A Gamer’s Perspective: Release Dates Aren’t Rocket Science
Now, I don’t know about the rest of you, but the purchase of games — especially physical copies — has taken on something of a religious significance for me. There’s the rush of danger as you leave the speed limit in your dust on your way to play your newest purchase as soon as humanly possible; that never-gets-old smell of fresh game hitting your nostrils for the first time as your rip the plastic off and, if you’re on a PC, anticipation built to such a crescendo by the end of the install that it takes you three tries to open the damn game after an install that went only slightly faster than your average glacier.
This was the cocktail of emotion I, like hundreds of thousands of gamers around the world, was dealing with when the Battlefield 4 logo first hit my screen. The first thing I did, naturally, was pump the graphics as high as they would go and fire up a singleplayer level.
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My word, the pretty. At last, I had something to do justice to my latest grapics card upgrade and 27″ purchase. Once my tears had drained enough of the moisture in my body that hospitalisation was becoming a legitimate concern, I decided to jump into the multiplayer.
This, of course, was the big stuff. I’m a multiplayer addict – CoD4, StarCraft 2, DayZ, My Little Pony Online, whatever. Can’t get enough of the stuff. Multiplayer, as we all know, was also far and away DICE’s main selling point for the game.
Pretty soon, it became apparent that the multiplayer was — excuse the pun — a bit dicey. It started small, with getting randomly disconnected and messed around by the queue system while trying to connect to a server. That was fine, though — I was willing to endure what I had to if it meant getting into the game. Unfortunately, though, that wasn’t where the issues stopped. Performance drops, server disconnects and a sound engine that, for all I could tell, existed only when it wanted to (which wasn’t often). Top all of those issues off with loading times that gave you enough time between maps to finish doctoral theses, and you had a multiplayer package that, on release, was functionally unplayable in any meaningful or convenient sense.
Battlefield 4’s release issues are, unfortunately, not an outlier in the current triple-A market. I could rattle off a list of games, but everyone reading this will probably have any number of anecdotes of release-day frustration mirroring the one I’ve jut shared.
It doesn’t take a genius to identify the fundamental issue at work here: whether for profit or fear of consumer backlash, publishers are unwilling to postpone their release dates — even when it means releasing a product as bug-riddled as some of those we’ve seen in the far-too-recent past.
Contrast the on-time, bug-ridden release we’ve just spoken about with that of the recent release of Dean ‘Rocket’ Hall’s ARMA 2 mod turned standalone: DayZ.
DayZ Standalone’s path to retail release has been a tumultuous one, to say the least. Development was announced in 2012, with the alpha slated to be available by the end of that year. Much to the horror of the DayZ community, though, Rocket announced that the game wasn’t far enough into its development to be released in 2012 and postponed DayZ’s release — indefinitely.
Most publishers and developers look at this scenario and see a bad business decision. In their eyes, a million sales this month are worth more than a million sales in six month’s time, you sacrifice customers who would have been willing to buy on your initial release date by moving it later and causing them to lose interest, and postponement of a game is a bad marketing decision, because it lessens consumer confidence in the developer.
All of these reasons are, of course, horribly out of touch with the reality of what developer postponement of release does for a game — let’s look at how reality actually plays out, using the DayZ Standalone as a case study.
For many of us, hearing Rocket announce that the game wasn’t yet at a high enough standard for release was when we really started paying attention. Developer delays don’t reduce consumer confidence in a game — it sends the message that the people you’re thinking of investing your money with are committed to delivering you a quality entertainment experience. In an age of copy-pasted Call of Duty clones which could as well be produced by computer algorithms, developers taking personal interest in their games is going to swing the market in your favour, not against it.
The second product of a dev delaying a game in order to polish it for release is fairly intuitive – the more time taken to test and perfect the final product, the better the play experience will be on release. Anyone who has played the DayZ Standalone early access will know exactly what I’m talking about here – excellent performance, stable servers and a relatively intuitive, mostly functional interface makes DayZ’s alpha on par with an embarrassing amount of triple-A releases when it comes to functionality. There are plenty of gamers out there who wait for the reviews to roll in before making their purchases — if a publisher wants to attract their business too, it is unquestionably in their interest to ensure that their release is a bug-free one. If we’re talking about losing business because consumers become disinterested in your product, there is no surer way to achieve that than have a new release steal a consumer’s attention while they were waiting for you to patch your game out of beta-level issues.
Last and most interestingly, there is the effect that having to wait longer for a game than consumers initially expected has on release sales figures. Let’s take the example to the furthest degree here — when Half Life 3 is released (for it surely is a question of ‘when’), I’m willing to put myself out there and say that its sales figures are going to be through the roof — even people who’ve never played the Half-Life series have heard so much about Half-Life 3 that they’ll probably go out and buy it, if for no other reason than they’ve seen so much anticipation and hype for it that they assume it must be worth their money.
The DayZ hype train didn’t have quite as much inertia as Half-Life 3, but that’s hardly something we can hold against it. In its year-odd postponement, though, the DayZ hype train — particularly fuelled by communities like Reddit — did become the stuff of internet legend. Not only were so many people so excited about the game that their enthusiasm spread to people who would not otherwise have bought, but it created an organism of crazy conspiracy theories and educated, astrology-fuelled guesses about when the release would be that was so hilarious to keep abreast of that not only did it retain the vast majority of those who intended to buy on the initial release date, but it attracted many, many more who had no intentions at all of doing so.
The end result of all of this was that when DayZ finally did get released, purchases started happening within the first few seconds of a portal going live on the Bohemia Interactive website. A few seconds later, the Bohemia Interactive site crashed, overwhelmed by the amount of purchase requests for the alpha version of a game that had no advertising, no triple-A sticker, and no physical release.
Once downloaded, the only factor stopping people from playing the game was that finding a server was almost impossible — every single one was full. As in, I spent an hour refreshing the South African server list the night after release night and didn’t manage to get into a single game kind of full.
Clearly, Rocket did something right.
We’ll probably never see a situation in the industry where big-name publishers are willing to get out of the way and allow developers to produce the game they want to in the timeframe they want to, to a quality and polish they are happy with for the sake of preserving developer integrity. Looking at DayZ’s release and Rocket’s part in it, though, there are clearly some fairly persuasive arguments to be made for delaying unpolished games. Maybe, just maybe, someone at EA will have a thought intelligent enough to justify the degree they claim to have and bring our traumatic release-day experiences to and end.
Until then, I’d just bet on the horse that we all know has already on. Do yourself a favour and go buy DayZ.