Game Delays: A Good Sales Strategy?

Game Delays: A Good Sales Strategy?

Like any product that is planned, packaged, and shipped to consumers, video games are developed and produced on a careful timetable. More often than not, time flies far too quickly for a team that’s on a deadline, whereas the months seem to inch by for fans; developers work frantically on highly-anticipated titles, while we stare up at them with great wet eyes, like a dog watching a master prepare a steak. So when the inevitable delay is announced, it’s hard to resist rocking back and howling.

The first regretful press releases tend to hit around June and July. Then they fall thick around the autumn months, peter out around Christmas (when most publishers aim to release their wares), and the title we waited for visits us somewhere between January and May. Then the cycle repeats as surely as birth and death.

2010 has had some particularly notable delays. Crysis 2 won’t be hitting the shelves until 2011, nor will True Crime: Hong Kong. DC Online Universe is likewise pressing its tights for a 2011 release, and whereas industry analysts thought for sure Nintendo would have the 3DS ready for 2010, Nintendo shook its head and said, “Uh-uh, 2011.”

Something worth considering is how many of these delays are actually technical, and how many are simply an instance of a publisher quietly nudging a title into the next year so that it stands a better chance of selling. Take, for instance, Michael Jackson: The Experience by Ubisoft, which is coming to the Wii, DS, and PSP in November, but has been delayed until 2011 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Ubisoft says it needs the extra time to incorporate PlayStation Move and Kinect into the game’s controls, which is a fair claim. But now that the initial wave of pity and tribute for the former Prince of Pop has passed, who’s going to buy a Michael Jackson game in the thick of the Christmas season for two systems that are already bursting with fantastic holiday offerings? All the better to push it into 2011, when people’s backlogs have cleared a bit and they’re more eager to look at those second-tier games they were vaguely interested in, but dropped in favor of Halo: Reach.

But getting caught in the Christmas crush can happen to the best games. This happened in 2008, when there were just too many awesome games to sample. BioShock, Fallout 3, Devil May Cry 4 and Super Smash Bros. Brawl alone ate up budgets, leaving little pocket change for lesser-known but still brilliant titles like No More Heroes to languish. It’s hard to blame a company for analyzing the competition and then sitting out the holiday rush in favor of garnering a steadier, though more subdued audience in the frigid winter months that kick off the new year.

Then again, there’s always the crazy possibility that a game is delayed simply because it needs more time in bug testing. Rushing a game out the door for the Christmas season is never a good idea; you’ll make a few sales, but at the expense of whatever property you’re exploiting. Poor Sonic the Hedgehog is still trying to redeem his buggy 2006 disaster for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and even Sonic Team producer Yojiro Ogawa has since looked back on the title and said, “Whoops, that was a bad idea.”

But the bottom line is, when a game is delayed, there’s usually a good reason for it. It’s frustrating to wait in the short term, but the long-term benefits hardly need to be spelled out. If publishers are looking at some of their 2010 offerings and deciding that they don’t stand a chance in the Christmas glut, then more people will be able to enjoy said title in 2011. That, in turn, leads to more fans, and more games of the same caliber.

And if a title is delayed to clean up some bugs, all the better. True, we won’t realize what we’ve been saved from, because the glitches that might have haunted us in another life have been stamped out. But that’s the way it should be.

Finally, if one company deserves applause for announcing one of 2010’s biggest delays, it’s Valve. It wasn’t fun to learn that Portal 2 has been pushed into 2011, but at least the company was nakedly honest about the reason: “Making games is hard.”

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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