Let Slip the Watch Dogs
Ubisoft's delay won't impact the success of the next-gen consoles this Christmas - but one stumbling block does remain...
The loss of Watch Dogs from the launch line-up of this year's next-gen consoles is undoubtedly a major blow to consumers, many of whom had pinned their hopes for a genuinely "next generation" experience on Ubisoft's promising action title. Yet it's easy to get carried away in annoyance about the delay, and I feel that that's exactly what has happened this week as commentators have hopped up to speculate that the Watch Dogs delay will seriously damage the next-gen launches.
"This is the slightly weird reality of core console launch periods - they don't conform to the conventional model of sales and consumer behaviour"
Pushing back a big, promising title is a big deal, absolutely. It annoys consumers, which is the main thing you don't want to do in an industry entirely based on discretionary spending. I don't for a second question Ubisoft's motivation in delaying the game - this is a company that's built itself up into an extraordinarily respected position by crafting a healthy number of great franchises, and it would obviously like Watch Dogs to be one of those in the coming generation, a role for which the first game has to be absolutely as good as it can be. Being there on day one isn't remotely as important as being fantastic, so this is the right decision for Ubisoft, no doubt - and annoyed consumers will forget this very quickly as long as the game is good when it arrives.
But what of Sony and Microsoft? Hasn't their tent just been robbed of a pole? Well, sort-of. Watch Dogs was a major draw for the PS3 and Xbox One, and there will probably be some consumers who decide not to hop on board as early adopters based purely on the non-availability of their most wanted game. However, both of these consoles are likely to be supply constrained in their first few months on sale - so any consumer who drops out now because of Watch Dogs' delay will be simply giving up their place in the queue for someone else who is an early adopter for other reasons.
This is the slightly weird reality of core console launch periods - they don't conform to the conventional model of sales and consumer behaviour that applies to the rest of the lengthy lifespan of such devices. Consumers in the first few months are playing by a different set of rules, buying hardware not because of software (because let's face it, console launch software generally sucks, with the handful of diamonds like Super Mario 64 or Halo being notable precisely because they buck this trend) but because of an odd combination of tech-fetishism, brand loyalty and anticipation of games to come.
Viewed this way, what matters isn't really that Watch Dogs has been delayed; as long as it still exists in the pipeline and it still looks good, that'll be plenty to satisfy the early adopters. The PlayStation 2, incidentally, is the perfect case study for this - a console which enjoyed an incredibly strong launch despite a line-up largely filled with games everyone has now forgotten. The fact that everyone actually remembers Fantavision, a lovely little game but absolutely not a console system seller, is a testament to how weak much of the rest of the line-up was. I'll grant you that both Timesplitters and SSX stand the test of time remarkably well, but being realistic, the PS2 sold to early adopters in western nations not on the basis of games that existed, but on the strength of the trailer for Metal Gear Solid 2 which had set the internet alight at E3 that year.
"Any intractable problems they're running into now could imply longer development cycles for other games in the works as well"
Moreover, the impact of Watch Dogs' delay is also significantly diminished by the fact that it's a cross-platform title. If it was platform exclusive, its delay might well push consumers in one direction or another with regard to their purchasing choices - however, since it's disappearing from the release schedule of both consoles, the impact is evenly spread and unlikely to change anyone's preferences. Some might argue that Sony's software line-up is thinner than Microsoft's, so losing Watch Dogs is a bigger blow, but this is far more a matter of personal preference than many commentators seem to believe - and it's worth bearing in mind that consumers in the launch window, as mentioned above, are generally not basing their choices on a cold assessment of software line-ups anyway. That comes later on, but won't influence much in the way of sales up to Christmas and beyond.
So for all the fuss about Watch Dogs' delay, the chances are that it won't result in any fewer sales of PS4 or Xbox One in the run up to Christmas, won't alter the balance of sales between the consoles (both of which may well be supply constrained anyway) and in the medium term, will provide a more positive system seller for the next-gen devices than it would have had it arrived too early. The only possible change this will actually make over Christmas is that it could push a very small number of consumers who were wavering over a next-gen purchase towards buying a Wii U instead - they'll quickly be replaced at the tills by other keen PS4 and Xbox One buyers, but could give Nintendo a small bump in sales (and at this stage, Nintendo is very much in "every little helps" mode with Wii U sales).
The bigger question, and the one which I think is worth asking even if an answer is unlikely to be forthcoming, is what exactly has caused Watch Dogs to be delayed. Chances are it's a problem with the game design or balance, something requiring retooling of some game systems or tweaking of levels - this kind of thing happens in game development all the time and is a perfectly valid reason to push back the release date. However, it would be interesting to know whether any aspect of developing for the next-gen systems has been instrumental in pushing back the release. On paper, Xbox One and PS4 are both very easy to develop for and fairly similar in their core features, meaning that creating cross-platform games should be relatively easy, some technical engine aspects aside. However, teams like those working on Watch Dogs are the first people to actually try and accomplish this, and any intractable problems they're running into now could imply longer development cycles for other games in the works as well.
Regardless of that technical point - and an answer to it would be interesting no matter what the outcome - I don't think that Ubisoft's announcement this week, however much it may have generated heat and sound online, has actually changed the prospects for the next-gen launches very much at all. That's just as well - because actually, the single biggest stumbling block for those launches is still to come, in the form of Apple's press conference later this month where new iPads are expected to be unveiled. If these are just seasonal updates, Sony and Microsoft can feel confident about having the hottest new devices this winter. On the other hand, if Apple significantly retools and upgrades its tablets, the consoles will have to fight tooth and nail for the early adopter market against a very tough opponent. That completely external factor has the potential to make early sales of the next-gen machines look disappointing - a few months delay for a cross-platform title, however great it may look, is barely of passing consequence by comparison. This is the other oddity of launch windows. For a few short months, game hardware must genuinely compete for mindshare with every other desirable object on the planet. Sony and Microsoft must both be hoping fervently that nobody makes anything too desirable between now and Christmas.