Yesterday afternoon PlayStation announced the indefinite delay of two of its most hotly anticipated titles, Iron Man VR and The Last of Us Part II. Both were originally scheduled for mid-May, but now their release dates are a giant question mark.
Everyone familiar with the video game industry was waiting for this shoe to drop, assuming that working from home would make development more of a challenge. According to updates from PlayStation and Last of Us developer Naughty Dog and a tweet from in-the-know journalist Jason Schrier, the delay wasn’t due to production but distribution.
Sony decided to delay the games because it looks logistically impossible to produce and deliver physical copies to stores. Even if they could, stay-at-home orders across the country prevent stores from being open and people from shopping there. Comic book releases are delayed for similar reasons. Comics, however, are primarily a physical product. The digital readership is a fraction of its total customer base, so the priority has to be placed on protecting its retail partners, the local comic shops the industry relies on.
Conversely, 83% of video games are sold digitally as of 2018, and the number has likely grown since. Video games are mostly sold at large retailers like Best Buy, Target, Walmart, and Amazon. That list also includes GameStop, but the video game retail chain was in all likelihood on its way out even before the spread of COVID-19.
Sony isn’t delaying these games for the sake of its retail partners. The publisher seems to believe that releasing the games mid-pandemic will hurt sales for two of their most high-profile titles, presumably due to a cut of players who prefer to purchase games physically.
The delay of the two titles, particularly The Last of Us Part II, affects the lives of fans anticipating their release and especially the developers working on them, and probably not for the better.
Game delays are normally just a nuisance, disappointing gamers who are excited to start playing. But the effect of the delays is more notable during the outbreak of COVID-19, depriving millions of fans a source of entertainment when they need it most.
Verizon reported that internet traffic related to video games has risen a whopping 75% since restrictions were imposed in the United States. People are using gaming as a way to socialize and to escape from the world outside their doors. Those statistics may rise even higher by mid-May when television networks and streaming services will be very light on new content.
Virtual reality games tend to be on the shorter side, but Iron Man VR is a more novel and immersive form of escapism. I played it at NYCC and it was a powerful experience. We need experiences that can take us on a journey like that, even if it only spans a few hours.
Playthroughs of the first Last of Us averaged 16.5 hours and the sequel is reportedly much larger in scope. The game would have been an effective distraction with its solid gameplay and emotionally moving storytelling. Originally I thought a game taking place after a world-altering pandemic would be something people would want to avoid, but the surge in popularity of the movie Contagion says otherwise. It seems people are reassured by taking an excursion to a world much direr than their own. If that’s so, the devastating human drama in The Last of Us is just what the doctor ordered.
More important than the delay’s effect on players is its impact on the teams making the games. Not a lot is known about the working conditions at Camouflaj, the studio behind Iron Man VR, but the toxic company culture at Naughty Dog has been widely reported. The developer is well known for imposing intense crunch, requiring employees to spend 60-80 hours a week or more working on their games.
Naughty Dog’s statement suggests that The Last of Us Part II is near-finished. Maybe that means the company eases crunch or even gasp gives their employees some time off. Knowing Naughty Dog, that very well might not be the case. In his tweet, Schrier says he hopes the delay stops crunch, but he wrote about how video game delays often cause more crunch, so he knows that’s not a guarantee.
The studio may instead put them to work on Factions, the multiplayer mode widely expected to launch after the release of the single-player game. Naughty Dog’s lead developers are known for being perfectionists, so they could also tell designers to spend the extra time fine-tuning the single-player. That may make for a more impressive gaming experience, but it would result in a lot of extra work for employees that didn’t exist before the delay, causing even more suffering.
Even if Naughty Dog gives its employees a brief reprieve, it couldn’t come at a worse time. They can’t leave their own homes, let alone go on a real vacation. After spending the last few years of their lives in front of monitors, crunching to complete the game, they need to lie on a beach, not catch up on TV they missed. If they’re given time off now, then, by the time the stay-at-home orders are dismissed, they’ll already be back to work.
Video games rarely see an “indefinite” delay, especially not ones that are nearly finished. Publishers prefer to avoid summer releases, so they may be held until the Fall. By then society might be back to normal. While fans would still appreciate a chance to play Iron Man VR and The Last of Us II, they would no longer be the much-needed distraction preventing them from worrying or overthinking about what’s going on off their screens.