Leading AAA titles from major publishers have had rocky introductions this past week, including Assassin's Creed Unity from Ubisoft, Halo: The Master Chief Collection from Microsoft, and Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric from Sega. Assassin's Creed Unity has multiple issues, including game crashes, faulty multiplayer, the main character falling through the ground or getting caught inside hay carts, many graphics slowdowns especially on PC... there's a laundry list of problems. That may sound bad (and it is), but many observers say Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric's issues are worse.
Then there's the highly anticipated Halo: The Master Chief Collection, where the multiplayer game (arguably the most important gameplay mode) has been pretty much broken for days after launch, despite several "fixes" that have been pushed out - and that's not even mentioning many other game issues that fans have noticed while waiting for the multiplayer mode to finally work reliably. The situation is finally getting better, but the game is still limiting the types of multiplayer games you can get into in order to make matchmaking better.
It's not just in the last week or two that major releases from established publishers have had problems. Sony's DriveClub, one of the title Sony showed at the PS4 launch, was delayed several times and now has released with so many problems that Sony is promising some free DLC to make it up to fans.
The other symptom of the problem is the rash of delays plaguing major titles over the last year. Yes, delays have long been a not-uncommon occurrence in game development (some would say it's been the rule rather than the exception), but this last year has been unusual by any standard. Watch Dogs was moved out nine months from its initial launch. Take-Two's Evolve has been moved in 2015 from its original holiday 2014 ship date. Nearly all of the most anticipated exclusive titles for the PS4 this fall have been delayed (The Order: 1886, BloodBorne, Deep Down... the list goes on). Other big titles that have been delayed: Batman: Arkham Knight has moved in 2015, along with EA's Battlefield: Hardline, The Witcher 3, Dying Light, Tom Clancy's The Division, Mad Max, Quantum Break - all were originally slated to appear in 2014, and are now looking to release in 2015.
"Retailers are to blame. Or, more precisely, the publishers' drive to satisfy the demands of the retail channel are making delays and poor game quality more of an issue"
These delays are having ripple effects, too. Microsoft has delayed the start of its Halo Championship eSports competition for a week, hoping to resolve the multiplayer difficulties by then. Marketing plans are being affected, with many expenditures being much less effective since the timing gets thrown off by the delays.
It's becoming increasingly rare for AAA games to ship on time and actually be a good game from the start. Every major publisher has had to deal with game delays or serious issues over the last year. This is not one company's problem - it's affecting console development in general. Why is this happening, and what can be done about it?
Part of the problem rests with the transition to developing for the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. There are the usual difficulties involved with new consoles, new tools, and learning how to take best advantage of the new hardware. The problem goes deeper than this, though. Developers are struggling to come up with games that really show off the new hardware - ideally, from the console maker's perspective, games that really make customers want to buy a new console. That's a tall order, so budgets have grown, teams are urged to be more ambitious in their designs, and it becomes harder to meet deadlines as a result. New IPs are being developed for the new consoles, which adds even more difficulty to the task.
But there's a deeper problem in play, one that's been an issue for the games industry for decades, but it's becoming more important recently as the game industry has grown and diversified.
Retailers are to blame.
Or, more precisely, the publishers' drive to satisfy the demands of the retail channel are making delays and poor game quality more of an issue. This has become more of a problem as online and mobile games - especially free-to-play games - don't have these same issues.
How does working to please the retail channel hurt game development? Traditionally publishers have seen pre-orders for retail delivery as a key indicator for overall sales, and thus try to put pre-order programs in place far in advance. That often includes special collector's editions or pre-order bonuses, now being tailored for each retail chain in many cases (some titles have dozens of different versions because of this). This process forces publishers to commit to deadlines far in advance, and causes great reluctance to push out delivery dates. Now that patches and fixes can be sent out to console games as often as necessary, there's temptation to just ship the game and make the fixes over the following week or two. "How bad can it be?" is no doubt being bandied around the board room.
Holiday selling periods are even more to blame, as publishers routinely build multi-year development schedules around a holiday launch. Despite retailers like GameStop publicly wishing that major game releases would be more evenly spread out through the year, we continue to see publishers try to jam all of their AAA releases into the holiday quarter. That's because retail sales are highest at that time, and there are a good number of games being purchased as gift items. It's not clear how much less any given game might sell in its lifetime because it wasn't released during the holiday season, but publishers prefer not to risk it.
Hitting product delivery dates is important because of the need to build inventory for retail stores. Estimating the quantity of product needed for retail makes a huge difference to profit margins; building the right amount can save millions of dollars. Conversely, being too far off (in either direction) can cost millions of dollars. And there's manufacturing lag time to consider, too. While lead times have shortened for fairly standard components (down to weeks), when you do a collector's edition some of the pieces could take months to produce. If you build these pieces too soon, you could be sitting on inventory for months... and that all impacts the bottom line.
Contrast all of this with online games like League of Legends or World of Tanks. Major new features are introduced over time (like the Summoner's Rift map revision recently pushed out in League of Legends), and fixes are rolled out regularly. But there's no rush for that initial release, since there's no benefit to promising an exact date more than a week or two in advance. If the developers need a few more weeks or even months, no problem.
Mobile games have it even easier. The standard practice, when a game is getting ready to launch, is to "soft launch" the title in a small country (like New Zealand) in order to work out many issues like gameplay, monetization, and to get user feedback. Games can spend weeks or months being tuned in that environment, and then when the numbers indicate the title is ready, it's rolled out to major markets. Thus mobile games, done properly, are rarely plagued by massive problems on release in the same way that major console releases have been.
What can be done for the AAA console game to avoid these issues? First of all, having the courage to move a title's release date out when it needs to is critical. Ubisoft is glad to have moved Watch Dogs; it was painful, but it was clearly the right decision. No doubt Electronic Arts is feeling pain over moving Battlefield: Hardline out to next year, but already the company is saying the game is much, much better for it, and ultimately that will be to the company's benefit. For public companies, though, moving a major product ship date (especially if that single product represents a big share of sales) can mean the difference between a good quarter and a terrible quarter - it's not an easy decision to make, and it can have long-term effects on the company's share price and its overall business.
That's an argument for spreading a public company's revenue over a broader product portfolio, which would provide more ability to move ship dates when needed. For an extreme example, look no further than Take-Two. When Grand Theft Auto V released last year, the company had an amazing quarter. That same quarter this year saw revenue fall by nearly 90 percent. That's a difficult thing to manage for a public company, as investors like more steady and reliable revenue and profit growth.
"In the long term, publishers need to start moving to a post-physical product world anyway - and that can mean rethinking the entire concept of the product"
Second, rethink the whole pre-order process. Customers are getting wary of ordering ahead of time after being burned so often lately. The percentage of console titles sold as full digital downloads is increasing, and as that happens pushing pre-orders should become less important. Companies should be able to get a good indication of demand through social channels. Yes, pre-orders give retailers a good idea of how much product to order, and that influences how much inventory the publisher creates. Perhaps there's a better way to organize this process, though, that doesn't have the effect of pushing products out before they are ready.
One of the major differences between digital and physical products is the ability to resell the physical product or lend it to a friend. Microsoft had some interesting ideas along this line prior to the Xbox One launch, but ended up changing direction after a decidedly mixed initial response. Still, those ideas deserve revisiting. For that matter, Sony has already started something along that line with the Share Play feature where a friend can join you in a game on the PS4 for a while, without the need to own a copy. More features for digital versions of games will help drive adoption of that format, and perhaps alleviate some of the pressure to release a game on a strict timetable.
In the long term, publishers need to start moving to a post-physical product world anyway - and that can mean rethinking the entire concept of the product. Retail packaging has forced us into thinking we need more than $60 worth of value in each package, which means bigger worlds, more gameplay modes, more missions, maps, content of all kinds - and more places for delay to occur. Couple that with the increasing desire to see major franchises released on a yearly schedule, and you're asking for either more delays or lower-quality software, or both.
Let's think about some new IP that doesn't need to jam $100 worth of value into a $60 box... maybe it's a $30 value in a $15 download, and it only took a year to build with a smaller team. And if it's purely digital, does it really matter what day or week or month it launches? Does every AAA title really have to launch in November?
Yes, retailers are important partners and will continue to be in the future. But don't sacrifice game quality on the altar of retailers. Read the comments that customers are posting about some of these bug-plagued game releases, and you'll see there's plenty of anger out there. When the games get fixed things will calm down... but that's not the same as never having caused a problem. Marketers have an important role in convincing the rest of the company to focus on quality, and bringing the voice of the consumers into the discussions on release dates. Everyone in the industry has a stake in trying to make games better overall, because problems with major games reflect badly on all of us. The industry must work together to find some solutions to this issue.