some short-term consequences for delays.

Publishers - Finance
There is a financial reality to missing an expected release date that manifests across a publisher’s accounting documents. Anticipated revenues don’t flow. Expenses begin to mount as development cycles are protracted. 

These financial hardships are often why consumers accuse publishers of pushing games out the door before they are fully baked. The decision to delay a title is a balancing act involving short-term needs and long-term health of a franchise.

In the case of Watch Dogs, Ubisoft took a significant financial hit due to the change in development. Compounded with the impact of also moving the open-world racing title, The Crew, into the next fiscal year, Ubisoft is projecting a significant loss for the year ending March 31, 2014

However, It’s clear that Ubisoft is focused on turning its games into franchises. The publisher gave the Watch Dogs team the extra time it needed because of long-term thinking. A November release would have yielded big sales for Watch Dogs, but it may have left the series stillborn or, at least, severely disadvantaged for a sequel.

Ubisoft made a calculated decision to take the hit in the current fiscal year to give Watch Dogs a fighting chance in the future. Whether that plays out how management hopes won’t be known until the title ships in late May.

Publishers - Marketing
Delaying a game with a fixed release date, especially so close to launch as Watch Dogs was, has a chilling effect on carefully scheduled marketing plans. Suddenly, on October 15, 2013, Ubisoft was forced to slam on the brakes.

Watch Dogs PR and marketing went dark, leaving consumers to speculate about its fate. In the intervening period, rumors of platform cancelations plagued the title. 

Now, with less than two months left before launch, Ubisoft must jumpstart excitement for a game that was originally synonymous with new-generation console launches. Previews have been largely positive (you can read our hands-on impressions), but there is an undercurrent of skepticism among consumers.

Delays are a collision of mixed emotions. Our rational understanding of development is constantly challenged by a little voice whispering poison in our ears. 

“Why was it really delayed?”

“Will I still care when it’s finally released?”

“It wasn’t good enough now, so why will it be good enough later?”

Thankfully, disappointment typically gives way to pragmatism and our better angels win out.

“The game will be better for the extra time.”

“If the publisher is willing to take the financial damage now, it must believe in the game’s potential to be great later.”

“It’ll give me time to get through my backlog.”

As we work through the steps of delay grieving, something else happens that is even more dangerous. We forget.

I mentioned earlier that one of the major challenges of a delay is rebooting the communication effort. For a game like Watch Dogs, which had such strong buzz before the delay, re-engaging gamers is a little easier. 

For titles with less presence, a reboot must be complete. Starting from ground level with a reintroduction is costly and must be timed well. Too close to release, and marketing won’t have enough time to reengage consumers. Too long, and gamers will start to lose faith in the title.

For many consumers though, delays, development struggles, and disappointment are often forgotten… if a game is good. If not, it becomes the subject of message board post-mortem discussion that bleeds back into conversation about the developer and the publisher. 

We’ve been lucky lately. South Park, despite its troubles, has been well-received. Fable Anniversary recaptured the magic of the original. Broken Age’s first part delivered on the promises.

The stakes in the industry are growing, and failed projects often mean lost jobs. Not every delay will result in crucial polish, but the successes from thoughtful delays are mounting. Besides, who doesn’t need more time to go through their backlog of unplayed games?