Game Delays Shouldn’t Be the Accepted Norm

In this fantastic Game Informer article from last year, Andrew Reiner digs into what led to the demise of LucasArts (beyond just the Disney buyout). One of the biggest issues was new management that came from other industries and didn’t necessarily understand video games. Jim Ward was one such person. And while he made a lot of poor decisions that damaged LucasArts as a company, there was one tidbit that got me thinking. An unnamed source who worked under him had this to say:

“He came from the film side. His objective was nothing less than changing the way the entire industry worked by the sheer force of his own will. He was quoted several times basically saying, ‘I don’t understand why video games can be late. When Industrial Light and Magic works on Harry Potter, they don’t have a choice to be late. The movie’s going to open. The effects have to be done. There is no choice. So I don’t understand why we get in this situation where games can be late.’”

I think the idea is, we’re supposed to read that and be all “Boo hiss, he just doesn’t get it. Who does he think he is? That’s just not how games are. Screw that guy!” Only, when I read it, my thought was more along the lines of, “Well…he’s not wrong.

Why do games “get” to be late? There is an entire world full of people, not just in entertainment industries but in all types of careers, who constantly have deadlines to meet, and they have no choice but to meet them or face consequences. Why do game companies get the luxury of just delaying a game as often as they feel they need to in order to get a game done? I’m starting to worry that there’s almost this feeling of “Well, people don’t want a bad game, so they’ll wait. Game delays aren’t the end of the world. People understand.” I do believe that games are an artistic medium, but they are also consumer goods. I once got into a debate with someone who, after listening to people complain about a specific game receiving delay after delay, basically told everyone “It’ll be done when it’s done. Life isn’t fair. And game developers don’t owe us anything.” I don’t completely agree with that. No, nobody has to create media for us. But at the same time, when they do, there has to be some give and take of the creator/consumer relationship. It can’t just be “You’ll get it when it’s done, so just sit there and wait. We don’t have to be making this game anyway so just be happy that we are. If you want this game badly enough you’ll wait, and we know you will. So it’ll be done when it’s done and you’ll buy it when it is.”

Whether or not any developers actually feel that way, I don’t know for sure, but that’s not the way it should be. I don’t like feeling like people who make games or movies or music or TV shows feel like they are doing us a favor by creating things for us and we should just shut up pay them for the privilege since they don’t need to be doing it in the first place. Once you establish yourself as a mass consumer content creator, in a way you do kind of “owe it” to people to keep making content, and more to my point, in a relatively timely manner. As individual people nobody should have that obligation, but as companies and corporations they kind of do. That’s how it works. If you don’t want to play that game, then just make games as a hobby for yourself and your friends to play and have your day job be something else that isn’t dependent on feeling obligated to people to make art for them. Giving a company money for something they put out isn’t strictly so the people involved in making that can pay their bills. It’s also to fund them as a company to stay in business and keep making things for us. When your money makes a game successful, part of the expectation is that you’ll get more games. It’s a give and take. They weren’t literallly obligated to make more games, but you can’t say there isn’t some obligation in it. How would we feel if every single time we made an artist–any type of artist–successful, they took that money and retired off of it and never gave us any more art?

Let me take a guess at what you are snapping back at me in your head right now: “So I guess that means you want unfinished, buggy games then.” Well no, of course I don’t. Some of my favorite games are my favorite games precisely because of how absurdly polished they are–Mario, Zelda, Metal Gear Solid, and so on – all of which took years to reach that state. And I’m also certainly not advocating that people be forced to work 20
hour days for a month straight so that a game can be done on time. However, there has to be a middle ground between hellish crunch time marathons and games that have the luxury of five-year development cycles or the “Done when it’s done” bravado of a Valve or Blizzard. I’m not in game development so I don’t know what that middle ground is. I do know that game development is a lot of work and there are a lot more moving parts than, say, the special effects of a movie. I also know that the occasionally game delay is inevitable, for any number of reasons.

Where my issue lies is that game delays are far from occasional. If anything, I’d go so far as to say that other than the big annual or biannual releases like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed or sports and wrestling games, delays are almost the rule rather than the exception. We basically count on games being delayed at least once from whatever date we’re first given. And personally, I do find that to be completely unacceptable. I don’t know if the problem is publishers who are overzealous with their target release date without understanding how much time the game is going to actually need, if it’s developers who can’t control their feature creep, or what exactly goes into deciding the fickle release dates we are given, but something needs to change. When it’s announced that Marvel Comics Movie #73 is coming out in Summer 2017, we’re all pretty confident in that promise and know that it’s mostly likely going to happen. But I can’t trust a game release date as far as I can throw it, and there’s no excuse for that.

Again, I’m not saying games should be released before they are done, or that people should have to work under dire conditions to get games done on time. If it’s just a matter of figuring out more realistic release dates to give, then so be it. While some movies are tinkered with up until the final possible day that they can be tinkered with, many–if not most–movies are done a far amount of time before they are released. They set a target day that guarantees adequate time to get the movie done, and movie dates are very seldom changed. Just start giving more realistic dates for games. I don’t know enough about PR and the hype machine to know if there’s some advantage to saying a game is going to be done by X month and then pushing it back a few times, but I can’t imagine that would be the case.

All that said, I do still believe that most games should have release dates. I don’t get behind this “When it’s done” nonsense. Although, I do feel that Valve does it better than Blizzard. Technically Valve hasn’t even officially announced Half-Life 3 yet so they have no reason to give us the “it’ll be done when it’s done…if we’re even going to do it” line because there’s technically no game yet. To confirm you are working on Diablo 3 or StarCraft 2 and still take a decade to make it…don’t even get me started. That’s a rant for another day…