It’s no fun when a game gets delayed. Literally. You were going to have fun playing it, now you can’t, because you don’t have it. But it’s actually a good thing, and 2014 was great proof of that.
This fall had its share of great games, there’s no question of that. But many of the games we were looking most forward to were broken, wounded, or unfinished. Ubisoft especially had trouble with some of its big fall titles, but certainly wasn’t the only publisher.
Driveclub was the first really notable instance of this this fall. Despite multiple delays, the game released with a broken online component and missing parts. Assassin’s Creed Unity and Halo: The Master Chief Collection came next – on the same day, no less. Unity had frame rate problems and bugs galore, as well as multiple interlocking online components that didn’t work together (or separately). Halo, most importantly, released with completely broken matchmaking, rendering the multiplayer part of the game worthless.
These three games, despite being completely different genres and from different publishers, have two things in common. They were hotly anticipated games set to release before Black Friday.
While publishers are slowly getting better about spreading games out over the course of the year, the industry still ramps up the pace and size of game releases from the beginning of September, all but going silent the day after Thanksgiving. After Black Friday, we’ll see one big release, maybe two if we’re lucky.
And there’s a good reason. It’s still the biggest shopping day of the year. Of course every publisher wants their biggest games out in time for that. Black Friday isn’t the only day of the year like this, either. Just a year and a half ago, SimCity released in early March. After a stellar first few hours, SimCity quickly falls apart as its simulation breaks down. The big date just a few weeks after SimCity‘s release is the rollover of Electronic Arts’ financial year.
Games released in bad condition are almost never from lack of care on the part of the developer. The people making the games often know best what’s wrong with them, or what’s missing. Money, as you might guess, is the bigger part. With big triple-A publishers like Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, you have publicly traded companies beholden to their shareholders to not only make money, but to do it on a schedule. If the risks of missing those dates outweigh the benefits, the game is going to come out broken.
While no publisher is ever going to directly acknowledge that it does this, the proximity to these dates isn’t a coincidence. If a game is in patchable condition and costing a publisher enough money, it’s become acceptable for it to release a game, patch it after the fact, and deal with the bad press for the sake of getting some cash flowing in to bump up numbers and appease shareholders (most of whom couldn’t care less whether a game is good or not).
In each case, these games came out unfinished – they needed to bake just a few months longer.
While I think Driveclub‘s failure was a more thorough bomb, Halo: The Master Chief Collection wins for the sheer size of the crater its trouble left. When it was announced the game’s online component would be a separate download, it became immediately apparent that Bungie was not finished with it. If it was ready to go, the cost of a second disc would’ve been miniscule. The game came out in time to be part of Microsoft’s big list of holiday 2014 exclusives, but at the cost of the disappointment of millions of fans, both hardcore gamers and lapsed Halo fans alike, many of whom had picked up an Xbox One entirely for Halo.
With Assassin’s Creed Unity, this becomes apparent as well. In the month following the game’s release, nearly all the major issues with it were repaired, one by one, through a variety of huge patches. People opening the game on Christmas morning had a much better experience than those of us who picked it up day one.
We’ve also had some evidence this year that delays can work in a game’s favor. Two of the year’s biggest and best RPGs, South Park: The Stick of Truth and Dragon Age: Inquisition were both meant to come out a full year earlier than they actually did.
South Park had an especially hard time when publisher THQ shut down, but Ubisoft swooped in to pick up the game, which was still in development by Obsidian. The game ended up needing an extra year but became what is easily the best South Park game and one of the best uses of a licensed property we’ve ever seen in video games, right up alongside games like Batman: Arkham City.
Bayonetta 2 was another game we spent a long time waiting for, but what we received when all was said and done is a serious action game that can stand with its predecessor and others at the top of the genre.
Electronic Arts was brave enough to delay Dragon Age: Inquisition over a year from its initial release date, and what it ended up with has been widely called a Game of the Year candidate. After the trouble the company had with Battlefield 4, it seems like they may have learned some lessons. It’s hard to tell, but EA was quieter than Ubisoft this fall, and its big release was well received critically and commercially (though not entirely without problems, but that’s to be expected from a game of that size)
Games of 2015
As I look back on 2014 – at both the troubled games that made it out of development and the successful games that followed large delays – I’m optimistic at the start of 2015.
The Witcher 3 was originally set to be in our hands during the fall 2014 game rush, but was delayed into winter and then spring of this year. The developing studio, CD Projekt Red, is in a bit of a unique situation that gives them more room to delay games, though that can be a double-edged sword as well. CD Projekt Red has an excellent rapport with its fanbase, garnered through frequent contact and a rare case of matching values; eschewing things like frustrating copy protection and paid DLC has helped the company immensely.
CD Projekt Red is still a one-game company, however. Cyberpunk 2077 is barely more than a twinkle in its eye; we haven’t seen even a shred of information about it in a couple years. So The Witcher 3 is the developer’s sole revenue stream. The pressure on the game to be good is that much higher. Its not stuck serving shareholders, which frees it up to delay it, but equally important is that a bad game could easily break the company.
Rocksteady has Warner Bros. Interactive publishing Batman: Arkham Knight, but it’s not intrinsically linked the way EA and Ubisoft’s development studios are to their publishing arms. It is a one-game developer like CD Projekt Red, with the same pressures.
On the side of those bigger publishers, 2K Games is being similarly careful with Turtle Rock’s Evolve, and EA is continuing to show prudence with Battlefield Hardline, giving the game some extra time rather than experiencing another round of Battlefield 4 drama.
2014 was a rough year for big games, but some publishers are showing an ability to learn from mistakes. I don’t think, however, that this trend of broken games is likely to end. Instead, I imagine it being cyclical, as companies and their shareholders make mistakes, learn from them, and forget them.
The lessons for us, the consumers, to take from all this is that we should think hard about supporting developers when they delay games. Call them out for broken games and skip the pre-order on all but your few favorite games and most trusted developers.