Perfection on Hold: The Case for Delaying Games

By Josh Snyder

When Ubisoft recently delayed much anticipated title Watch_Dogs, it was a surprise to many. The game was officially delayed on October 16, and was expected to release alongside the PlayStation 4 (PS4) on November 15, a date so close that it makes  you wonder what took them so long to announce the delay. As a result, many pre-orders of both the PS4 and Xbox One, which included copies of Watch_Dogs, were either altered or, in some rare cases, the pre-orders were cancelled. To say that this has rubbed some gamers the wrong way would be an understatement, and the cancellation of pre-order consoles is unfortunate.

However, gamers should applaud Ubisoft for their decision, and other publishers should take note of the action – it’s never too late to delay an unreleased game, and a delay should always be preferred to a bug-ridden, glitchy product.

Permanent Damage

At this point, the famous words of Nintendo developer Shigeru Miyamoto on delayed games are well known: “A delayed game is eventually good, a bad game is bad forever.” That point has been driven into gamers’ skulls for years now, but it seems many publishers haven’t taken the lesson to heart. Possibly the most infamous case is Obsidian Entertainment’s Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (KOTOR II).

Published by Lucas Arts, the game was scheduled for release during the 2004 Christmas shopping season. Serving as the follow-up to Bioware’s original, which was hailed as an instant classic, led to a considerable amount of hype surrounding the game, which made Lucas Arts push Obsidian to hit the Christmas 2004 deadline. The results are unfortunate and well-known – KOTOR II has what is regarded as one of the worst endings in video game history, due to numerous subplots that are never resolved and an ending that ends mid-scene. It was so bad that it prompted a dedicated group of modders to dig through the data files on the PC version and re-create some unfinished content based off of leftover code, a feat that took years to accomplish (and should never be expected of fans).

KOTOR II

When your game features HK-47 and that isn’t the most memorable aspect, then you may have a problem.

KOTOR II was still a financial success, but one could argue that the rushed ending and the negative backlash hurt not just developer Obsidian’s reputation, but made Lucas Arts hesitant to release a proper sequel. Many publishers, trying to deal with the rising development cost of games, have made this mistake – push a developer and rush a project for short-term financial gain, at the risk of greater long-term financial loss. Activision knows a thing or two about running franchises into the ground – Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero, franchises with successful histories, were utterly destroyed thanks to annual releases that were low in quality and eventually turned no profit (this practice was so harmful that it ruined the rhythm game genre entirely, and developers like Harmonix have been subject to dire financial cuts in the aftermath).

Still, even with this game as an example of the dangers of rushing a game to release, the culture continues to be one where developers are pushed to release an unfinished, unpolished game now, instead of a refined one later. And if anyone thinks that game development has reached a point where delays are not necessary, there are examples from this year alone that show both the harm of rushing a game, and the positives of delaying a game.

Rushed: Grand Theft Auto Online

I recently wrapped-up my review of 2013’s biggest game, Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V). One of the things that amazed me was how polished the single-player experience is, consider how buggy open world games tend to be. But fifteen minutes into the multiplayer portion, Grand Theft Auto Online (GTA:O), it became clear that the single player was the focus during development.

I am still conducting my review, and therefore won’t go into too great of detail here, but it’s obvious that GTA:O would have dramatically benefited from a delay. Yes, developer Rockstar Games did warn gamers that things would be rocky at launch, but that’s an understatement. Gamers lost characters, never to see them again, losing hours of progress. Purchases were not registering, and gamers were experiencing difficulties joining games, sometimes causing the game (or console) to crash. Making matters worse, the interface, specifically the interactions menu, are un-intuitive and frustrating.

It’s clear that more time was needed to flesh out the mechanics of the game and iron out any issues with the servers. And it’s not like gamers needed GTA:O immediately – my first play-thru of GTA V came in at 50 hours, and there is still plenty to do. If anything, gamers could have used more time to experience as much of the single player as possible before another distraction came along.

GTA Online

What should be a fun, immersive game is held back by server issues and clunky game design that, with enough time, could have been worked out ahead of launch.

The sad part is that this was completely avoidable. Sure, due to the popularity of the game, there were most likely always going to be issues at launch, due to an unknown amount of people accessing the same servers instantaneously. But one way to test your servers is to do an invite-only beta, or even an open beta, before officially launching the game. When gamers see that a game is still in beta, they are much more forgiving of glitches and server issues. And on top of that, they can provide critical feedback, which would allow Rockstar to fix bugs and perhaps even fix the interface issues.

It’s not like there is zero precedence for this practice – Halo 3 and Halo: Reach both had multiplayer beta releases before the game was launched, and even recently Battlefield 4 held a beta for the multiplayer component. But the biggest success of this practice is Minecraft, a game that was in beta for more than two years before it was officially release. Developer Mojang used the beta period to continue to refine the game and address gameplay issues, and released the game only when they felt it was ready. The success of this game has been widely reported, and part of that success is due to the player-involved and lengthy beta process.

With GTA:O, the damage to the game remains to be seen. Will gamers stick around long enough for Rockstar to figure out how to keep the game running in a stable manner? Or will GTA:O be a ghost town, a footnote to all of the accomplishments the single player collected? Regardless of the outcome, no developer should ever put their game in this situation to begin with.

Delayed: Bioshock Infinite

The original BioShock was a hit with fans, and although a sequel, BioShock 2, was released (and developed by a different studio, 2K Marin), many gamers focused their attention on developer Irrational Games and their next project, BioShock Infinite. And as many fans who followed the development of that project can tell you, the process can be best summed up in one word – delays.

Rumors persisted that the game was broken, that the budget was out of control, that it just wasn’t fun. High-profile developers were allegedly brought in to fix issues with the game, and a highly anticipated multiplayer mode was eventually scrapped altogether. These rumors and developments led many gamers, myself included, to worry that one of the most promising games of the generation would turn into the new Daikatana – a game forever delayed and hyped, and one that would ultimately be better left off store shelves and in the basement of some far-off storage unit.

Bioshock Infinite

There’s a good chance that, without the time to work out all of the bugs and issues, BioShock: Infinite would not have been as memorable of an experience.

Fortunately, we were all proved wrong. BioShock Infinite is an amazing game, and one that clearly benefitted from a prolonged development cycle. Even better, the game was a success financially, selling upwards of four million copies by July of 2013. To recap: a game announced in 2010, and released in 2013, was still a success, and will most likely be remembered as a highlight of an entire generation of video games. Clearly, delays did not hurt this game – they made it better.

Developers Need To Stand Up To Publishers

Although many cried foul when Ubisoft delayed Watch_Dogs so close to its release, the above examples prove that they made the right decision. Even if this was simply a financial move on the part of Ubisoft, the extra time will allow the developers to continue to refine and polish the game, delivering an even better experience. First impressions matter, and we should be thankful that a developer is willing to push a game back to ensure that the first impression can be the best one possible.

The fact is, moves like this should be accepted by gamers, and beyond that, should be supported. And developers should feel empowered to stand up and take action that ensures that gamers will get the best product possible. To be blunt – there are too many games released each year already, and no matter what a gamer’s personal tastes are, there are more than enough games to keep them preoccupied between now and the June 2014 release of Watch_Dogs. Gamers as a whole need to show patience and restraint, and developers need to know that, ultimately, gamers do appreciate that, even if they aren’t so vocal about it.

A delay is not a death sentence. If a game is not ready, then it simply is not ready. Don’t follow in the steps of KOTOR II and GTA:O – follow in the steps of BioShock Infinite. And really, if you find yourself disagreeing with the often quoted words of Shigeru Miyamoto, then perhaps there are greater things wrong than the quality of your game.