The Waiting Game

First impressions are important when chatting up a bird for the first time, and so is pacing. Say you spot a good looking one, manage to deliver your line without having a tropical drink, complete with the umbrella, sticking to your face. You survive the first round and get her number, now comes the real challenge, to figure out the pacing for how to proceed, to not seem too desperate or too uninterested, how many dates? How often? When can you close the deal?

A rain check, that lasts more than a year:

Well, this is not a challenge unique to the average bloke on the prowl, it is also an art that game developers have to master if they want to capture and hold gamers interest in a way that ultimately results in sales. Just like most chaps the developers by and large are surprisingly bad at this and their apparent incompetence is largely related to another weak point of developers and publishers alike, which is their almost traditional terrible sense of when a game project will be completed. Why is it that developers are so incredibly retarded when it comes to predicting a games release date, let alone release year? We don’t really see this happening anywhere else in the entertainment industry. When was the last time a movie slipped past its promised premier date? Outside of unforeseen problems with strikes or sudden loss of talent or funding movies and television shows always premier when they are planned to be.

The movie industry predates the game industry by many decades so perhaps the added time has helped it mature as things and practices have become streamlined and standardised. But ultimately I still have a hard time believing most developers not being aware of a certain release date for their game being completely unrealistic. Rather, it seems to me that people in the game industry are well aware of the problems with predicted release dates but opt not to fix them because it is an essential part of a very complex, and tradition steeped, mating dance between publishers and developers.

You see, the publishers, being the money men, know full well that time is money and wanting to have the most out of their investments traditionally spring a completely unrealistic and unachievable schedule on developers. The initial release date, the one gamers initially learn about and only fools would put any stock behind originates from the publishers fantasy ideals. When a publisher and developer sign a contract for funding a game it is usually done in a money for milestone kind of way. The publisher spawns a brood from its dark womb detailing when it expects certain elements of the contracted game to be complete. Publishers probably schedule the developers on such a tight squeeze to constantly force them to be in crunch mode, the mode were the poor developers burn the midnight oil, neglecting their lives and families to make that next deadline. The developers, being victim to the fact that beggars can’t be choosers, usually don’t have any say in this because objections could cost them the contract going to someone more desperate which could very well end up becoming their undoing. People who want money are a dime dozen, the people who have said money are not, so they usually get to dictate terms.

Crunch mode is were the publishers are getting most for their money’s worth because the tradition stating that developers work overtime without extra pay means that the development of the game is progressing faster for free. Of course, crunch is meant to only be utilised in short spurts of a few months, otherwise people will burn out and eventually the lie of the schedule will catch up to the the ones with fiery pants, e.g. the publishers, and they will be forced to do what they were probably counting on from the start, to delay the game. Tradition has it that the first slip usually falls a few months before the original release date because the people responsible want to drag things as far as they possibly can. Being greedy bastards, and with good reason, publishers ink a new schedule by once again trying to squeeze blood from a stone by choosing the new release date with no less opportunistic optimism in order to continue putting the hurt on the developers.

The skin of most gamers has been hardened by a thousand disappointing lashes from the 8 tailed delay whip, so we can smell that first obligatory delay coming a mile away. What usually gets us though is that second delay which was once a rare occurrence but has now become pretty common place these days where 12 month delays are becoming the least one should expect. “This game has been delayed to further focus on quality and deliver on the developers original vision for the game”. The usual marketing explanation you get thrown into the same face that just seconds earlier was slapped with a giant herring, the giant herring of the unexpected second delay.

Well, great! I always think when I have sheit like that poured into my ear. So your original release date was somehow not made to incorporate the focus on quality and delivering on the developers vision? What was it based on then? The hopes and “wouldn’t be swell if it came out that soon” dreams of the money counters? Isn’t it about time this industry where gargantuan heaps of money are injected into projects spanning over several years shaped up a little and saw about getting hold of some professionals who can jot out a realistic timeline for the conclusion of a project?

It seems to me most gamers and game enthusiasts have by now developed a far more reliable ability to predict which games are going to be delayed and by how long. I don’t see game delays going away any time soon though, because the industry has somehow been built around this mechanism in a way that it actually has become a core part of it. Often publishers have to be presented with a near complete version of a game before developers can prove to them that they have something special on their hands which could benefit from a few more months of development, and by benefit I mean benefit the publisher with greater profits. If the developer fails to convince the publisher then they usually choose to cut their losses and ship the game as is, broken.

Things are not exactly that much different in the movie industry with the studios playing the part of the bad guys responsible for ruining artistic visions with their poisonous greed. But the movie industry has it better in the end because the principal creative forces behind great movies make huge sums of money and enjoy a lot of power. The big movie directors, the ones whose names we know, demand million dollar salaries and can with relative ease rally funding and the support of big name stars behind their own personal movie projects, something a little more artsy and less mainstream, something they know won’t make any profit but will help everyone involved grow a little in each their own field and add to their reputation.

What about the big names in the game industry then, anything similar here to offset the greed? The salaries of the big time Game creators is not exactly something readily available to be found out, but if I had to guess I would say their salaries are a lot closer to what you and I make and far removed from what the big movie directors make. Big names like Hideo Kojima and Shigeru Miyamoto have struggled hard for decades by producing large strings of millions sellers to get to the point where they are now, which I imagine grants them a little more freedom, but they are pretty much the only ones and I think even they will have to fight hard for their new ideas before they are green lit.

The art of strutting your stuff:

The marketing departments of different developers/publishers has caught on to the traditional song and dance by varying degrees of success. These days where correct marketing more than quality determines the final sales number of a game it is important to have a competent marketing team that understands how to perfectly pull off every
thing from the first unveiling of a game to final spurt for attention as the game hits the shelves.

The game unveil is important for the creation of hype because if done incorrectly it might actually hurt sales in the end. The most disastrous examples of this in recent memory is Silicon knights E3 2006 unveiling of the ill-fated Too Human project, whose history of misfortune can actually be traced all the way back to the ancient times of the 32bit era. Before that unveil, due in part to Silicon Knight’s previous very well received game Eternal Darkness, the hype was pretty healthy for Too Human. But things took a sudden dramatic turn when reports and footage of a disappointing early build of the game running at E3 reached peoples ears. Since then it seems the goddess of misfortune has cast her gaze upon that project as it has continually been met with delays and disinterest before finally falling completely off of the radar. If Silicon Knights had resisted the pressure of having something to show at E3 and waited until they had something a bit more polished to show then things might have worked out differently, or at least people would still harbour some interested in the game.

The ideal game unveil for me is when developers keep all the cards to themselves until about 5-8 months before the actual, for real, release date and then introduce it to gamers with a well crafted trailer designed to wet our appetites. Then continue releasing trailers, information and screenshots from the game in a slow steady supply to build up the hype that should peak right around the time the game releases. By far the most lame way to unveil a game is by releasing concept art work, recent example being the new Prince of Persia, or god forbid releasing a pre-rendered concept trailer, recent example being Motor Storm: Pacific Rift.

I cant believe people still do pre-rendered trailers for games in this day and age, why? A pre-rendered trailer is so obscene because it tells you absolutely nothing about the game. It was made by some people at an unrelated animation studio so everything about it is so far removed from the game that you might be interested in that it is ridiculous. Not only that but since it is the first thing related to the game that you see it will automatically set your expectations for the game graphics unrealistically high and you will only be disappointed when you see the first actual in game footage. The graphics of the first Motor Storm paled in comparison to the graphics in the CG trailer, and things haven’t changed with the second Motor Storm.

Even worse than a bad game unveil is the premature game unveil which happens when developers/publishers get so high on their own expectations of what they think they have on their hands or when they can expect to have it that they manage to unveil a game years before it actually comes out. This of course means that at first you see footage from the game, it looks great and you cant wait to play it, then after a excruciatingly long hiatus the next thing you hear about the game is likely news about a huge delay together with a apologetic trailer meant to keep your interest. The Killzone trailer was first shown at E3 2005, a full 4 years after it is currently scheduled to come out, 4 years is a long time to maintain interest in a game and indeed all interest in the game had dissipated until Guerrilla tried to redeem themselves by recreating the trailer using real time graphics. They came close enough, but imagine how much more impact the game could have had if the first people had seen of it was 6 months before release, out of the blue, witnessing graphics that amazing a short time before being able experience it oneself at home, peoples heads would have exploded. The first real time Killzone trailer did explode peoples heads, but in the intervening 1-2 years before its release peoples heads will have had time to heal.

The first Metal Gear Solid 4 trailer that showed actual footage from the game was shown to us at E3 2005, now, Kojima claims that the footage was of the game running real time on development hardware but I still have that video, and looking at it today it is clear that the graphics are a lot better in that first trailer than what the game looks like now, a significant lot actually. About a year later, in 2006, we are shown the second trailer for the game, in which as a joke the release date is shown to be 2008, but is quickly scribbled out and replaced by 2007. The irony of that little gag is not lost on us, given recent developments. Overall, the first trailer coming out a full 3 years before the game is ultimately released together with the visual downgrade could have ended up becoming disastrous for Kojima and company, but the legacy of the Metal Gear Solid franchise is so spot free that they got away with it Scott free. Fortunately not that many other games exist that can claim to be able to pull off the same stunt.

The first official thing we saw of the new Prince of Persia was a guy drawing a piece of concept art for the game. Which made me question who chose to pull the trigger and bother unveiling the game at all when they obviously had nothing to show. Then, a month later the creators are heard stating that ideally they want the game to come out this year. Yeah, right, chaps, go ahead and try, but don’t expect us to believe we will see it anytime sooner than summer 2009.

The first trailer for Resident Evil 5 was shown in 2005. It was, I believe, a pre-rendered concept trailer and 6 months later, in July of 2006, the second trailer was released, this one was in game and looked absolutely amazing and racism concerns aside everyone was stoked for the game. But then we heard the director tell us in an interview to not expect the game until 2009-2010, well awesome man, awesome, why the hell did you show us the trailer this early then?

I could go on with examples like this, but I think I’ve made my point. There should never be more than 12 months between the time one learns of a game and the time said game is available for purchase, anything longer than that is just obnoxious and might cause people to lose interest or get fed up with waiting. I know I cannot shake off the bitterness of the long wait even as I finally sit down and play an amazing game. We often end up waiting up to 4 years for the games we really want. 4 years! That is such a long time. Think about it, working off of an 80 year average life span and discounting the first 15 and last 25 we are left with 40 years to play and wait for games. You ask that people use 4 of what they only have 40 of in total to wait for a game? That is 1/10th of their game playing life, now that is just being rude.