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.

Latest comments (15)

James Prendergast Research Chemist 4 years ago
Some typos:

"WatchvDogs", "Watch Dogs was a major draw for the PS3 and Xbox One".

I agree with the analysis presented here but if there are more delayed games (and there already is one) then lack of desirable games will become a factor for many consumers. Especially since, in the majority of countries, the touted added services and features will also not work at launch.
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Well - lets review the Christmas launch up.

If you look at both consoles, hand on heart I can only truly vouch for battlefield 4. But one can have that on current gen/PC.
WHAT titles are there that a gamer must absolutely have to play, or can it wait till Summer 2014? Becasue in 6-8 months time, there are some really mouthwatering titles to be had for sure!
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 4 years ago
Meh... Im not worried about the delay. It only means the developers are pouring there hearts and souls into it, and it will make for a better game. It wont affect my desire to purchase the game when it does come out.
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Show all comments (15)
robert troughton Managing Director, Coconut Lizard4 years ago
Something that people need to remember here ... the PR for Watchdogs has been typically OTT, building up huge expectations for a game that, really, is very unlikely to be better than GTA V. And that would've created a huge problem - more for Sony and Microsoft than for Ubisoft, I would say. Imagine the game that everybody's looking at to prove the prowess of these next generation systems - and then imagine the horror if that game is faulted in any way and if it falls short of a last-generation open world game that people would undoubtedly be comparing it to. The press, particularly the typically non-gaming press such as BBC News, Sky, ITV, would be all over this with headlines suggesting that next-generation games are worse than last-generation.
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Thats a interesting take on it
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Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve4 years ago
To quote Shigeru Miyamoto:
"A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad"

I give them credit for the bold decision to delay it, there's a lot riding on it and it could be the basis of a new IP so it makes sense to do it right. I have to agree with Rob in that it might push some peoples purchase of the console back, but there will be others to take their place. I don't see anyone switching to the XBO or WiiU just because this game got delayed. This is a short term sacrifice that will hopefully turn to a long term gain.
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James Ingrams Writer 4 years ago
If anyone think this year's next-gen consoles can be compared with what happened with the PS2, then they will get a huge shock. These consoles have been released in the middle of the worst economic downturn in he West since before WWII! War Dogs or no, I don't expect this years consoles to sell even 50% of what the previous "next-gen" consoles did!
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Jim Wood Support Analyst, Inspired Gaming4 years ago
Cancelled my Xbox One order, still sticking to PS4 though.
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@Rob My thoughts exactly - how could they NOT have looked at GTA 5 and thought "Er, maybe we need to look again..."
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Pete Thompson Editor 4 years ago
Watch_Dogs or no Watch_Dogs it won't stop me from looking forward to and more importantly enjoying next-gen consoles (One, a lot more than the other).. As a gamer I've always looked forward to new kit to play on, and I think that almost 8 yrs on one console cycle is long enough to tempt gamer's to update, I personally know plenty of gamer's who are updating to next-gen on 22nd November..

I'm confident Ubisoft have made the right decision to delay, and as such the result will be a better, more polished game..
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
Good article Rob but I was hoping you touched on this alittle bit more:
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.
While there may be merit in your take on the game having technical difficulties, I think we should also question rather it was pulled to avoid other big holiday releases, specifically GTAV and Assassin's Creed IV. Others have already touched on the GTAV comparison but Ubisoft may have pulled it in order to avoid Watch Dogs and ACIV cannabalizing sales from each other. This happened back in 2008 with Sony. They had two very similiar fps games coming out(Killzone 2 and Resistance 2) during the fall and decided to push Killzone 2 back until February 2009 to avoid having those two titles cannabalize each others sales.

Even if that is the reason Ubisoft pushed Watch Dogs back thats not neccessarily a bad thing. But it's something that I think we should mention just for the sake of covering all the bases.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Paul Jace on 19th October 2013 2:09am

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! 4 years ago
I normally butt noggins with you on stuff, Paul.. but methinks you're right as that's the same thing I was thinking when I heard of the delay earlier this week.

I mean, the game should have or would have gone gold soon if I'm not mistaken and I can see Ubisoft wanting AC IV to be it's year-end big title to go up against what's still looking like healthy GTA V sales and other games coming at that time (CoD:G, BF4, etc).

As I noted earlier, I don't care that the game is delayed as long as it's coming and worth the wait. What I do hope is that ALL versions of the game (current as well as next-gen) can be fairly reviewed as opposed to the "old" console versions getting automatically written off by lazy reviewers who need to concentrate on the overall gameplay experience NOT whether or not the game looks better because one is spending more money on their hardware...
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Nick Parker Consultant 4 years ago
Good analysis as ever Rob. I'm not sure the pending Apple announcements regarding new iPads will impact launch sales of next gen consoles to such an extent as pent up demand seems to be so high. The console manufacturers are more likely to lose sales to lack of hardware inventory between launch day and the end of March. I can then extend that thinking to the loss of Watch Dogs; it's not going to reduce demand for hardware and will, in fact, maintain that hardware launch period momentum through to the Summer '14 months.

By the way, I hope you bought some Ubisoft shares at 8+ on Wednesday/Thursday!
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In a alternative timeline, what if they delayed AC4, and let Watch Dogs be a next gen tech/ launch title. Would it have changed Ubisoft's fortunes?
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Caleb Hale Journalist 4 years ago
When are we going to admit to ourselves there is no single game really driving any of us to next-gen consoles? It's pure and insatiable curiosity about what next-gen will look and feel like that's driving the pre-orders. Stick any game in the console, we just want to compare and contrast at this point.
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