I’m not really a fan of advanced release date announcements. I hate the hype trains and unrealistic expectations. I think announcing release dates far in advance ultimately leads to broken promises or even worse, unfinished games. Most importantly, I would rather see a game as near to perfect as possible before release rather than a promised deadline met and an unfinished product sold to be patched later. So I don’t actually have a problem with games like Beyond Good & Evil 2 being very vague about when they will be released. In fact, I wish games weren’t even announced till they were already gold so that there were no broken promises or delays because we honestly shouldn’t be notified about unconfirmed possibilities to begin with. I understand why early announcements are made. I understand why companies announce release dates far in advance. From a business standpoint, it all makes sense. Even the added pressure put on the development teams, though scummy, is a perfectly sensible business decision from the publishing side of the games industry. I don’t have to like it and I don’t have to agree with it, but I definitely understand it. But it’s also important to note that these early release date announcements are what ultimately lead to delays and even cancellations. I’m still not over Scalebound. The issue that rarely gets discussed though is the meaning of release dates.
As consumers, we’re sold the idea that release dates aren’t arbitrary. We’re led to believe that they take into account a number of factors based on estimated development time coupled with budget limitations. But we also know that’s not really the entire picture. We’ve seen countless games go gold and then still not release for months. We’ve seen games get delayed at the last minute when it should have been obvious it wouldn’t be ready on time much sooner, if the delay was really an issue of development and not business. It’s also quite preposterous to assume that every single project, with differing sizes of development teams, differing scopes of project size, differing starting points as far as resources available, and differing numbers of years in development can all always be ready in summer or holiday season just after Black Friday or just before the school year starts. Release dates are not solely based on development. They’re based on business analytics in order to maximize sales. Games are often ready to launch much sooner than they are. And they’re also often launched before they’re actually ready in order to make a peak selling date since they can be patched later. While there was once a time where announced launch dates may have been truly based on development time, they’re now more the business/marketing side of the industry than anything else. That’s why I don’t really feel bad for publishers when a game is delayed. Because I know that original date probably wasn’t right to begin with. It was probably much too soon.
The Last of Us Part 2 is an interesting story in the fact that Naughty Dog had kind of implied it was basically ready to ship before it was delayed the first time. Originally it was announced to be releasing in February of this year. Then it was delayed to May 29th because they felt like it “wasn’t polished enough”. They didn’t say they couldn’t launch in February. They said they were choosing not to. That’s a weird situation in the fact that it’s fairly rare for a AAA developer to be so transparent about making a decision that fans won’t like. They could have said that the game wasn’t ready and had to be delayed three months and pretty much no one would have gotten angry. People would have griped, as they always do. And they would have been sad, as they always are with delays. But if people were led to believe that the game truly wasn’t ready to be launched then they would have accepted it. What people didn’t want to accept was the idea that the game was basically ready but was just being delayed for an extra spit and polish. Now as a cynic I don’t actually believe the game needed to be delayed to May. I believe the game was ready by the original February date but Naughty Dog and/or PlayStation decided it wasn’t a great date to launch from a marketing standpoint. Probably because the world was being plunged into chaos in the midst of a global pandemic.
Releasing a game about a post-apocalyptic world that has been devastated by a virus probably didn’t seem in good taste to the marketing department over at SONY. So they chose to delay to May hoping things would have quieted down about the coronavirus by then. Sadly that wasn’t the case, but since everyone already had to work from home or stop working altogether by that point, the virus became a great alibi to layer on top of the original polish story and justified saying the game was being delayed indefinitely due to the team’s inability to finalize it because of the coronavirus limiting development practices and resources. The pieces just kind of fell into place for that second delay to work with the first one. But at that point the public wasn’t having it anymore. Because if they’ve already said the game was basically ready it doesn’t make sense to indefinitely delay because of the virus. That is unless the release date has basically nothing to do with development and everything to do with profit analytics. It’s no secret that now is not a good time for businesses to launch new products. Especially entertainment products. A lot of people have been hit hard by this virus. People do not have leisure funds right now to pay $60+ for a video game. Lots of people are just trying to keep their homes and feed their children while worrying about devastating medical bills or at the very least the threat of them. So it makes since for PlayStation to want to hold off on releasing their GOTY contender and one of the biggest exclusive sequels they will have ever launched until things get back to normal. And yes I do believe this is more a decision from SONY’s side more than Naughty Dog’s.
So what happens when you finish a game and then set it on the back burner indefinitely while trying to wait out a depression level economic collapse? People get both angry and bored. A dangerous combination when dealing with digital products. Physical products are fairly easy to safeguard. You store them in a safe place, secure them, and guard them until you want them distributed. And yet they still get stolen all the time. Digital products are hard to safeguard. They can be copied, hacked, data mined, accidentally leaked, and are susceptible to a whole host of other security issues. And when hackers are bored, they’re even more motivated to take advantage of those digital weaknesses. Now I don’t know exactly how or who leaked The Last of Us Part 2 story details. I’ve heard rumor that it was an actual employee of Naughty Dog. Then I heard that was false. I don’t know and honestly I don’t really care. But I do know that anyone with even a sophomoric level of knowledge about the history of gaming leaks wasn’t surprised that the leak happened. It was always going to happen once that second delay was announced. I’m surprised we made all the way to the latter half of April before it happened. But how curious is it that within a week of the leak happening and people getting angry about the story details that were leaked magically the game is ready to launch in June. We went from the game being finished but needing a polish for the sake of assurance in February to an indefinite delay to a launch date in just two months’ time. That sounds fishy to me. That sounds like the date never actually mattered as far as development is concerned.
What happened with The Last of Us Part 2 is no different than what happens with every other troubled entertainment product long term marketing campaign. A company made a plan, unforeseen circumstances damaged that plan, the company overreacted to that damage, that overreaction caused more damage, and then the company gave up and scrapped the plan altogether in order to recoup as much profit as possible. The company I work for has done the same thing many times. The release date for The Last of Us Part 2 could have been more than two months ago and wasn’t because of a failed attempt to maximize profits. That’s how the game is played. PlayStation just didn’t win this round.
Now personally, I didn’t care about the delays for The Last of Us Part 2. I don’t care about most games being delayed. I am so backlogged that they could delay all games for a year, which I suggested in a previous blog post, and I’d still come out of the other end backlogged. In fact, they could cease all game production for a decade and I still probably wouldn’t be done with my backlog. So I’m infinitely patient. I also had no intention of buying the game at launch. Like with most games, I was just gonna wait for it to go on sale and pick it up for Black Friday. And that is still my plan. I haven’t seen any of the leaks and even if I do, I’ll still play the game at some point because I’m not a child. You knew Thanos was going to die before you watched Avengers: Endgame. You knew the Joker was going to get captured at the end of The Dark Knight. People aren’t stupid. Stories are fairly predictable. Getting bent out of shape about leaks is immature because you already knew what was going to happen anyways a large portion of the time. You just didn’t have confirmation. And it’s not as if the experience of the story is completely diminished by not being surprised at key moments. Stories are more than just who lives or dies at the end.
While I’m always happy to see a company get called out on their bullshit, I do want to take the time to address the fact that weaponizing leaks isn’t OK. PlayStation delaying the launch date for reasons that had nothing to do with development is dishonest, anti-consumer, and just plain disagreeable. But it’s not hurtful. It’s not illegal. It’s not outside of their rights as a company. It’s certainly manipulative. But all marketing is manipulative. That’s the entire point of marketing. And yes launch dates are a part of marketing. That’s why hype trains exist and are desired by corporations. But forcing PlayStation’s hand by leaking content from the game is not an acceptable response. That’s a scummy move. Essentially the public used the leaks to create negative hype in order to push SONY into launching sooner than desired before the leaks became too widespread and preorders began to fall off. That’s not a good precedent. I do believe we as consumers should organize and work together to make demands of both studios and publishers. I do believe that we get mistreated by the industry a large amount of the time and not enough protections are in place to prevent or curtail that. But I don’t believe that using illegal and invasive means to push back is the answer. Because that’s not a world I want to live in.
Game companies could take on my idea of not announcing launch dates until set in stone and ready to go. But they could also go overboard and not announce games at all until they’re ready to release. I’d be fine with that, since I don’t usually preorder games anyway, but a lot of people wouldn’t. Using leaks as a weapon will ultimately lead to companies releasing as little information and explanation as possible for fear of being hacked and having their projects leaked. You won’t try to steal something if you don’t know it exists. So I think we shouldn’t be encouraging leaks or using them to force companies to be honest with us. Do we deserve honesty? Yes. Should we use dishonesty in order to obtain it? No. There are much better ways to motivate companies to stop bullshitting us. We just need to organize, make our demands known, and stick to them. It really is that simple.