Gaming Software Development

Two things we can learn from the Left 4 Dead 2 Demo release debacle

1. How not to delay a release

The thing about deadlines is that sometimes, even when you’ve done everything you possibly could, they still get missed. It’s not always your fault, but nobody cares; once it’s late, everyone will blame you. And if you’re Valve, they will be loud and bitter and increasingly annoying.

But that doesn’t mean it’s ok to be stupid about how you postpone the release.

For those who of you who weren’t sitting on the edge of your seats from Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday evening, here is what happened:

  • Oct. 23rd 11:30 PST — Valve announced that the Left 4 Dead 2 demo would be available on Oct. 27th for anyone who pre-ordered the game.
  • Oct. 27th (early morning) — The release was scheduled for noon PST.
  • Oct. 27th noon PST — The release was postponed until 1pm PST.
  • Oct. 27th 1pm PST — The release was postponed until 2pm PST.
  • Oct. 27th 2pm PST — The release was postponed until 3pm PST.
  • Oct. 27th 3pm PST — The release was postponed until 11pm PST.
  • Oct. 27th 11pm PST — The release was postponed until Oct. 28th at 6am PST.
  • Oct. 28th 6am PST — The release was postponed until 1pm PST.
  • Oct. 28th 1pm PST — The release was postponed until 2pm PST.
  • Oct. 28th 2pm PST — The release was postponed until 3pm PST.
  • Oct. 28th 5pm PST — The demo was finally released.

This demo has been heavily anticipated for weeks, so needless to say people were very excited about it. After the first delay, most people were probably still too excited to care. After the second and third, the general populace was getting annoyed, but still had faith. But by the time it was delayed until 11pm (that’s 2am for us east-coasters!) people were starting to get quite upset. What was Valve doing that suddenly needed an extra five hours after already pushing the deadline by one hour several times? The comments on the official steam community group were shut down due to the sheer rage of Valve’s loudest fans.

When they missed the 11pm deadline, that’s when things got bad. Imagine living on the east coast and staying up until 2am to play the demo the moment it’s released only to find that shortly thereafter, Valve delays it until the following morning. Then waking up that morning only to find the deadline pushed until the afternoon!

And it didn’t end there. Even in the afternoon, Valve promised one more hour twice, then stopped updating anyone altogether before finally releasing the demo two hours later after a grand total of 8 missed deadlines in under 30 hours.

Now the proper way to handle a missed deadline is to give it one solid push, not to string it along for a day and a half. If Valve had come out on Tuesday and said “Sorry everyone, but we’re making some last minute changes to our servers and the demo won’t be ready until Thursday” then sure there would have been a bit of backlash, but nothing like what actually happened. Since this is the first push, the community can still have confidence that the new deadline will be met. And imagine how excited everyone would be when on Wednesday evening Valve releases it earlier than they had cited!

This was a serious mistake on Valve’s part. I’m not sure what went wrong or why they kept thinking they could fix it in under an hour, but they should have known better. They should have given it a big estimate with plenty of buffer in case more things went wrong — this would have been less stressful for everyone, and if it really only took an hour to fix, they could’ve just released it anyway.

2. Why it’s important to make awesome products

Because it makes people forget about things like a botched release date.

There’s no denying that the demo delivers. The new content is fantastic, and there’s just enough of it to give gamers a sense of what the full game will contain. It’s all kinds of fun, and the nature of Left 4 Dead means that the two levels available will be worth playing plenty of times — easily enough to satiate the cravings of many between now and the full-game release. A smashing success!

But back to my point. The blog coverage for the Left 4 Dead 2 demo between the afternoons of October 27th and October 28th was completely negative. Anger about the constant delays, blind rage directed at Valve, and users feeling that they could no longer trust their favourite publisher. How’s the blog coverage now? Very positive — everyone’s talking about how great the demo is. A couple of days’ worth of gushing is already drowning out all the bad press from the release. In a week, when the demo is opened up to the public, will anyone care that the pre-ordered version was a touch late? Of course not! It’s here now, and it’s awesome.

This is the power of a fantastic product. The power to overthrow 2 days’ worth of bad press and replace it with accolades.

What’s your take?

Can we draw any other lessons from this experience? Will Valve? Are you still pissed about how long it took the demo to come out? Leave a comment — I’d be glad to hear about it.