For a very long time, when I saw that a game I was excited was getting delayed, I’d either be angry or disappointed. Why did they say this was the game’s release date when they were going to delay it by a year? Why are the developers so incompetent that they can’t finish a simple video game? Ignorant and entitled thoughts like that. Delays sometimes felt like a betrayal and the sign of a weak game developer. This is how many people feel as well when I look at comment sections on articles where a game is delayed.
It sucks to not be able to get something when you thought you were.
But these days, with how the industry is going, that ignorant opinion of mine flipped completely to what you can read in the headline. It took a lot to change that opinion. I went through many labyrinths filled with corrupt business and pure human suffering in order to gain the empathy I needed to realise that game delays are not evil. They’re always necessary.
Why does a game get delayed? It’s a very open question with very open answers, but the simplest reason is that the game is simply not done. There isn’t enough that was done to it, the direction might have changed right in the middle of development or they simply ran out of time. Things like this are understandable, we have probably all had a school or work project that ended up being too much and we had to go beg for an extension.
The problem came up when game publishers started refusing to delay their games, which is ironically what my ignorant past self wanted. Delaying a game can have real negative impacts on a corporation. Marketing needs to change drastically and keep going because otherwise people will forget, they might have to shoehorn it into a trade show again, lots of press needs to be done and shareholders will be unhappy when the promised product isn’t delivered within the fiscal year that it was promised in. Not to mention more salaries and development costs that will start adding up. I’m not saying that companies are justified in doing this, but I do understand that delaying a game isn’t completely harmless.
However, the negative effect of this refusal to delay is, unfortunately, human suffering. We’ve documented it well. BioWare and Anthem, Ubisoft and For Honor, NetherRealm and Mortal Kombat 11. The whole of Telltale Games. More and more stories are popping up of developers either having terrible leadership that crushed the creative force or deadlines made developers go insane to the point where “mental health casualty” became a word we used to describe someone burning out from extensive game development.
Developers aren’t without sin either. Sometimes they tackle concepts that were too big for them and had to change the whole trajectory of a game or devoted time to narratives that just didn’t work out. However, reiteration is part of the creative process and you can’t expect anything to be made perfect on the first go. I believe many publishers and sometimes developers tend to forget that.
We have to face facts here, there simply isn’t enough time anymore to fulfil the expectation of everyone with AAA game development. Everything needs to be new and as shiny as possible and sometimes a game developer only figures out what the hell they are doing a year and a half into development. It’s an unsustainable model and it’s currently ruining the industry.
The problem isn’t that there aren’t enough delays. It still sucks when a game gets delayed for everyone involved. The problem is unrealistic expectations. Expectations from developers, from gamers and especially from publishers. We as gamers expect games to be out on the announced release date and we’re very quick to turn when it doesn’t happen. Developers need to know what their limits are and make sure that they can deliver within a realistic timeframe. And publishers just see these games as products so it doesn’t matter to them if it’s broken or doesn’t feel fun to play, they just want to get it to market.
CD Projekt Red infuriates me with every trailer for Cyberpunk 2077. Every time I believe we’ll see a release date, we instead get an “it’ll be ready when it’s ready”. Even though I want the game in my life right now, I have come to realize how important such a mindset is. It’s ready when it’s ready. Not when the publishers want it, not when the gamers want it, but when the game is done.
Many things need to change before we’re rid of all these tragic tales. Fundamental changes that will take years. Management structures need to change, publishers need to somehow become self-aware and game developers need to unionise and change the very concept of “crunch”. It’s a long winding road and I’m certainly not the one that’s about to offer the solutions.
Will it change? I honestly won’t count on it. Remember, these behaviours are deeply embedded in the culture of game development and business. It’s how things have always been. But with technology and the industry evolving rapidly in the past 10 years, some compromises and changes need to be made. There is no denying that game development is hard work and many people thrive from doing hard and challenging work. But when you hear executives nonchalantly say that 100 hour work weeks are admirable and how people leaving their families behind is “dedication”, you start to understand that this isn’t passion driving these game developers forward. It’s a whip.
I think back to when I was young and still wondering what I wanted to do. I remember I wanted to be a game developer because I loved games so much. I wanted to be the one who wrote their stories and make something that’s fun to play. I never got to realise that dream, but sometimes I wonder if I’m the lucky one.