The first two years of the lifespan of the PS4 and of the Xbox One has been marked by awesome games, but also by a large number of delays. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Quantum Break, Scalebound, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Deep Down, Bloodborne… The list goes on and on.
This might be surprising for many, considering that the architecture of the latest consoles from Sony and Microsoft is much closer to the relatively simple PC architecture, arguably making development easier.
Yet, there’s much more to this kind of delays than meets the eye, and the potential reasons for missing release windows have been multiplying over the years, both on the development side, and on the publishing side.
First and foremost, games are getting bigger and more complex, basically under every aspect of their structure. Open world games are becoming more and more widespread, and their environments are becoming more expansive and systemic.
Open world development tends to be a lot more complicated than making linear games: when you create a game in which the player has to go simply from A to B to C (and I know, this is an oversimplification), you can script pretty much everything. You can also predict with a lot more precision what the player will do, allowing for a more limited set of responses from your AI, characters and other entities.
With an open world or semi-open world setup, the player is considerably less predictable. In order to make the world feel alive, developers need to rely less on scripting and more on systemic elements, that tend to multiply the coding hurdles that need to be overcome.
Even just opening the world more compared to its predecessors, like Naughty Dog is doing with Uncharted 4: a Thief’s End, reduces the predictability of the player’s actions and amplifies the complexity of systems required to make everything work properly.
Another possible reason is the difference between the “next generation” expectations and the actual capabilities of the platforms involved. The PS3 demonstrated loud and clear that the console market plays on affordable prices. This caused both Sony and Microsoft to make herculean efforts to keep the pricing of their new machines as low as possible.
The biggest gains in power have been focused where it costs less, which is the memory. The use of advanced components that tend to have a higher cost (GPU and CPU) has been severely limited by the necessity to keep the final price down.
This means that both the PS4 and the Xbox One are far from supercomputers. They’re relatively powerful compared to the console market, but what they can do is still very limited when put side by side even with the lower end of gaming PCs.
Developers have found themselves with a lot of memory on their hands, which means that they can use bigger and better assets (textures, animations, models and so forth), but that memory is paired with a CPU and GPU combo that can and will struggle to handle those assets at the desired speed.
If you ever played World of Tanks, you can grasp the concept easily by thinking about the most sluggish heavy tanks. They have a lot of armor and big guns, but their engines struggle to cope, and their horsepower-to-weight ratio is low. As a result, you struggle to reach 10 Mph when you have to climb even the gentlest slope.
If tanks aren’t your forte, just think about a truck with a lot of carrying space, but saddled with a weak engine and transmission. Sure, you can put a whole lot of cargo on into that trunk, but then your truck will be slow and sluggish.
This doesn’t mean that developers can’t create great looking and fast games with the hardware of the PS4 or of the Xbox One, and in fact they do. Yet, doing so at good frame rates, even more in an open world environment with all those systems running in the background, requires an enormous amount of optimization, painstakingly shaving milliseconds from every frame. That’s pretty much comparable to a sculptor that has to remove the excess material from his statue atom by atom.
Unfortunately, optimization takes time, and often more time than what the developers themselves initially predicted.
Incidentally, don’t get me wrong: i’m not blaming Microsoft and Sony for going the cheaper route in order to keep their prices down. The previous generation taught hard lessons, and selling the PS4 and Xbox One at an affordable price to stabilize a console market, that many saw as struggling, was pretty much the only choice they had.
As a result, the console market is now more lively and successful that it has been in years. While the average components force developers to work hard and long in order to achieve results, the explosive console sales contribute to keeping them working on the big games that we love, instead of redirecting resources to the cheaper and easier (at least in terms of resources and manpower required) mobile market. That’s definitely a positive thing.
On top of that, most of the games that are getting delayed now, have entered development close to the beginning of the generation, when developers still weren’t completely aware of what the new platforms could, or couldn’t, do. This most probably led to underestimating the time necessary for optimization, or even simply to make things work properly.
The issue was probably reflected on the publishing side as well: at the beginning of the generation, first parties found themselves with the necessity of pushing the new consoles, announcing big line-ups of games to be released as soon as possible. On the other hand, third parties had to secure the competitive edge by jumping on the new-gen bandwagon as soon as possible. This most probably put a lot of (direct or indirect) pressure on the development teams, pushing them to give overly optimistic estimates.
We’re all human, and human beings are by nature impatient, so it’s natural to feel disappointed when a game gets delayed. Yet, it isn’t all bad.
Of course, common wisdom has by now adopted the quote attributed to Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, explaining how it’s better to delay a game that isn’t up to standards, than to rush it out of the gate before it’s polished:
“A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.”
Yet, there’s more to it. The beginning of this generation certainly saw quite a few games dropped on the shelves before they were ready, saddled with sub-par gameplay, ideas that were nice on paper but that could have used more time in the oven to really shine, dreadfully unsteady frame rates, and more serious issues.
Gaming has become more and more social, and social networks and discussion environments have gained more and more importance as vehicles of outrage. More than in previous generations, gamers have shown that they aren’t going to just swallow sub-par products, and thanks to the massive loudspeaker offered by the internet, they have inflicted serious hits on the image of those corporations that delivered unfinished and unpolished titles.
You probably know that I am not fond of negativity, especially when it’s blown out of proportion (which happens a lot). Yet, it’s undeniable that many big publishers, whether directly by being the target of widespread criticism, or indirectly by seeing it happen to others, have been taught some harsh lessons.
I’m quite confident that nowadays we’re seeing so many delays not just because the games involved could use more time, but also because the publishers involved have learned from those lessons, and are now more willing to bite the bullet and eat the additional expense (delaying games has a cost, and not a small one) and limited image hit caused by pushing back a title.
A few years ago, many of the games that are now being delayed, would have probably been rushed to the stores anyway. Now publishers are aware that a delay is a much more desirable alternative to a large PR blunder accompanied by the loss of customer confidence in a relevant IP, that often result from releasing a title that isn’t up to snuff.
Especially Sony and Microsoft (but they aren’t the only ones), seem to have learned the value of giving their teams all the time they need to deliver the best games that they can. This determines an increase in titles pushed back, but it has the potential to give us better games to play, as developers are granted more leeway to apply more polish and to give new features as much time in the oven as they need.
I can certainly understand the disappointment of having to wait longer for a game you really want to play, but I’m quite sure that it’s not comparable to the pain of seeing that game fail to meet your expectations. That’s why I strongly feel that this new-found willingness by publishers to give more time to their studios is very positive for the industry and ultimately for us.
After all, it’s not like we don’t have enough games to play. My titanic backlog is getting more and more bloated with every sale, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.