For many gamers, Watch Dogs stood as one of the most exciting and ambitious games of Christmas 2013. The more we see of its expansive systemic sandbox, the more we want it, ever more convinced that Ubisoft's project promises next-gen gameplay as well as graphics.
However, there was a spanner in the works, a fly in the ointment, a proverbial poop on the pizza. Ubisoft stopped the presses by announcing that Watch Dogs had been pushed back to Spring 2014, citing a need for last-minute polish, which raised eyebrows across the industry. Now that the dust has settled and the baying investors have been soothed, it's time to consider a couple of questions.
Was it a wise decision? Could Ubisoft have handled it better? And, perhaps, could it have a profound effect on the upcoming Christmas console war?
Viewed in the cold light of day, analytically, pedantically, the Spring 2014 release date is a no-brainer. In fact, it probably should have been Ubisoft's plan from day one. Watch Dogs is undeniably better off waiting a few months for the next-gen launch titles to clear, the Killzones, the Dead Risings, before storming into the next-gen arena with a bold new proposition and the promise of a revolutionary gaming experience. You know, once our bank balances have started to recover and we've traded in the launch titles that failed to impress (you know there'll be one or two).
Then, of course, you've got to remember that Assassin's Creed IV launches on October 29th... less than a month before the original Watch Dogs release date. A cross-generation open-world sandbox game leveraging a major franchise would have been stiff competition at the best of times, but here, Ubisoft would have effectively been competing with themselves for sales. Push it back and perhaps we'll buy both.
Speaking of sandboxes, there's also the small matter of GTA Online, which Ubisoft probably forgot to account for. Sure, a couple of months is probably enough to enjoy most of what Los Santos has to offer, but even though Rockstar's multiplayer suite was a buggy mess at launch, players are flocking to it in droves. And loving it.
Besides, what's a couple of extra months compared to receiving a better game?
Delaying Watch Dogs makes sense, more sense than the original release date ever did. Unfortunately, Ubisoft made that decision far too late and we're already seeing the knock-on effect.
First off, it's causing no end of grief for Sony, who featured the game heavily in their official pre-order bundles. To their credit, Sony and Ubisoft are working with retailers to sort out alternative options... but if you're not a fan of Killzone, you might be forgiven for wondering whether it's better to wait until Spring before deciding whether or not to get your next-gen on. We've got XCOM: Enemy Within and plenty of other multiplatform games to tide us over, after all.
Indeed, IDC analyst Lewis Ward suggests that the delay will actively hurt next-gen sales for both the PS4 and Xbox One. "I think it was going to be one of the drivers for initial games-console bundle sales and will probably push back some of the hardware sales that would have happened right out of the gate for Sony and Microsoft," he told the BBC. To be honest, he might be right at least for a portion of pre-order customers, since Watch Dogs definitely seems to be the most 'next-gen' next-gen game on the immediate release slate right now, promising revolutionary systemic gameplay alongside the appropriately shiny visuals.
I'm sure there are plenty of disappointed fans who think so, even though we'll get a better game as a result. Announcing a delay a month before a game's launch, especially a title of this scale at the very cusp of a new console generation, is tremendously galling and perhaps even a little worrying no matter how you slice it.
Ubisoft's shares have slumped 26% following the news, and the announcement that healthy profits would slump into losses due to the delay. Could this have been accounted for better if the more thought had gone into the original release date? Probably. I'm no analyst, so frankly I'd end up embarrassing myself if I tried to weigh in on this one. Beyond suggesting that, considering everything we've said above, their original release date makes absolutely no sense in hindsight. A little more planning and foresight could have paid dividends. Like, actual dividends. Big fat ones.
But, frankly, none of that matters now. Hindsight is cheap, hindsight is vindictive, worst of all it's utterly useless. Ubisoft stands to gain much more than they'll lose from the decision, but there's no denying that Christmas 2013 has lost one of its most interesting highlights... and so have the PS4 and Xbox One in the short term. What matters, ultimately, is what you make of it and whether it affects what you end up buying this November.