Staggered release dates were quietly the worst gaming trend of 2018

Battlefield 5 had two release dates too many. One should’ve sufficed but instead, the WWII shooter had three: November 9 for Origin Access subscribers, November 15 for anyone that preordered the more expensive Deluxe Edition, and November 20 for everyone else. It was so confusing that EA wrote a guide, complete with explainer chart, about when the various versions would unlock.

Five years ago, staggered releases meant games were playable at different times around the world. But this year it came to mean something different, and more annoying: publishers withholding finished games for several days, making them available only for those willing to preorder or pay for a pricier edition (or, in Battlefield 5’s case, for Origin Early Access).

EA wasn't the only publisher that tried staggering release dates. Square Enix did it with Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Just Cause 4 ("Enjoy Just Cause 4 before everyone else does!" is how the 24-hour early access window is described on the store page), and Ubisoft did it with Assassin’s Creed Odyssey ("Play three days early"). Preordering the excellent Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden granted three days of early access, too. There was no real uproar over any of this, but it's pretty weird to sell the idea of delaying the general release of a game for a few days as an incentive to preorder. 

It’s not really a reward for those that preorder or pay extra for a fancy edition of the game—it’s more a light punishment for those that don’t. The fear of missing out is the motivating factor, here. I'd be interested to know if it's powerful enough to make a difference to the consumer.

Staggered releases are also just confusing. It used to be that when you found out a game’s launch date, you could block it out in your calendar and start planning how you'd…ahem…work from home that day. This is now gradually changing. Which of the editions of the game does it refer to? How much extra do you have to pay to play early? Is it early access to a finished game, or a beta, as in the case of Fallout 76? Enough people were curious about the staggered release of Battlefield 5 that PCG published a primer on the preorder dates just so people understood what the deal was.

While I’d love to see the back of staggered release dates in 2019, I fear they’ll linger. The fact that multiple companies are trying it suggests that a few days of early play is a juicy enough carrot to get players to bite, and expecting a publisher to stop doing something that’s making it money won't make a difference.

But I’d question whether it’s good for them in the long run. Yes, you can charge players more to get their hands on your games early. And sure, you want to reward your most loyal fans by giving them better treatment. But the end goal is surely to grow your pool of hardcore supporters—and it's easier to understand and less annoying if everyone gets to play the same game at the same time. 

I could definitely live without ever seeing another chart like this again.