It’s not every month that four marquee videogames get slapped with big delays. Offering explanations with sterile words like “polish” and “fine tuning,” the studios behind Cyberpunk 2077, Marvel’s Avengers, Dying Light 2, and Final Fantasy VII Remake have all announced that they’re pushing back their games—joining a the ranks of some of this year’s most anticipated titles, like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Skull & Bones, Doom Eternal and The Last of Us Part 2, all of which have also been delayed.
Making any big-budget, large-scale media product is like choreographing a ballet. The requirements of videogame design specifically—play-testing combat systems, engineering sound effects, detailing backgrounds, designing levels, tying the story together, and catching bugs—makes it more like choreographing a half-dozen ballets to be performed simultaneously and synchronistically.
“I think delays are good for the industry,” said an employee at ID Software, the studio behind the highly anticipated Doom Eternal, delayed last fall. (They asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.) “We get the time we need to make a better thing.” Several game developers WIRED interviewed agreed, adding that in the highly competitive games market, delivering on those glossy trailers is a better determiner of success than when the game comes out. “With game development, it’s art, essentially. Every painter is working on their painting until the last second. The gallery opens tomorrow and we’re fixing the eyebrows,” the employee said.
At the same time, game delays can extend crunch—a term that describes game developers working gruelling overtime to hit a release date. In an investor Q&A, the co-CEO of CD Projekt Red, the studio behind Cyberpunk 2077, admitted that the recently announced delay would result in more crunch hours for employees, not less.
Game delays were never uncommon, but now that the global games market has swelled to $160 billion and high-polish games release at a rapid-fire clip, it’s time to understand why they happen.
How Release Dates Get Set
“There is no longer a good time to release a game,” says Michael Douse, the director of publishing at Larian Studios, which in October announced the indefinite delay of Divinity: Fallen Heroes. “There are only less-shit times to release a game.”
These days, dozens of PC and console videogames are released every quarter. While some rules and guidelines influence when game studios large and small set their publishing dates, a crowded market makes for a lot of chaos to sort through.
“Blue oceans and red oceans are the first place to start when looking at an ideal scenario,” says Douse. A blue ocean is a timeframe where there aren’t a ton of games coming out, or more specifically, games that will compete with yours. A red ocean is when another game might sponge up relevant press attention or players’ bandwidth for a certain game genre or mechanic. Releasing your $60, 100-hour role-playing game in the same window as another studio’s $60, 100-hour role-playing game might not be great for business. Better to aim for the next blue ocean.
Aside from competitors, a developer or publisher can tie a game’s release to lots of calendar events: Christmas, Black Friday, a next-generation console’s release. Some games transcend the calendar; evergreen titles like the Mario franchise have long sales tails post-release, so their actual publication date may matter less.
Then, of course, there’s the problem of when a game is actually ready. “Many, many games are shipped too soon,” says Douse, adding that a premature release can impact Metacritic review scores by 10 or 20 points. While some game developers have a lot of power over when their game comes out, others are beholden to large publishers’ shareholders and external financial pressures, which can run directly against a more viable schedule.