Every month it seems as though another video game slated for 2021 gets pushed to 2022, leaving the year looking increasingly empty of would-be high-profile releases.
But why didn’t these delays happen in 2020? When the film industry hit the big pause button in 2020 — pushing and delaying many of its films to 2021 — video games were still being released at a fairly steady clip. While video games were delayed in 2020 as well, many of them, like Destiny 2 Beyond Light and Wasteland 3, were pushed just a few months and were out by the end of the calendar year.
For starters, comparing film delays and video game delays is like apples and oranges. One key difference between the movie delays of 2020 and the video game delays of 2021 is that the films that were delayed last year were already finished.
“A lot of these films are already finished and [studios] can release them on if they want to, but financially it doesn’t make sense and it won’t make the same amount of money as it would in theaters, ” says Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co.
But many video games take longer to develop than even the biggest major motion picture, and choosing a release date for a video game still in development is like trying to hit a moving target.
“To be totally honest with you every game gets delayed, whether it’s a public delay or if it’s an internal delay to a date that has never been publicly announced. Every date slides.”
After speaking with those with intimate knowledge of marketing and making games, the answer for why video game delays have bitten so hard in 2021 is multi-faceted. Release dates, it turns out, are complicated beasts with tendrils that reach well beyond whether a game is finished or not. And while the shadow of COVID-19 runs through almost every delay this year, it has really just added extra complications to the already messy business of selling games.
The Anatomy of a Game Delay
Release dates are a weird science that’s more than just putting a game on sale when it’s finished. Choosing a release date, especially one for a major title, requires advanced planning as video game companies work with retailers and business partners to maximize a game’s successful launch.
One overlap with Hollywood, according to a video game marketer at a AAA studio (who IGN has spoken to under conditions of anonymity), is that studios do work with analysts to crunch data points like adoption rate of new hardware or spending habit changes due to COVID-19, and factor these into deciding the most financially sound release date.
This is why a delay isn’t something to be taken lightly. Beyond just the bad publicity and disappointment from players, there are serious business ramifications to delaying a game.
“You’re talking about messing with retailer’s pipelines, as well as marketing partners, digital storefront owners, and the folks who print the discs, etc,” says IGN’s marketing source.
“I can give you some examples where because we missed our dates for titles, we missed the window to get the final build ready to the disc makers in time for them to deliver when we agreed to deliver it. This led to [the disc version] getting pushed back almost a year. It pissed off retailers, it pissed off the factory folk, and it changed the projections for the quarter [and] year.”
Stephanie Tinsley, the founder of Tinsley PR and another veteran who has worked with all kinds of different video game developers and publishers, echoed this sentiment. She says the best way to describe the process and thought that goes into even considering a delay depends on a scale of “how disruptive it is.”
“That’s the best way I can think of to put it. Because if your game is not only a digital title but it’s also a retail title, and you’re four weeks out from launch, you have all of your retail marketing done, your channel distributor deals already in place, you have the dates set, you’ve signed contracts, it’s going to cost you significantly more money at that stage then if you say, like, ‘okay well this is not going to make 2021 let’s just kick it into the first half of 2022.’”
If you have a retail game with a set release date, and that date gets pushed back, that’s printed marketing materials that need to be re-done, and deals with retailers for reserving shelf space for your games have to be renegotiated and changed. “All that’s a very costly and disruptive delay.”
“To be totally honest with you every game gets delayed, whether it’s a public delay or if it’s an internal delay to a date that has never been publicly announced. Every date slides,” says Tinsley. “That’s when you started seeing less definitive launch dates that were nine months out from launch and you really got, ‘ah it’s launching next year-ish.’ Because everybody understands when you’re making games that sh*t happens.’”
And in 2020 sh*t happened.
The Elephant in the Room
Creating video games is labor-intensive work that requires countless hours, and even a little bit of luck, for games to leave studios and get into people’s hands. Even during normal years, hitting release dates for major releases can be tricky.
The COVID-19 pandemic forced many game developers to start working from home, taking a highly technical job that requires constant collaboration into home offices not necessarily equipped to handle the workload.
In an interview with IGN, Final Fantasy 14 director Naoki Yoshida quantified the impact of working from home and the pandemic as having “about 3% to 5% loss per month” in terms of productivity.
“I’m sure people have realized that work-from-home does work to an extent, but there are certain losses that we see between very fine communications — detailed communications,” Yoshida says.
“Those times where you’re sitting in front of the computer, and your teammates are there, and a programmer would just pull in their teammates, saying, ‘Hey, can you come look at my screen and check this out?’ You can’t do that in a work-from-home situation.”
One developer who works in a North American AAA studio that shipped a game during work-from-home conditions – and wished to remain anonymous – detailed some of the changes to their workflow.
They describe working on a game from home generally as everything “being slightly [slower] — to transfer files, a bit of latency when artists are using a stylus and pad at home while remoting into their work computer to when it shows up on screen, people just being tired and burnt out of work being home and home being work. All manner of things.”
Plus there are some tasks that just don’t transfer over to work-from-home easily, says the developer. “Lighting comes to mind, as that usually requires calibrated monitors, extra gear, and very specific review conditions that can be difficult to replicate at home.”
For team members who remote into their desks, meaning virtually controlling a work computer from home, tasks like restarting a crashed or frozen computer became an entire process beyond simply switching it off and on again. “That used to be something you could reach down under your desk and do but now with people remoting in they have to get someone physically at the studio to go to their desk and restart it.”
Like Yoshida, this developer’s company also analyzed the efficiency of WFH and found a greater percentage of loss.
“We found that we had to account for a 15% reduction in capacity which in turn translated into a 15% reduction in scope. So we roughly didn’t complete 15% of the content that we would normally do.”
“Now just thinking out loud if we forecast that to something like [343 Industries], for example, who have a pile of different external developers in different countries all dealing with COVID in different severities, priorities and tech limitations, 15% of a game like that can be a huge change — and that’s assuming it’s something close to 15% with them.”
For example, IGN learned that a 3% to 5% loss in efficiency caused Square Enix to delay the next Final Fantasy 14 expansion by three to five months. Extrapolating from that, a 15% loss on a major title like God of War or Hogwarts could quite easily push games out of 2021 altogether.
For smaller teams who work from home already, this is part of their everyday workflow; but major studios who design games in collaborative studios have to contend with this new reality. Despite advances in technology, there will be vital elements of in-office work that will get lost.
A Delay Isn’t an Accident
Given the business and money tied to releasing a video game, a delay isn’t decided on lightly. Our anonymous video game marketer tells IGN, “9 times out of 10 delays happen because despite pushing really hard and [crunching] staff to try to land the locked-in release window, they only pull the plug and delay when it’s clear that no matter what, they will not be able to get the game in shippable shape by the date they agreed on.”
They say that the consequences of missing an agreed-upon delay, like losing digital storefront page placement or retail deals, are so severe that companies avoid delays as much as they can. And trying to make these important dates does feed into crunching staff as well, according to our source.
And with so much uncertainty still with the COVID-19 pandemic, and working from home having a bigger impact on larger studios, it’s not unreasonable to see why so many AAA games are opting to move into 2022.
Despite vaccination rates improving in the United States, much of the world is still under the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last Friday, Japan extended a state of emergency in Tokyo and other areas by about three weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak. Countries like India and Singapore — major hubs where external support developers for AAA games are sourced — are also currently grappling with various outbreaks.
“Frankly I’m just impressed that so many games are continuing to get made, delays or not,” says IGN’s anonymous game developer. “And if the greater gaming public doesn’t understand the need for delays now, then I don’t know what will.”
Matt T.M. Kim is IGN’s News Editor.