Opinion: Watch Dogs delay more hindrance than help for Ubisoft

When Watch Dogs received its much-publicized delay last fall, it had been riding high as the harbinger of the next generation. Thanks to some savvy marketing and an introduction so early it preceded the console announcements themselves, it was a tied heavily to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. More than half a year later, some of that luster has worn. It raises the question: did the delay do Watch Dogs more harm than good?

Part of this comes down to Ubisoft's own inconsistent messaging on the rationale behind the delay. In its initial statement, the company was adamant that it "will not compromise on quality" and that the extra time would be used to make a "truly memorable and exceptional experience." Ubisoft VP of creative Lionel Raynaud later echoed these sentiments by stating that if it had shipped on time, some key features would have had to be shelved and saved for the sequel. But senior producer Dominic Guay posed the differences as less stark. He said that it could have released on-time, and it was even playable top-to-bottom for months. To hear him tell it, the real impetus was game balance, after playtests revealed that some parts of the city were seeing much heavier use than others. In terms of new features, he only cited a somewhat minor one regarding how to distract enemies with your hacking ability. He said he was appreciative of the extra time, but nothing he said indicated the extra time was absolutely vital.

Word-of-Mouth

The marketing team at Ubisoft was impacted too. Senior VP of marketing Tony Key reiterated the company line that they had "no choice" but to delay Watch Dogs, but conceded that in the short-term, it did hit their stock price and marketing plans. The silver lining, he said, is that it gave them a much more plush spot in the release calendar. No longer surrounded by the deluge of fall releases and new console frenzy, their latest franchise launch can dominate an otherwise relatively quiet spring launch. The search popularity seems to confirm that thesis. Watch Dogs steadily gained traction since its initial announcement, usually providing a bump to Ubisoft by extension (and consistently outperforming the company's bizarre "Watch_Dogs" name). But as of its delay announcement, it hadn't reached a fever pitch. Interest was on the rise, but no where near the much sharper increase in interest we've seen gathering since February. Of course, the bulk of that increase came just before announcement, so we may have seen a similar increase in the couple of weeks preceding a November launch too. Plus, popularity as a point of discussion doesn't necessarily equate to good buzz. The increased interest in late February and early March happened to coincide with two flare-ups in the community. The first was the latest salvo in the ongoing "resolution-gate" problem that has plagued Microsoft's Xbox One, with reports and rumors swirling that it would be 900p on the system. Ubisoft later confirmed the disparity. Then came the side-by-side comparisons with earlier demos, concluding that the final console build had compromised certain graphical flourishes and physics systems. Releasing earlier in the year may not have given Watch Dogs the time to gather steam, but it could have mitigated both of those community issues. Releasing earlier in the console generation may have made users more apt to shrug off resolution differences, and less time for that impression of the game to take hold. Then again, the size of the community obsessed with pixel count and physics is likely a relatively small one, compared to the larger gaming public.

Word of Reviewers

Watch Dogs reviews were held until the day of release, which can sometimes be a disconcerting sign. In this case, reviews have been fairly positive, currently earning a 78-82 on Metacritic depending on your platform of choice. That's probably not the breakout critical acclaim Ubisoft may have been hoping for, but it certainly shows a decent first effort with room to grow a franchise. However, Watch Dogs had been pinned with the expectations and hopes of "next-gen." Even this far removed from the console launches, many reviews--both positive and negative--raised the question of whether it adequately fulfilled that promise. Reviews came to different conclusions, but the question being raised at all was inevitable. It had been tied to the idea of bigger, bolder ideas from the very start.

Launching in its original timeframe wouldn't have avoided it, but it may have tempered expectations. Early adopters, even early reviewers, tend to understand that progress is iterative and slow. Whatever features end up defining this generation, we'll see them carved out over the course of years. Only occasionally will one particular game rise above the herd to become a generation-defining experience. Especially in the case of launch games, we understand that the first round will likely be composed of prettier genres we've already played. It's here where Ubisoft's messaging may have haunted it, to some degree. It stated plainly that the extra time was to allow Watch Dogs to fulfill its vision without compromising, and even to retain or add features that otherwise would have needed to be saved for later. Rather than allow room to excuse any shortcomings as indicative of typical of launch games, the delay put forth a very clear message that the product we're getting is the one they always intended to deliver. By that measure, it's fair to press the question of whether it lives up to those expectations. It may have even received a higher average score if not for that factor.

The Dollar Speaks Loudest

By far the most important measure, by Ubisoft's figuring at least, will be the sales numbers. It lost some degree of console attachment from the delay, as those excited to christen their shiny new console with Watch Dogs have now had to wait and may have even chosen to pass. On the other hand, it also gave it several extra months to make up the difference in pre-orders. To that purpose, it's been a smashing success. Ubisoft announced recently that it was the most pre-ordered new IP in the company's history, and the second most pre-ordered of any of its games. That's impressive even given its massive pre-order incentives scheme. Considering Ubisoft's track record with sales blockbusters, it's certainly no small feat. Judging by first-day sales, Ubisoft's latest is off to a speedy start. We'll never know for certain whether Watch Dogs would have performed better in some alternate universe in which it launched last November as planned. We can conclude, though, that the delay created only a few opportunities for the company, as a trade-off for a series of unforeseen detriments. Watch Dogs is likely to be a smash success--but that will probably be more in spite of the delay drawbacks than because of the advantages afforded by it.
For more on Watch Dogs, check out our review and refer to our ongoing guide to walk you through the tough spots.