What AAA games can learn from the six-month Watch Dogs delay

Watch Dogs was originally due to be a launch title for next-gen, but Ubisoft delayed the game last October. The reasons given revolved around a need to ‘polish’ the final game; to make it a better experience. All very applause-worthy. A recent story by CVG explains that the delay allowed the team at Ubi Montreal to include gameplay elements and systems that would've otherwise been cut and added to a hypothetical sequel. It’s worded to make this delay seem like a luxury--but I’d argue it was a necessity.

This whole story perfectly sums up the advantages and drawbacks of modern, AAA game development. On the one hand, it’s great that Ubisoft took the time to make Watch Dogs all it can be. While players will undoubtedly benefit from this, we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking it’s an act of benevolence from the publisher.

With the gap between success and failure now vaster than ever, new video games need to be given every possible chance to succeed financially, and spark enough player interest to create demand for a sequel. Releasing a half-baked Watch Dogs simply wasn’t an option for Ubisoft. So the cost of a six-month delay vastly outweighs the cost of a brand new franchise failing at the start of a fresh console generation.

On the other hand, it shows a worrying reliance on the notion of creating sequels. The fact that Ubisoft considered holding ideas back--while sensible--could be construed as a lack of ambition. If there’s an acceptance that a sequel will happen, it could mean that the best concepts are spread over several games, leading to the kind of sequel fatigue we’ve seen in franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.

If ideas keep getting banked for later, there’s less chance of those concepts feeling genuinely fresh and innovative by the time a sequel rolls around. That’s potentially as damaging as releasing a game that isn’t quite up to scratch from the get-go. Given that Watch Dogs is a cross-generation release, I’d expect Ubi to be aiming much, much higher with a Watch Dogs sequel, since the developers won’t need to consider consoles with less power for future projects. It should prove liberating.

The net result of all this extra pressure on developers, who essentially need to get things right first time, will likely manifest in either one of two ways during this new generation. We’ll likely see more substantial, last-minute delays as publishers refuse to release games that aren’t given the best chance to succeed. The alternative is to announce late--when games are largely feature-complete--to create more realistic timescales for development and rein in any grand expectations. The drawback here is that you lose time to hype up the game. Realistically, I think we’ll see a mixture of both.

If everything goes the way I hope, they'll be fewer AAA games to sift through, and each one will benefit from an increase in quality. Plus, once devs are familiar with the new hardware, the focus on polish should also mean fewer bugs at launch, and less patches to correct errors. (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Battlefield.) So while this has been a painful lesson for Ubisoft to learn with Watch Dogs, it’s encouraging to see the focus being firmly fixed on quality. Quite simply: If a game doesn't meet AAA standards, then no publisher--no matter how cash-rich--will be content to put out a AAA-budget failure

Andy Hartup