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Despite the games industry having grown up – it’s now not just some
cowboy-led, new-fangled, fly-by-night phenomenon that will likely go
bust before your toast has a chance to burn, which was the feeling
back in the ’80s – one thing has never changed. Games continually
miss their planned release dates, to the point where if a title
actually ships on its expected date it’s more the exception than the
You’d like to think you’re on the right track in musing that if a
game’s delayed, it means things are being improved, right? That what
has been hyped as something truly kick-arse is going to be perfected
so much so as to sink slipper into buttock so deep that a search
party will need to be called upon to find it? However, look at some
recent games that have suffered the release date time warp –
Alone in the Dark, Haze, Too Human… all titles
that were hyped to death, had the marketing buzz happening so big
time that we were genuinely frothing at the cakeholes to get our
power gloves onto them, but they failed to deliver, spectacularly.
So then, why all these delays?
There are myriad reasons why a title will miss its projected street
date. 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. The UK developer Ocean
(which was swallowed up by Gallic arch nemesis Infogrames in 1998)
were masters of this practice, in fact Commodore 64 owners never saw
the much-advertised Street Hawk, based on a short-lived TV
show and, perhaps appropriately, hawked like there was no tomorrow.
Basically, the game was crap and they couldn’t make it less crap in
time for it to be worth releasing, so it was scrapped. It should
also be noted that Ocean released some horrendous licensed howlers
into the world, so we tremble at the thought of how truly fetid
Street Hawk must actually have been for it to have been
The marketing side of the games industry has matured considerably
since those days; however the same basic flaws in the process exist.
A title is planned, it’s locked into a publicity/advertising/hype
schedule, and the programmers beavering away at the thing are
expected to get it completed on time. As with many large projects,
however, unforeseen issues arise, especially as the technology
involved becomes more complex. A perfect example is the
much-anticipated Wipeout HD for the PS3. They promised full
HD, 60 FPS motion and, from what we’ve seen thus far, they
delivered. Yet after being due for release about now (after a few
delays, admittedly), the game has now been held-up indefinitely,
with reports – whether true or used as an excuse for something else
– that it’s failing epilepsy tests. That’s not one you’d usually see
coming, unless perhaps you were working on Ministry of Sound –
So, there are two main 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 wheels spinning
long enough to maintain demand, or you can just ‘publish and be
damned’. The latter phenomenon has become less common today, as too
many instances of the practice in the past saw companies hitting the
dole queues as their reputation plummeted. Still, the likes of
Haze and Too Human can make you wonder whether any
lessons have been learned at all.
Then again, when you have a title based around a specific event -
like Beijing 2008 - you HAVE to get the thing out in time or it’s
basically pointless. Luckily the latest Olympics title doesn’t
completely suck, however it’s hardly sending reviewers into fits of
ecstasy. Sometimes near enough is good enough, especially when the
less savvy consumer will pluck the thing from shelves like mad once
Olympics fever truly sets in, regardless of quality.
Meanwhile, if you have a well-established and previously successful
IP, you can get away with a lot more in the delay stakes, as there
will always be that massive Katamari-like ball of hope swelling
amongst gamers that this will be the greatest thing since pizza.
Look at Grand Theft Auto IV or Metal Gear Solid 4.
Their series’ have built a hell of a lot of goodwill over the years
from punters, so the implicit way things are done is that the
developers will take however long is needed to get things right, and
the fans will have faith that their patience will be rewarded. In
the case of these two titles, it worked. Other sequels don’t
necessarily fare so well (we’re looking at you, Driv3r and
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, as a mere two examples).
One of the most masterful instances of this trading on expectation
recently involved Sony’s Gran Turismo series. The fifth
incarnation has been touted for the PS3 since the system’s birth,
yet is still but a distant speck on the horizon. So, how to keep the
anticipation up until the thing is (hopefully) finished? Release a
bigger than usual playable demo – and charge half the price of a
full game for it! It was a masterstroke of marketing, and we pretty
much all fell for it. The delay is masked as people play the demo
and are left wanting more and more, so interest in the title
actually spikes further upwards, while titbits such as inclusion of
the Top Gear test track in the final product are drip fed via
the media to keep the punters’ drool flowing.
Worldwide ‘day and date’ releases are fine – nobody has a problem
when a game is released everywhere pretty much at the same time. But
what of delays that are only due to a marketing department’s
interference? Aussie gamers know this feeling with the alarmingly
over-hyped Rock Band. It’s been out overseas for almost a
year, yet all we have is a vague announcement of a release around
the same time the sequel is due to lob in the USA. Those who
couldn’t wait have imported it (ironically for much less than the
projected local RRP), while others have simple pledged allegiance to
its also-forthcoming competitor Guitar Hero World Tour out of
spite, as Australia’s not being treated like a hick backwater by
Activision, with their title due here around the same time as
everywhere else. These bullshit delays are the ones that really
raise the hackles of gamers.
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 –
such as GTA4 and MGS 4 – then all will be forgiven in
a frenzy of total immersion. Release something sucky like Haze
though, and the knives will be that much sharper, due to increased
anticipation not being met. It’s a malaise that isn’t unique to the
games world though; it’s often a creative thing. Sometimes the
artistic side just cannot kowtow to a marketing schedule. Just ask
Quentin Tarantino about his WWII-inspired script Inglorious
Bastards, which he’s been trying to get airborne since 1997. Or
ask any Guns ‘n’ Roses fan about the album Chinese Democracy
- they’ve been working on the sucker since 1994! Come back Duke
Nuke ’em Forever (a game that’s been ‘coming soon’ since ’97),
all is forgiven!
Is our apparently ready acceptance of increasingly common release
delays something that’s ultimately bad for gaming, though? Not if
these delays result in a better product – after all, missed release
dates have been a part of the deal since the games industry began.
It’s a balancing act for the games companies, who in general are
getting slicker at keeping those publicity wheels spinning as the
complexity of modern systems causes more and more production holdups
- after all, none of them want to intentionally release something
that’s going to be canned by all who venture near it. They know that
if one of their much-hyped, much-anticipated titles does eventuate
and fails to pass muster, they’ll feel it. The gaming community is
neither dumb nor short of memory.