Sony, Microsoft may contend with thinner launch lineups for PS5, Xbox Series X due to pandemic

The Last of Us II and Iron Man VR are just the start. "I wouldn't want to be in Sony or Microsoft's shoes now," said analyst Serkan Toto.

Sony-owned Naughty Dog announced yesterday afternoon that its much-anticipated sequel, The Last of Us Part II, would be delayed “indefinitely” due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sony Interactive Entertainment also revealed that Marvel’s Iron Man VR is delayed “until further notice,” as “Logistically, the global crisis is preventing us from providing the launch experience our players deserve.”

For The Last of Us Part II, the team at Naughty Dog was tantalizingly close to completing development after having already pushed the game out until May 2020. That delay was reportedly done to alleviate some of the stress on the team, although it’s since been reported that Naughty Dog’s been crunching pretty hard regardless.

Naughty Dog confirmed that it was in the “midst of fixing our final bugs” and added, “We’re hoping this won’t be a long delay.” The studio did not issue any new release timeframe because the ongoing pandemic makes it nearly impossible to predict when things will return to normal. The folks at inXile Entertainment just this week confirmed a delay to Wasteland 3 as well, tentatively suggesting it would now launch in August.

“As with most companies, we moved to a work-from-home environment some weeks ago, and that’s of course introduced new challenges that many of us throughout the world have been learning to manage,” inXile studio head Brian Fargo said in a statement this week.

PUBG’s newest studio, Striking Distance, commented to GameDaily about working remotely as well, and while studio head Glen Schofield said he’s been pleased with how his team has adapted, the one area that’s impossible to make up for during this pandemic is mocap session recording.

“The only effect this has on us isn’t immediate, and that’s more to do with our mocap studio and audio recordings. Luckily, we finished some mocap just before we closed the office that will hold us over for a few months,” Schofield explained to us in an in-depth interview.

For Striking Distance, which is only just ramping up on its project, this is an inconvenience, but for companies like Naughty Dog and others in the final stretches of development, sometimes in-person cooperation is essential. 

“My understanding is that face-to-face collaboration is necessary for motion capture and for the final touches on games, so games ‘scheduled’ for fall would require teams to get together 60 days prior (or something close to that). If the pandemic has us all staying indoors and social distancing in August, that could impact development, but if we’re allowed to collaborate with masks and gloves, it probably has limited impact on the fall schedule,” Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter remarked to GameDaily, while also suggesting that The Last of Us II was delayed because “the theme was upsetting during the pandemic.”

There’s been no word from Sony or Sucker Punch on the hotly anticipated PS4 exclusive Ghost of Tsushima either. It’s scheduled for release on June 26, but given the current environment, it would not be a shock for that game to be delayed either. In fact, the longer this goes on, the harder it’s going to be for both Sony and Microsoft to ensure a robust lineup for their respective next-gen console launches. Xbox boss Phil Spencer said as much in an interview this week, although he’s confident that Series X launch title Halo Infinite will be ready on time. 

Kantan Games analyst Dr. Serkan Toto believes that the delays we’ve seen so far is “just the start,” and many game publishers have found themselves scrambling in this pandemic.

“As far as game development goes, nothing good can come out of the pandemic,” he said. “Outer Worlds for the Switch was the first high-profile delay and has now been followed by Sony's big releases yesterday… We will see more delays, and [various] publisher[s] out there are surely busy readjusting this year's release schedule internally right now. I would not be surprised if that included Sony and Microsoft and their next-gen launch line-ups. 

“They operate large teams that are spread across different continents and work on games for years. The pandemic can only mean bad news, and I wouldn't want to be in Sony or Microsoft's shoes now.”

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is forcing publishers and platform holders to talk about plans they still have some control over, rather than teasing future projects. “For Nintendo, I think there is a reason why the recent Direct didn't go very far into the future,” Toto continued. “All of the big three are well-advised to keep it safe now, but I believe the good news is that players across the board are understanding the pandemic is a big challenge for everybody. The world has tougher nuts to crack now, and it's not like we are suffering from a lack of games.”

Pachter was more optimistic, guessing that “the pandemic is largely past us by August and the PS5 lineup is fine.” If that turns out not to be the case, however, the new generation of consoles won’t suffer too much because, as NPD analyst Mat Piscatella pointed out, the overall landscape in 2020 is vastly different than when the PS3 and Xbox One arrived seven years ago. 

“What is different for the upcoming consoles, compared to with the start of the current generation, is that we have a group of evergreen titles driving consistent engagement (such as Minecraft, Grand Theft Auto V and The Sims 4, for example). We also have free-to-play live service titles also attracting large audiences (such as Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone), as well as subscription services that offer a wide variety of content for a low fee (like Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and PlayStation Now). So there are some market factors that can cushion the impact of new release delays... but we'll just have to wait and see what the data tells us,” he commented to GameDaily.

Game development, like many industries right now, has been forced to adapt to new methods of productivity as entire teams set up shop at home. Learning best practices and how to collaborate from afar is going to take some time. While some games will see longer delays than others, the best titles are never rushed. And as Piscatella noted, the live services era makes waiting for that new title far more tolerable than ever before. The PS5 and Xbox Series X should be just fine in the end.

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(Former) Editor-in-Chief

James has been covering the games industry since the early 2000s and was previously the editor of GamesIndustry.biz. He loves Zelda, Metroidvania-style games, action adventure and single-player narratives. He's also the proud father of twin boys and is obsessed with good coffee and Yankees baseball. You can reach him @bright_pixels on Twitter.