Can Game Development Take TOO Long?

By Chad Awkerman

April 5, 2010

Starcraft II, Diablo III, Gran Turismo 5, Final Fantasy XIII – what do all these games have in common? I feel the development and/or release of these game have taken way too long. Now, before you jump to conclusions about what I just said, let’s clear something up – I’m not a fanboy; I don’t feel they’ve taken too long because I want the game now and nothing later than now will suffice. No, I feel games like these take more time than is really needed in development or in the release process. Let me tell you a little story.

Once upon a time in videogameland there was a game called Trine, a little downloadable title you might remember from last year. After watching video after video and closely following the news surrounding the game, I was really looking forward to it. I knew the game was primarily a PC title; however, even before it was released initially on that platform, the developer said they fully intended it to be released on the PSN as well. It would be my personal preference to play it on a console instead of a PC, so I waited. The PC version came out, and I still waited. The game got delayed and delayed again on the PSN. Finally, it was released on the PSN… over three and a half months later. I didn’t buy it – I still haven’t.

What happened? The game took too long to release on my preferred console. It took so long that I just didn’t care anymore. Not to mention that when it finally came out on the PSN (near the end of October), it did so among a slew of AAA titles I planned to purchase and play. That didn’t help things at all, really. What about now? Again, too many other things to play and do. I nearly forget that Trine is even available on the PSN unless someone reminds me or I happen to see it while browsing the PS Store.

So, let me submit a theory. To start with, while developers may claim that a game takes [insert time frame here] to develop and, if it isn’t done in that time frame, they claim they are “polishing” the title or feel it needs more “development time”, I don’t believe that is the case the majority of the time. Games like Gran Turismo 5 have been in development for who knows how long, and that game in particular has had its release pushed back again and again to the point that I personally don’t care anymore. Final Fantasy XIII was in development for five years and I think it was way too overhyped and, to some degree, the hype started to fade away for me before I even purchased it. I waited five years for this? Why can excellent productions like God of War 3 take only two or three years to develop and release, while other titles that have arguably the same production values take twice that or more? Do certain developers think they are hot snot because they’re taking longer and “polishing” a game longer than others?

My theory also holds that the hype machine works both ways. Certain companies thrive on this hype surrounding their games and I’m going to call one of them out right now – Blizzard Entertainment. They release very few games compared to other developers, their games take the better part of forever to develop and then they release them and sell more copies than most other developers out there. But, what happens when a game takes so long in development that no one cares about it anymore? Could this hype machine backfire on Blizzard with titles such as Starcraft II and Diablo III? Quite possibly. Of course, you always have your hardest of hardcore fans that are going to wait until they are holding in their dying breath just to play a new game from their favorite developer or franchise. Much more likely, however, there is a sizable number of people who are interested in the game – possibly very interested – but don’t have the devotion to the developer or franchise that the relatively small group of hardcore have. This is the group that, if they’re not careful, will start forgetting about a title if it takes too long.

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To illustrate: A sequel to a great game is announced – let’s just call that sequel Warstarblocraft II. While the previous game wasn’t forgotten about, no one is really expecting this announcement, so the hype goes through the roof. This is actually the climax of the hype for the game. From then on, it is in a constant state of decline. While it may decline very slowly at first, over the months and years the game takes in development, it tends to decline more quickly. Eventually, there is negative hype for the title because it has reached a sort of mythic status: no one is sure if it actually exists or if the developer is just stringing us along to constantly remind us that this once highly anticipated sequel is still a remote possibility. During this entire time, other great games are released, perhaps even in the same genre as Warstarblocraft II. People play those games and the more they spend time with those, the less and less they are really, truly hyped about their once exalted sequel. Finally, it is just like any other game when it gets close to an actual release, and once it comes out, no one really cares about it in the grand scheme of things.

Let’s cover some arguments against my theory right now.

1) A game’s production time and costs have gone up considerably this generation! So they have indeed. That is not being disputed. The question is why is it taking so long to release a multi-million dollar game like Gran Turismo 5 when God of War 3 cost $44 million dollars, has insanely high production value and was developed and released in considerably less amount of time?

2) They’ll release it when they’re ready! Okay, put down the torches and pitchforks, Blizzard fanboys. This “excuse” of Blizzard’s gets old after a while. I’m sorry I’m picking on Blizzard so much, I really do have nothing but admiration for them. Not many (if any) developers can do what they do and still survive in this strained economy. To their credit, their games are outstanding. But, why does it take so long for them to be “ready”? What exactly is involved in being “ready” to release a title? How much polish can you actually put on a game? The same can be said to Polyphony Digital. You know, there is no end to the amount of cars you can put in the game and polish to an almost life-like presentation; you have to stop somewhere and just be happy with it. Starcraft II and Gran Turismo 5 will still sell millions if you released them right now as opposed to some undisclosed and arbitrary future “ready” date. Trust me.

3) Technical issues and localization. Okay, this one has the most merit of them all, however in this day and age, if you are pouring this much cash into one of these highly anticipated titles, there is no reason to not fix technical issues in a reasonable amount of time. I’ve also seen games localized very well in a short amount of time (Resonance of Fate, for example), as opposed to an ungodly 14 months (White Knight Chronicles).

Mind you, all this is just my theory, but it has happened to me on more than one occasion and with more than one game in the recent past. So, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned finally came out on the PS3 last week. Does anyone still care? No, really, do you? Hey, Starcraft II might come out this year, but are you really still thinking about it besides when people remind you that it is on the horizon? Will we ever see Gran Turismo 5 in anything other than an endless stream of screen shots, videos and overpriced demos? All these games, in my opinion, are in the “negative hype” phase right now, so when they actually do come out, I fear there may be fewer people interested in them than there would have been. When I see high-quality games like Uncharted 2 and God of War 3 take infinitely less time in development than their counterparts, I tend to think the development time doesn’t have to be as long as some developers make it out to be. To me, it seems that they’re getting rather arrogant, considering themselves above everyone else just because their game spent so much time in development or it took too long to be released on a certain platform. In reality, they can think that all they want, but at the end of the day, does anyone still care?

What can be done to fix this? I don’t have anything against developers like Blizzard, Square-Enix or Polyphony Digital, but I do think they should reconsider the way they go about releasing information on upcoming titles, perhaps even taking a lesson from a certain hardware developer by the name of Apple. Here’s what Apple does – they announce a product that has possibly been in development for years, but only when they are a few months outside of actually releasing that product to the public. Imagine if the iPad was announced three years ago. Would anyone still care about it if all we’ve seen of it over the last three years was a snapshot here and there and Apple saying, “Yeah, it probably won’t come out this year”, or continually pushing the “release date” back for several years in a row? Not likely. So, instead of announcing the product when they’re years from release, they wait until development is drawing to a close, and… then they announce it. The hype goes through the roof and it never drops much, because the release date for the product is mere weeks away. When the product hits, they sell 300,000 of them without so much as a second thought in only a few hours on release day. This, in my opinion, is what game developers should aspire toward. And, truth be told, some are better at this than others.

What do you think? Can a game’s hype backfire on the developer because of the length of time it may spend in the development or release process? I’d be interested to see other opinions on the matter. Are you still looking forward to Warstarblocraft II? Gran Turismo 5? Any other titles that you know are in development but seem to be lost in limbo?

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Chad Awkerman

Chad joined the DualShockers staff in mid 2009 and since then has put much of his time into covering RPGs, with a focus on the Japanese side of the genre, from the obscure to the mainstream. He's a huge fan of iconic games like Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy VI and Persona 4 yet enjoys the smaller niche titles, as well. In his spare time he enjoys experiencing new beer, new foods and keeping up with just about every sci-fi show on television. He's married to an intelligent, beautiful Southern Belle who keeps his life interesting with witty banter and spicy Cajun cooking.

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