You’ve got to hand it Rockstar’s PR team. Today they delayed this year’s biggest game by about six months, and not only did it not cause a great deal of discontent, conversely a great number of people were actually delighted about it. There’s too much going on in Spring, too many games, not enough time, they said. A curious shift, perhaps, but the fact remains: Rockstar got away with it.
Perhaps it was the tone of the announcement. “Today we are happy to announce the official release date for Grand Theft Auto V” it began. Happy. A carefully considered, highly tactful message followed, an attempt to satiate a community of fans already off balance by that introduction. It’s smart, it uses words like “proud” and soundbites from Sam Houser reinforce the one-way conversation.
And there are snippets of new information in there too, already no doubt dissected by the hardcore and disseminated by the press. And the reason for all this? “Additional development time.” No fluff, no nonsense, just the notion that the game’s not quite ready yet and – impressively – we’ll all be absolutely fine with that.
Maybe we’ll get another trailer as some kind of congratulatory compensation.
Appreciate that I’m speaking broadly, of course. I understand there’ll be legions of die-hard GTA fans that were desperate to get their hands on the game and I’m sure there’ll be shareholders and stakeholders that would have been dreading such an announcement, but generally speaking, from where I’m sitting, Rockstar probably just about got away with it.
The second GTA V trailer, which already feels so long ago.
Consider this, though. In an age where the industry is governed by ridiculously high marketing budgets and release dates set in stone six months in advance, anyone that goes against the grain deserves a nod. Gamers are now reluctantly adjusted to the idea of huge “day one” patches and a hidden roadmap of clumsy fixes and tweaks that can easily last six months.
And when Nintendo are doing this too, you know the landscape has changed for good.
Look at Battlefield 3, its release date plastered all over the LA Convention Centre on E3’s opening day eighteen months ago. I saw it happen, the big reveal, and then I wondered how the hell the developers could know they’d get the game out at a date that seemed so far in the future, and yet just around the corner.
Sure, you can estimate it, you can follow the schedule and see where it ends up, but this was a big statement, and it was directly pointed at Call of Duty. It was, almost without doubt, set by the publisher and – guess what – needed a (then) hefty update to get the game up to some standard. The game would have been submitted to manufacture without being final, and then a patch was squeezed in to make things work.
And Battlefield was the lucky one. Recall Skyrim, another casualty of perhaps needlessly excessive E3 hype (remember the building sized mural?) and one that ended up faltering dramatically on the PlayStation 3. Bethesda’s ambitious but broken adventure wasn’t ready for launch on PS3, and yet the date pre-set was adhered to regardless, with the promise of fixes down the line. DLC for Sony’s platform is still to shamble out.
Fault Line, the 12 minute trailer for Battlefield 3.
I’m not here to attempt to paint a rosy picture of one publisher whilst wagging a finger at another, though – gamers can manage that perfectly well themselves – rather to illustrate that as gaming becomes ever more expensive for those signing the cheques, a carefully constructed marketing plan is increasingly going to be the one that sticks, not the fact that the game isn’t done.
And it’s only going to get worse. The industry is becoming ever more reliant on pre-orders now, with special editions commonplace and publishers now having to push the boundaries just to get noticed. EA last night said that pre-orders for Dead Space 3 were well beyond those for Dead Space 2, and I’m not even aware of any hugely fancy limited edition for those that have already put down a deposit.
Even Sony are in on the act now, with The Last Of Us bagging two (count ’em) special versions, one for each of the two main characters (and cleverly split between mainline and indie retailers). Pre-ordering is no longer about making sure your copy is definitely going to be waiting for you on release day, it’s about providing extra in-game content, fancy packaging and trinkets that’ll (at best) sit on your shelf.
And surely we don’t need to mention The Last Guardian, which was first seen years ago and still hasn’t got anything like a release date.
And then there’s the teaser campaigns. The videos that do nothing except point to a date in the future on which you’ll see another date when the game will be coming out – these can be months and months into the future, and once they’re down in zeroes and ones, the pre-order campaign laid out nicely and dozens of blog posts, preview events and press releases all lined up, who would really have the minerals to change that date?
Ascension’s latest video, a 9 minute making of.
It seems that the bigger the publisher, the bigger the budget and the longer the hype train runs for. Some brands need this – Battlefield cleverly reinvented itself through very exacting footage (on the highest spec PCs) for weeks and Sony are desperately keen to convince everyone that God Of War: Ascension (above) is going to be something really special, and some brands don’t. Think FIFA, which manages to materialise at the same point year in, year out, and still manage to outsell everything else.
We’ve got the official PlayStation blogs running stories, we’ve got community managers and developers appearing on message boards and we’ve got celebrity endorsements (no matter how unnatural) – all designed to convince the consumer that this game will be unmissable and that they’ll need to clear their diary, book the time off work and lock the door for a week afterwards.
It’s a drip feed of information and it’s all designed to build up to one date.
And with GTA V, that date puts it squarely on top of Killzone Mercenary’s, revealed just hours earlier. Sony would have spent considerable time weighing up a marketing plan, timescales from the developers and a gap in the schedule, and Rockstar have just come along and dumped the behemoth that is the Grand Theft Auto series right in its path.
But the date can’t move. It’s there for multiple reasons and you’d better have balls of steel if you’re going to shift it. Rockstar had a caveat, of course, there wasn’t ever a ‘date’, just a season, but GTA V isn’t exactly unique in having an eleventh hour shift. And if it means the game will be as good as it can be, without the worry of numerous patches to fix issues that should never have made it onto the gold master, then so be it.