Words: 2986 Approximate Reading Time: 20-25 minutes
Much as I enjoy video games in many aspects – playing them, talking about them, reading about them – I don’t really follow gaming news. I learn about new games mostly by accident: someone suggests a title to me, or I stumble upon something in the Steam listings, or a new release is so heavily marketed that it’s hard to avoid announcements. But I don’t seek this stuff out. In fact, I generally avoid most news. I usually refuse to watch trailers or read stories.
I know a decent number of people who do the same thing for their own reasons. And I know others who like to consume all sorts of media about the games they’re excited for. My aim here isn’t to say that there’s a right or wrong way to consume news about video games.
But one issue that has stuck with me for a while is the topic of release dates. The idea of a soft or hard date when a game is scheduled to be released, delays, and the discussions surrounding these concepts.
I’ve become more and more interested – maybe even concerned – about release dates as we have become more and more aware of the nature of crunch in the video game industry. About how employees can be compelled in one way or another to work 60-80 hour weeks to get a game in some state of completion. The fact that so much stress is placed upon employees (setting aside other elements, such as toxicity for things like killing off a beloved character or not making a game perfect) is something that we should all take incredibly seriously, because our entertainment is built off the backs of these people.
And so release dates fit themselves into this problem because there is significant proportion of gamers who are fundamentally impatient. In all honesty, I don’t know what that proportion is. It may even be hard to tell what that proportion truly is, because sometimes people may lie to themselves: even when I personally recognize that games take a long time to make and all sorts of events (such as a global pandemic) can get in the way, I still find those small pangs of impatience – that I still want a game or DLC pack to be released now so I can play it now.
There are all sorts of stories about video game delays drawing significant and unreasonable ire. The recent furor over God of War: Ragnarok (a game which I’m personally excited for and glad is coming out soon) helped solidify some of these concerns. Although none of this is new.
So I wanted to try and talk about release dates and the way we have sort of culturally come to see release dates both as a concrete promise that should be honored and as a piece of information we deserve to know. And how these factors contribute to the very problems that we purport to hate – crunch and bad games.
What Is a Release Date, Really?
So before delving too deep, I wanted to cover two things.
Firstly, settling terms. Release dates come in all varieties. Sometimes a game is projected to come out in a future year. Sometimes you’ll get a season (i.e. Spring, Winter). Sometimes you’ll see a financial quarter (i.e. Q1, Q3). Sometimes it’s a month of a specific year. And sometimes it’s a specific date. I’m going to use the term “release date” to refer to all of these simultaneously.
Secondly, a useful question to ask is why release dates exist in the first place. Why not just work on a game until it’s ready to be shipped, and then release it once it’s done? That would surely avoid problems of needing to delay a game and making people mad.
To which the answer is: marketing. Many games rely on getting attention, especially in the first few weeks of their release. The best way to get attention for that stage is starting before the actual release. Which is why there is often so much marketing months ahead of a game coming out. Because by running ads for weeks or months before release, a game can build the kind of anticipation – and knowledge – that is needed to encourage players to buy as soon as the game comes out.
It may be easy to see this kind of marketing and ad buying as mere corporate manipulation, but this tactic is as important for an independent studio as it is for a studio working with a big publisher. Even small indie developers face the need to get their games marketed. The difference lies not in the pressures they all face, but their ability to address those pressures. Big publishers likely have bigger pots of money to throw at marketing compared to an independent studio, which will almost certainly have more than some tiny startup developer.
Okay, so with that out of the way, what does a release date really mean?
I think the easiest way to describe how release dates are commonly conceptualized is as a “promise.” When a publisher or developer attaches a release date to a game, they are saying “this game will come out at this time, we promise.” The more vague the promise is, the more inclined we are to forgive if the promise is broken. If a release date is given as “2023,” then if that changes to 2024 we are more likely to think that the delay is justified. But the more specific the promise is, the more we think of it as something concrete and thus a betrayal when a delay happens.
Why might this be the case? I think there are a few different explanations, but I would argue the most pertinent is the ability to attach our expectations to something concrete. If I show you a game and say it’s coming out in 2023, that could mean it’s coming out in a few months, or in over a year. That stretch of time feels so long that it is almost meaningless. So if I end up adding another year onto it, it still feels meaningless. At that point it’s just “the future.”
But if I say a game is coming out on February 1st, 2023, that sets a specific day in your mind to look forward to. You can literally count down the days until the game is supposed to come out. You can plan around it. And when that date is changed on you, it then feels more real. It’s not just “the future,” it’s this specific time in the future.
So the reason I suggest we start out with release dates as a “promise” is that it is how consumers generally react. The negative outcries that come with delays – ranging from the demur discussions of disappointment to outright death threats – are all emblematic of this idea that we think of these delays as broken promises. Even if we don’t explicitly describe them as such, our actions betray our feelings.
But it would be more accurate for us to think of release dates as guesses or estimates. Or perhaps as goals. We can conceptualize these dates in a few different ways, depending on the perspective we want to take.
Broadly speaking, though, we should see release dates as an aspiration. As what a studio thinks it can accomplish based on the plans it has, the progress it is making, and the progress it can expect to continue making.
Yet life gets in the way. Sometimes a studio struggles to implement a particular mechanic. Sometimes some aspect of the game needs to be revisited because it isn’t working right. Sometimes there’s a global pandemic which puts a halt to in-person work and you wind up with a bunch of sick employees.
So we might think of release dates as conditional. “This game will come out on this date if things go as planned.” That “if” means that things might not go as planned.
And one thing I am leaving out is that there can also be significant miscommunication between the different parts of a studio. Those in upper management may have a different vision of what “going as planned” means and what a feasible timeline looks like compared to the actual programmers and artists and writers on the teams. If that miscommunication exists, then the likely outcome is that a studio “promises” something by a date it can’t realistically deliver on at a “normal” pace. So to keep that “promise,” employees enter crunch mode, corners might end up getting cut, and if need be, the game might be delayed.
I bring up this last bit because crunch is important to talk about, and crunch is largely a managerial problem. It is something that happens when those at the top force employees to work more. Or encourage employees to work more. Or don’t actively discourage employees from working more. And a major cause of crunch is a studio being pressured to finish a game by a specific deadline, and not realistically having enough time to get it done. Sometimes it can be the result of overpromising. Sometimes it can be the result of a publisher setting an unreasonable deadline. Sometimes it can be the fact that important background work doesn’t get done because those at the top don’t really know what game they’re trying to make. Whatever the case, it’s everyday employees that get forced to pick up the slack.
And it’s also important to talk about crunch not simply because it’s harmful, but because it’s counterproductive. Forcing people to work 12 or 14 hour days means that they end up just spinning their wheels. So the hope that they might wind up getting a game done sooner is false. What you wind up with is simply a worse product. Giving studios the time that they need to actually put in the proper work – which means that employees have time to rest and recuperate and not feel like their lives are consumed with work – is key to making good games.
So What Can I Do?
I set out in this essay to lay out how we should step back and rethink our relationship with release dates. What I’ve covered so far is a better way to understand what a release date is and why it exists, and some of the problems that current “release date culture” has on the industry.
So it might seem like the takeaway is for consumers to simply stop caring about release dates. And then all of the problems will go away.
But I don’t think that takeaway works.
For one, it’s not realistic in the sense that gamers will simply stop caring. To some extent we are kind of wired to dislike uncertainty and to even be a little impatient. We will kind of always find ourselves wanting clear release dates.
For two, so long as the problem of crunch ultimately comes the top, there’s not a huge amount that consumers can do to stop it directly. Release dates don’t really exist because of players, and so they won’t go away because of players, either. And neither will the problems associated with those release dates.
Really what is needed is a radical shift in a lot of sectors of the economy and society to remove these problems. One key factor is that game designers need money to live. If they can’t get a game finished, they can’t sell it, which means they can’t make money. So as long as that time pressure exists, there’s always going to be some kind of push for studios and developers to set timelines for themselves, and thus create the potential for crunch. It’s only by making sure the needs of life are fulfilled in some other way that you remove the pressure entirely.
So then is the takeaway that we should just throw up our hands because this isn’t a solvable problem?
Again, I don’t think this is how we should react either.
There remains this vague idea that delays are somewhat taboo once the date gets more concrete. Not necessarily unacceptable, but something that we shouldn’t see. Admittedly, constant delays and especially delays close to an announced date (e.g. see the troubled development cycle of Cyberpunk 2077) are usually indications of serious problems (e.g. see the troubled release of Cyberpunk 2077).
So doing what we can to change that taboo is useful. We can’t really get rid of it, because so much of that pressure is going to come from investors and publishers and the like. But releasing the pressure that comes from players can help make it more acceptable for a studio to just stop and say “hey, there are big problems, and our only solutions are to either crunch or delay, and crunch is unacceptable, so we need to do a big delay instead.” Hence again why it’s so important to talk about crunch – as long as it remains hidden, it feels more acceptable than delaying a game’s release.
Additionally, it’s useful to understand why release dates exist and the problems that they can cause so we can better understand whom we should direct our ire towards. When there are problems with a game, it’s easy to attack random developers because we presume the problem is that they didn’t work hard enough. But as noted above and by many others, crunch is a managerial problem. It is something that starts with the top of the chain. So games that aren’t ready by their release date or are unfinished upon release are problems caused by poor project management. And the object of our ire should be those who didn’t get their acts together, or who placed undue pressure on a studio to get things done.
Doing all of this means changing our actions. Changing how we think about release dates means changing how we react when there’s a delay. It means changing how we react to the announcement of a release date itself.
Which means I need to take up an important counterargument. It is fairly common to see in these kinds of discussions people talking about taking time off of work. People have busy lives, and video games are a hobby. And so to enjoy that hobby – especially with a highly anticipated game – people will take some vacation time around the days of a game’s release. So that they can fully and thoroughly enjoy the game.
On the one hand, it’s easy to see why these people get mad when a game gets delayed. If you’ve made specific plans around a game’s release, altering those plans can be tough. People who do this easily elicit some sympathy.
On the other hand, we should also see that this is a problem. Because by putting so much emphasis on a release date needing to be concrete and treating it like a promise, we are further enabling the kind of culture that pushes studios and publishers to avoid delays…even if that means crunching.
While it seems like the obvious response is to shame people who bank on a game coming out on a specific day, the better response is for everyone to treat it as a risk. Sometimes, taking risks is okay…even if that risk doesn’t go well. What matters is taking the risk with the knowledge of what might happen. So if someone understands that a release date is not a promise but an aspiration, and thus knows that by taking time off there’s a chance of a delay, then they should be allowed to take the risk. They should not be shamed for it, but they should in turn not attempt to shame a developer. And if someone doesn’t understand how to conceptualize a release date, then they should be educated so that they can make a better decision in the future.
It’s all of these little things together that can make even a small difference. As consumers, putting pressure to remove the incentives for crunch and pushing back against abuses by publishers and calling out bad managerial practices can all help.
And it’s in our best interest to do so. Because if we want good games and better games, then the solution is ultimately going to lie in patience. It’s going to be allowing developers the time they need to make the best product they can, working in conditions that are conducive to good work. The more we demand in terms of time and announcements, the more we undermine our own values.
It feels really easy to say all of this stuff. Even where I may have gotten into complex topics, coming down on the side of “let’s just be patient” is quite simple.
And yet, it’s not actually easy to do. Being patient and treating release dates more as aspirations rather than promises is not a switch that merely gets flipped. If I say “stop being angry because X game got delayed,” it doesn’t really stop people from feeling angry. Even if they shouldn’t be. Even if we were to say it’s morally wrong for them to be…they would still feel that anger. Actually cultivating the virtue of patience takes time and effort. And it requires us to be vigilant. We need to keep watch in ourselves for the signs of impatience.
And I’ve tried to connect this all to our interests as consumers, because saying “just be patient” feels hollow. It is easy to moralize and say what people should do, but getting people to actually do something is much more difficult. The key to ethics lies in understanding people and how to incentivize them to do the right thing. So if we know that being patient isn’t just “good” in general, but will help get us something we want, then that makes it easier for us, psychologically, to be patient. It makes it feel like it’s worth it for us to practice that patience.