It's not whether Sony could release The Last of Us 2 digitally, it's whether it should

(Image credit: Naughty Dog)

You're allowed to be upset about The Last of Us 2 delay. Yes, there's far worse things happening in the world right now, and our energy should be focused on supporting others most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic where we can. But if you were holding onto The Last of Us 2 as something to look forward to in a time alarmingly deficient of joy right now, then the news of the sequel's indefinite delay no doubt came like a gut punch. 

You can only imagine how it feels for the staff at Naughty Dog. To endure months of excessive development crunch, only to see your labour of love pulled from the race at the last hurdle... the news must have been a devastating blow for team morale. Creative director Neil Druckmann has even acknowledged that the game is basically finished, which – he admitted in a recent appearance on the PlayStation podcast – makes this unexpected postponement even more painful. 

“You’re working on something for so long – some of us, for years – and there’s a built-in anticipation when you’re doing this thing," he explained of the news. "Like, you can't wait for this thing that you’ve been crafting and honing and sometimes dreaming about; you can’t wait to get it in people’s hands and then see their reactions. See what they like or didn’t like, or where the story takes them. And now you gotta put all that on hold because the world is conspiring against us!”

(Image credit: Naughty Dog)

Since the announcement, fans have been openly wondering whether a digital release could allow Naughty Dog to meet its original May 29 release date. Surely, the thinking goes, PlayStation's digital marketplace is immune to the impact of disrupted manufacturing pipelines and high street shutdowns? All Sony has to do is press a button and 'Boop', The Last of Us 2 is live on the PSN Store, ready to download for anyone willing to pay full price for a non-physical copy, right? 

The reality, of course, is far more challenging, not least due to the complications of allowing millions to simultaneously download a AAA title from a network that's already had to throttle its own bandwidth to ensure a reliable service amidst huge spikes in online traffic. Sure, Sony could offer an extended pre-installation period, but the fact is that a digital-only release for a platform-exclusive as large and anticipated as The Last of Us 2 is unprecedented, and thus it's hard to predict and prepare for the unique logistical challenges of such an operation. 

Even putting those practical quandaries aside, the ethical implications surrounding a digital release of The Last of Us 2 are an even murkier quagmire of potential issues, and not just because of the potential tastelessness of launching a game about a pandemic in the midst of a global pandemic. "This is a worldwide game that people in every country are waiting for," as Druckmann rightly acknowledged, "If we just get it to a small fraction of people, what about all the people that don’t get it?"

It can't be for nothing

(Image credit: Naughty Dog)

"Thousands of PlayStation users in simply don't have the bandwidth to download a game as large as The Last of Us 2 onto their system."

Internet access around the world is far from consistent, and thousands of PlayStation users in certain regions and continents simply don't have the bandwidth (or even a connection at all) to download a game as large as The Last of Us 2 onto their system. To deprive them of that precious launch period, when fans are all experiencing the same thing together, just wouldn't be fair, especially for a story-driven game that - plot-wise - we know surprisingly little about. 

Of course, I'm sure Sony has also taken The Last of Us 2's market predictions into consideration too, as a digital launch would undoubtedly see them lose huge amounts of revenue from physical sales, including those made from its tiered range of collector's editions that fans had already pre-ordered in droves. 

But even this financial component to Sony's decision making has ethical underpinnings to it. High street game stores around the world were on the brink of collapse long before government-mandated lockdown measures and social-distancing guidelines came into effect, and the launch of a game like The Last of Us 2 could be the pickup they need to recover once these restrictions lift. 

(Image credit: Naughty Dog)

Sony's decision to hold off on a digital release, then, could be read as a message of commitment to those retail partners currently facing existential threats to their business, especially as both publishers and retailers rely on each other to keep the games industry healthy.

To be clear, I think a digital-only launch is possible for The Last of Us 2. I think it would be extremely challenging, and marred by plenty of unexpected hiccups, but it's unlikely Sony has ruled it out as a last resort just yet. Let's be real, there's only so many months the game can be pushed back before it severely disrupts PlayStation's plans for the rest of the year, not to mention Naughty Dog's own development pipeline. Something has to happen. 

But those surface level concerns are far less prescient than the moral dynamics at play here, which is the reason I'm happy to wait until a physical launch becomes more feasible. From what we've seen so far, The Last of Us 2 is a game that will be worth the patience it's asking of us, and if waiting just a little bit longer ensures that Naughty Dog's fanbase can enjoy the game together, it's a sacrifice we should all be willing to make.  

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Alex Avard

I'm GamesRadar's Features Writer, which makes me responsible for gracing the internet with as many of my words as possible, including reviews, previews, interviews, and more. Lucky internet!