On Thursday night, Sony announced via its PlayStation Twitter feed that the long-awaited post-apocalyptic adventure sequel The Last of Us Part II will be delayed indefinitely. “Logistically,” the message read, “the global crisis is preventing us from providing the launch experience our players deserve.”
The game’s developer, Naughty Dog, posted a longer statement, again putting the blame with the worldwide disruption caused by the Covid-19 outbreak.
“We were faced with the reality that due to logistics beyond our control, we couldn’t launch The Last of Us Part II to our satisfaction,” the tweet said. “We want to make sure everyone gets to play The Last of Us Part II around the same time, ensuring that we’re doing everything possible to preserve the best experience for everyone. This meant delaying the game until such a time where we can solve these logistic issues.”
Naughty Dog (@Naughty_Dog)
A message from us about the delay of The Last of Us Part II: pic.twitter.com/aGsSRfmJ8a
April 2, 2020
Video game usage has exploded during the widespread social isolation enforcement, with online gaming services often struggling to meet demand. And with about 80% of game sales now coming via digital download, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association, it had seemed that the sector was coronavirus-proof.
However, blockbuster video game titles like The Last of Us II still tend to sell more copies in physical rather than digital form; often because mainstream audiences are less experienced with online purchasing, or because purchasers take advantage of pre-order offers and discounts from shops and supermarkets. The most successful game in the UK in 2018, Fifa 19, achieved 75% of its sales from the physical product rather than through digital downloads.
Launching a really big game right now is going to cost you
Seth Barton, editor of MCV/Develop
What the delay of The Last of Us Part II shows is that the closure of stores and the disruption to the manufacturing and distribution pipeline for physical software products is still problematic for the games industry.
“The Last of Us II, by all accounts and appearances, looks to be finished, so this is a commercial decision,” said Seth Barton, editor of industry news publication MCV/Develop. “Sony is concerned that the crisis will stymie the launch of its flagship title for the year. Bricks and mortar retail still makes up a considerable part of the sales mix, especially for the biggest titles, and with every Game Digital store in the UK and every GameStop in the US closed, launching a really big game right now is going to cost you. There’s also the possibility that the crisis has delayed production and shipping of high-margin collector’s editions of the game.”
And if The Last of Us Part II has fallen victim to the uncertainty and disruption around Covid-19, it’s likely other major releases will follow. Titles such as Ghost of Tsushima and Cyberpunk 2077, which were also due for release in the next few months, may also be affected – if not by sales and manufacturing channels then by disruption to the development process itself.
“While big games have long been created by teams in distributed locations, having your individual staff all working from home is far from ideal,” says Barton. “The process of bringing a big game to fruition is a complex one, and certain elements, such as performance capture, motion capture and [quality assurance] will be very hard to relocate out of dedicated spaces.
“QA is a particular bugbear, especially given the industry’s penchant for incredible secrecy and round-the-clock shifts approaching launch. Sending test kits and code to testers’ homes looks both practically difficult and potentially risky.”
Promotion for Cyberpunk 2077 during the Tokyo Game Show 2019. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA
Game developer Will Luton, who now runs consultancy Department of Play, reiterates the difficulties that Covid-19 brings to games testing. “For consoles, people need access to developer test kits. Often there are fewer than needed and they are shared around in a studio, with QA departments using rolling shifts for 24-hour coverage. So getting these into the homes and set up for the right people at the right time will be a logistics challenge, especially considering that technically these kits need to be kept securely in one building.”
This winter was also set to host two major console launches: the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. But, given the reliance on complex manufacturing and distribution channels and the need to get tens of thousands of units into both digital and physical stores, might we see Microsoft and Sony rethinking the schedule?
“That depends on China’s ability to control the virus, specifically in Shenzhen, the world’s electronics factory, as there’s nowhere else you can realistically move production,” says Barton. “In addition, component supplies may be impacted, though the initial slowdown there generally seems to have picked back up.”
Luton also points to the security issues of having staff working from home while developing and testing PS5 and Xbox Series X titles. “I would imagine Sony and Microsoft would be reluctant for their next-gen hardware to be in some private residence and they certainly wouldn’t want to ship one there. But they’ll have to change policy as the lockdown continues.”
The one positive factor is that digital channels are there if needed.
“Optical media manufacture is going to falter as supply chain is disrupted and bricks and mortar retail has completely disappeared,” says Luton. “While people are spending more money and time on games, a big chunk of the sales channel has just disappeared. I wouldn’t be surprised if some AAA games now attempt a digital-only release as some of the Hollywood blockbusters have tried with a ‘straight-to-streaming’ approach. But it’s a massive unknown.”
There’s also the fact that key titles such as The Last of Us Part II and Cyberpunk are both set to launch on current generation consoles as well as the PC – so there is a lot of hardware out there that can already play these games.
“Thankfully, this is the most resilient console market we’ve ever had. The new consoles could be delayed into 2021 and we’d still – Covid-19 permitting – be able to play all this winter’s big releases on our current hardware. It pains me to say it, but we’ve never needed new hardware less.”