Why games are revealed so early in development
The pros and cons of announcing AAA titles so early, and why this trend may be reversing
You're sitting at home, watching one of the major E3 presentations. A brand-new AAA video game has just been revealed and the teaser trailer actually makes it look pretty hot. You're halfway through watching the trailer, interest piqued, and now you're wondering, "When's this coming out?" Now you see it; it's slated for the holiday season... of the following year. You're going to be waiting a solid 18 months, and that's assuming the project doesn't encounter delays.
Such is the way of the modern AAA console and PC business, but it wasn't always like this. While the industry never really saw Apple-like announcements when you could practically buy the product immediately after, recent history shows that game announcements used to happen more regularly around six months prior to shipping.
"Back in the PS2 days...if it was shipping in the fall, you usually would see it for the first time at E3. That's if everything went according to plan. The running joke was if you saw it for two E3s, development was a problem," noted industry veteran and consultant Christian Svensson.
So what happened? With the success of the PS2 and the continued boom in the industry, retail became increasingly more important, and pre-orders started driving everything. And naturally, more time before release meant more time for marketing and more time to drive pre-sales.
"Early reveals can help you gauge public opinion, which can be useful in weeding out undesirable features as well as ones you might want to focus on more"
"Around the time that Xbox 360 and PS3 came to market, the investments and risks were so high you had to do everything you can to build awareness earlier," Svensson said. "You had to build in more beats for your PR earlier, you had more shows to attend to drive hands-on and media exposure, and all of that was ultimately in the name of driving up your pre-order numbers... everyone was trying to lock down the day one consumer. That drove all of that mania where you had to announce 18 months to two years out."
While pre-orders were a primary factor in the ever-lengthening lead time to a launch, there were other factors as well. Svensson pointed out that companies have always worried about early leaks twisting their messaging. "If we announced it first, at least we controlled the message. Announcing it early lets you prep all of your partners earlier without fear that there are leaks out there," he said.
Beyond that, development cycles on big budget titles just grew longer and longer. Announcing earlier enabled teams to adequately judge and react to feedback.
Warren Spector (Deus Ex, Epic Mickey), Director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas at Austin, remarked, "Talking about a game early is a double-edged sword, no doubt about it. On the one hand, it can lead to unrealistic expectations about 'promised' features that ultimately fail to make the shipping game (as inevitably happens). And there's no doubt, public clamor can amp up the pressure on a team On the flip side, seeing public excitement about what you're doing can get a team 'psyched and cranking' as we used to say. It's nice when people express enthusiasm for what you're doing. Also, early reveals can help you gauge public opinion, which can be useful in weeding out undesirable features as well as ones you might want to focus on more. Early reveals cut both ways."
Dominic Matthews, product development manager for Ninja Theory, added, "The risk with announcing too early is that you make a first impression that is very, very hard to change. You can say as many times as you like that the game is very early in development, or this isn't finished or is work in progress, but players understandably don't hear it. They just see what you're showing and take it as representative of the finished game. Personally, I would have kept all of the games I worked on under wraps for longer."
That said, Matthews acknowledges that most developers are very excited to be able to discuss their projects usually. "It's actually a really positive thing for a developer to be able to share their work outside of the studio. The announcement of the game allows everyone in the team to be able to share what they are doing with friends, family and industry peers. It can be frustrating having to say 'I'm working on something really cool, but I just can't talk about it yet'," he said.
There's also the very tangible benefit that by announcing earlier, teams should have an easier time adding talent to make a project go more smoothly.
Gearbox Software boss Randy Pitchford commented, "It's not merely about attracting future customers, but communicating about the effort to the industry itself. When your in-development project is known, some activities including recruiting or attracting business partners or other activities becomes much easier than when you're silent under the radar."
Svensson agreed: "[If] you've created some assets, you think you know what you're going to build, but you still need some very key roles to be filled and/or just body count to do the work, when it's known that a particular studio is working on that franchise then recruitment becomes an easier task than, 'hey we'd like to call you in but we can't tell you what we're working on'."
Of course, there's another benefit to announcing early that some developers would be very keen on: once a project is revealed there's a better chance it won't be canceled. "One of the things people forget is that not every game put in development always ships. A reason a lot of teams would want to announce earlier is that it's harder to kill a product that's been announced because it's very public and for it to not come out after it's been announced is a difficult thing for a company to suffer. It raises questions about if the company knows what it's doing," pointed out Svensson.
Once the announcement gets out there, the pressure definitely ramps up on a development team. But that's not necessarily a terrible thing. After all, it takes an intense amount of pressure to create a diamond.
"Sometimes pressure is a good thing on the development process," said Pitchford. "The best amongst us game makers exist to try to entertain people and whenever we have a deadline we work crazy hard to do the best job we can as we know that once the deadline is up, there's no more time to do any better."
"In my experience a lot of that magic that just sort of works out is the result of trying to adapt to some kind pressure on the situation. It often turns out that the pressure forces some of these things to happen that ultimately make games not only better, but shippable. The point is that while pressure always feels stressful, there are often a lot of positive aspects to pressure from a development point of view."
Pitchford also noted that some of that pressure should be alleviated by a good publisher: "I think the only really negative consequence is about expectation management and that's where the best publishers are really worth their value. The best publishers have a knack for managing customer expectations positively while projects unfold during the development and marketing phases of a project and that's where you get the best feelings and results from a project."
So if you're planning a big budget game right now, when's the right time to announce? How much lead time do you really need?
"I think it varies from product to product as far as what's appropriate. An enormous AAA game that is new IP aimed at a monster retail release, a longer lead time, certainly north of a year, is still warranted," advised Svensson. "When you start to get into north of 18 months, you get diminishing returns, even on something like that... When people have short attention spans, it's hard to stay on people's radar at a high level. I think the industry went too far for a period of time on that front and I think the economics of it are changing."
Pitchford agrees that if you're looking to sell something new, having that extra lead time is beneficial. "I've worked on games that have gone a long time in silence before being announced and I've worked on games that have had public announcements that were way too early. I think both approaches can be made to work, but both also bring their own set of challenges. My preference on which way to go depends on the game. The more inventive the game is and the more education required to communicate what is being promised, the more time is useful to master that communication before going wide," he said.
It's a fluid process, however, and the marketing teams have to be ready to adapt. Pitchford continued, "Part of the value of the early marketing campaign is to actually learn how to market the title to a wider audience. You'll notice if you look at campaigns from start to finish that everything from logo designs to key messaging points to front-of-box and key art content evolves and iterates over the course of a project. This is a very tangible manifestation of the marketing team actually learning how to sell the thing they are selling through a careful process of testing and iterating."
While early reveals can certainly be beneficial for both the marketing side and development side, it's clear that the digital revolution is having an impact, noted Ninja Theory's Matthews.
"I think the transition into digital gaming will shorten the window between announcement and release. There won't be such pressure to drive pre-orders as there is in the retail space," he said.
Another wrinkle in the digital space is the rise of self-publishing. Under that scenario, announcing earlier remains quite valuable.
"I think the pressure to announce early across the industry as a whole is being reduced because of the proliferation of digital, the adoption of games as service, and quite frankly, the other part of it is it's really f***ing expensive to have an 18-month or two-year marketing cycle"
"Ordinarily I would say that you should wait to announce as long as you can to make sure you have the best possible assets to make a first impression with: An amazing trailer or a rock-solid gameplay demo. Having said that, we've just announced our new game Hellblade at the very beginning of development - in other words incredibly early. We've done this because we're self-publishing and actually want to build a community behind the game by sharing the development process," Matthews continued. "By announcing now, we can share development right from the start. If we waited, we'd be retrospectively looking back at development which would feel less real, less here and now. This type of approach, or funding a game through crowdfunding, or Steam Greenlight might result in more games actually being announced even earlier."
Self-publishing aside, the traditional game companies appear to be scaling back their lead times now, Svensson said.
"The digital share of sales is climbing up and the need for that pre-order drive is slipping a little bit in the sense that you don't have to have this crescendo to launch to necessarily find success with the right product, especially when you have live teams creating content post-launch; it's not the put everything in the box and ship it mentality anymore," he explained. "It is the, 'hey we're going to create a minimum viable product (MVP) and we're going to bring it to market and support it' ... In some cases you might not even really ramp the marketing until you feel you've got a good product to promote.
"To some degree, I think the pressure to announce early across the industry as a whole is being reduced because of the proliferation of digital, the adoption of games as service, and quite frankly, the other part of it is it's really fucking expensive to have an 18-month or two-year marketing cycle for a game. It's really hard to do, and not every game has the right kind of content to support that longevity. You can't go dark, otherwise you lose people's attention, you have to have a consistent set of beats all the way through from announcement to launch, otherwise why announce early? You've lost that benefit. It's hard on production teams because they have to create assets to support these beats, it's hard on marketing teams because it's a long, hard slog."
And with the rise of indies and smaller games published on platforms like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network, huge lead times make even less sense. For smaller digital projects, three months might be more than enough time to spread the word.
"One of the things we've learned doing digital products, announcing more than three months out to build awareness just really doesn't make a lot of sense. A lot of those titles are smaller, they don't necessarily have a lot of features to drive a six-month or nine-month campaign... They're focused. The level of touch is very high in a short period, and I'd love to see the business get back to a lot more of that," Svensson said.
"What I do think we're going to see is a lot of normalization again for the average product probably around six to nine months again, kind of where we were in '99 and 2000. And I don't think that's bad."