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, which have been delayed too.
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. (The individual 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 $152 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,” said 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,” said Douse. A blue ocean is a time frame 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,” said 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.
For this reason, Douse said he doesn’t always believe in having a release date at all, if it can be helped. He also admits that he’s one of the lucky ones who isn’t chained to a larger corporation with its own scheduling priorities.
Charting a course for that blue ocean sometimes means tightening the sails and bringing on extra crew, and maybe shipping out in unfavorable conditions. When that doesn’t work—and oftentimes, it doesn’t—fans might be disappointed to see a game delay announcement on their Twitter feeds.
Why Delays Happen
Acclaimed role-playing game Pillars of Eternity was slated to be released in 2014 until a series of unexpected hazards clogged the game road map.
In the book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, journalist Jason Schreier reports that, to get the game out on time for its hugely enthusiastic Kickstarter backers, the people in charge of the Pillars of Eternity production schedule had to factor in development tools, budget, story scope, bugs, and, of course, human motivation and error. An approximate timeline was set, but roadblocks soon hit: The game’s top writer was splitting time with another game, South Park: The Stick of Truth; the art team had to learn a totally new 3D graphics software; and the narrative team had difficulty cobbling a slew of separate treatments into a coherent story.
At a Cheesecake Factory in 2014, Schreier reports, studio leads discussed how the $4 million fans raised for them on Kickstarter had dried up; it would take an extra $1.5 million to release a more polished version of the game. It was too buggy to ship, said Pillars of Eternity’s lead producer in a blog post, and so it was delayed. They had made the right choice; when it finally released in March 2015, Pillars of Eternity received rave reviews and was hailed as an instant classic.
One current employee at Crystal Dynamics, the studio behind the delayed Marvel’s Avengers game, who also asked to remain anonymous, gave a list of factors that could delay a game today: needing more polish, bug fixes, or beta testing; troubleshooting multiplayer server issues and online matchmaking; getting asked to release the game for more consoles than were planned; and so on. “I believe that in most cases, delays are made so that the game experience can reach its full potential before release,” the employee said.
Scope is a word game developers throw around a lot under these circumstances. One combat feature might feel tired or plain without the inclusion of another one. Then designers might realize that the second feature might only feel good with the inclusion of a third or fourth. New features stack up unexpectedly, in what’s known as “feature creep.”
“Scoping is evaluating the volume of work that needs to be done,” said Gabriela Salvatore, a game designer and creative director who used to work for Creative Assembly and Ubisoft. “Ideally, when overscoped, features are cut—something that can't be polished in time for release is cut or lessens in scope. Things tend to be cut very late, and new designs tend to come online much later into the project.”
That said, sometimes a game’s enormous scope is the draw. CD Projekt Red brags that Cyberpunk 2077 will be “more ambitious” than its previous game, The Witcher 3, which has hundreds of possible quests and can take up to 200 hours to complete in its entirety.
And even when it looks like a game is close to done, internal reactions to the game can introduce unexpected delays. Lots of major games receive “mock” reviews. If they result in a lot of critical feedback, the studio might reassess its timeline.
“We put the build in front of a bunch of people who pretend to be press and pretend to write reviews about it,” said the ID Software employee. “They give us that data back so we can get a pulse on Metacritic. Ours came back good but not great. We knew that we needed to put some extra love in there.”
The Question of Crunch
Game delays don’t necessarily cause more crunch, but a lot of evidence indicates that it’s not uncommon. After Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ delay to later this year, Doug Bowser, head of Nintendo of America, told IGN that the company is comfortable delaying games to put out the best-possible product if it means avoiding crunch. “We need to make sure that our employees have good work-life balance,” he said. His predecessor, Reggie Fils-Aimé, echoed this sentiment to VICE in a 2018 interview: “We flex through the use of contract employees. We flex in the way we work with our agency partners.”
Several developers WIRED interviewed say it’s standard to bring on contract employees to get a game done on time, both before and after a delay. When Salvatore experienced her first game delay, she was a contractor. “All of the staff were frustrated and put off, with the exception of the 30 of us who were excited to be keeping our jobs,” she said. (Game studios sometimes impose large layoffs or cease working with contractors after a game is released.)
It’s easy for a big, well-paid executive to issue some line when prompted about one of gaming’s most controversial topics. It’s harder to discern what’s really going on behind the scenes. In fact, just months ago, CD Projekt Red’s cofounder said they were “working hard toward” abolishing mandatory crunch at the studio, which was infamous for the practice throughout The Witcher 3’s development. After the co-CEO’s recent statement walking that back and admitting that developers would suffer crunch, it’s clear that initial goal didn’t bear out.
Games workers often talk of goalposts, including when it comes to delays and labor. After Dragon Age: Inquisition was delayed twice, Aaryn Flynn, the studio head at BioWare, would later tell Kotaku that “It’s like saying oh, that marathon finish line that we thought was here is actually six miles further, sorry guys.”
“I've never had a delay lessen the amount of crunch I've had to do,” said Salvatore, who added that she has experienced several game delays. “All it really did was make the light at the end of the tunnel further away.”
Another veteran game developer, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed, when asked whether game delays cause more crunch: “I think it’s hard to say. What is probably more true is that a team that was crunching before a game was delayed will probably still crunch afterward. A studio or team that is really dedicated to avoiding crunch would be assessing the possibility of delays before crunch set in, and would be estimating delays based on a noncrunch rate of work.”
Game developers WIRED spoke with said that fans are more understanding than they used to be about delays. There’s so much to play anyway that there will always be older, well-hyped games that fans skipped to save money or time. If Cyberpunk 2077 isn’t out for another couple months, or even another year, there are a dozen modern magnum opi to chew on in the meantime.
“For me, ‘on time’ is the time that it's ready to be played,” said Larian’s Douse. “Anything else is just academic. Academic with consequences, but academic.”
This story has been updated to reflect that the size of the videogame industry is $152 billion, not $160 billion as previously stated.