Nintendo will be the first company to tell you about the importance of must-have titles at a console launch. The more you have, the better - as it not only increases the initial frenzy (attracting the wandering eye of the mass media), but keeps demand alive long after Christmas has come and gone.
With Ubisoft's announcement on Tuesday that it would be delaying Watch Dogs until Spring 2014, both Microsoft and Sony saw their new systems take a painful body blow.
The game has been high on the radar of gamers since June 2012 - and the buzz has never faded, a remarkable feat for any title. Sony was so high on the game, it announced a SKU that bundled the game with the PS4 - and GameStop put together a similar (though unofficial) pairing with the Xbox One.
Sony is officially declining comment on the issue, but pointed GamesIndustry International to statements from Amazon, which said people who ordered the bundles will still receive their consoles on time. (GameStop is making similar assurances to people who ordered the Xbox One package.)
"Knack might be an amazing game, but it isn't being positioned as a system seller. Ryse, similarly, simply doesn't have the crucial upswell of support needed to lead the Xbox One"
Bundles aside, it's not unreasonable to assume that many buyers of both systems had Watch Dogs on their "must purchase" list. While next generation versions of established franchises (like Call of Duty, Battlefield and Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed) will certainly be big sellers, gamers have been hungry for a new IP for a while now. And while plenty are coming to the next-gen systems, Watch Dogs was set to lead the pack.
Knack, for example, might be an amazing game, but it isn't being positioned as a system seller. Ryse, similarly, simply doesn't have the crucial upswell of support needed to lead the Xbox One (especially after its boneheaded Tweets Tuesday bragging about crunch time).
Ubisoft, as might have been expected, is being punished for the announcement. Fans who were looking forward to Watch Dogs can appreciate the declaration that a title simply wasn't coming together as planned - and needed extra time for polish. But that excuse comes across a bit thin when the publisher has been touting the game as heavily as it has for the past 16 months.
Investors, meanwhile, aren't happy about the financial ramifications. Ubisoft, in revealing the delay, slashed its sales expectations from between €1.42 billion and €1.45 billion this fiscal year to between €995 million and €1.05 billion.
"Our long term goal is to win the next generation," explained CEO Yves Guillemot wrote in a press release announcing the games' delays. "The tough decisions we are taking today to fully realize the major potential of our new creations have an impact on our short-term performance. We are convinced that, longer term, they will prove to be the right decisions both in terms of satisfaction for our fans and in terms of value creation for our shareholders."
While the delay of Watch Dogs is frustrating for gamers and painful for console makers, it may actually have been the smartest move Ubisoft could have made.
Everyone knew Grand Theft Auto V was going to be huge, but even the most optimistic observers underestimated its impact. Analyst retail checks show the game has legs - and the online component of the game is just starting to run as planned. That creates an enormous blast zone - one that could impact Watch Dogs (which shares the GTA open world design) if it were to come out this fall.
By waiting a few months, Ubisoft can distance itself from GTA - and wait open world player anticipation to build up once again.
At the same time, the installed base of next generation consoles will, naturally, be bigger next year than it will in the waning parts of 2013. A bigger base means potentially bigger sales, which should quiet down those investors who are wringing their hands over the reduced sales expectations.
Finally, pushing Watch Dogs into the spring (or early summer) of 2014 protects Ubisoft's most important existing franchise. Players won't have to decide between a new IP and Assassin's Creed IV now. While the delay of Watch Dogs may not steer people over to Assassin's Creed if they weren't fans, it could nudge people who were thinking of bypassing it "for now" in favor of the new franchise back into picking up a copy.
Of course, the delay isn't without risks. While fans are unlikely to lose interest in Watch Dogs, Ubisoft won't be the only new IP hitting the streets next spring. In deciding to skip the launch of the new consoles, Ubisoft has set the stage for a battle with Respawn's Titanfall.
Different games, certainly. And both new IPs. But instead of being the presumed king of the hill, Watch Dogs may have to fight harder for people's attentions in 2014.