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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON gameplayer.com.au 28/7/08


IT NEEDS MORE COWBELL...


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 norm.

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 abandoned completely.

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 – The Game.

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.

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ALL WRITTEN CONTENT COPYRIGHT © AMY FLOWER 2008-2017. GAME IMAGES COURTESY OF RESPECTIVE GAMES COMPANIES.