Delays are an unfortunate part of video game development, but rarely is a decision to delay a game taken lightly. Let's look at Watch Dogs for instance. First shown at E3 2012, wowing the audience with its concept and giving us an early sneak peek at what next-gen would be all about. It's a game Ubisoft have huge expectations for. Their last financial report had Watch Dogs down for 6.2 million units, a number you won't reach with an unpolished and potentially broken game at launch. After having seen it in action at Gamescom, and later as well, we always felt worried about it launching in November as that simply wouldn't have been enough time to polish it and iron out the issues we saw during our brief session.
Add to that the fact that it was running on PC and not final next-gen hardware, and that we weren't allowed to sample any free roaming gameplay (just specific missions and controlled multiplayer), it was quite clear that a lot of work remained. Of course, given Ubisoft's tradition of throwing lots of man power on problems like these (and relying on hefty day one patches - Assassin's Creed III comes to mind) we couldn't be sure, but there wasn't a huge amount of surprise around the Gamereactor offices when Ubisoft announced the delay of Watch Dogs.
Still we're sure Ubisoft worked hard crunching and throwing man power at the game to see if they couldn't make launch - afterall, a bundle deal with Sony at the PS4 launch is worth a lot and CEO Yves Guillemot has been very vocal about the benefits of establishing a new IP at the start of a generation. In the end they were unable to meet the deadline, and given the lull that typically sets in a couple of months after a console launches, perhaps Watch Dogs will find a beneficial window for release early next year. Clearly Ubisoft have done all they can to avoid delaying the game, but there comes a point where no amount of crunching or added manpower can solve the issues at hand - you simply need more time.
In the case of Driveclub there was also a lot at stake. A limited version of the game was headlining the PS Plus instant game collection for PS4, and was clearly one of the more compelling reasons for PS4 owners to pay the subscription fee from day one. The developer Evolution Studios have experience with developing games for a hardware launch as Motorstorm hit the European PS3 launch and Motorstorm RC arrived at the European PS Vita launch. Hitting the worldwide launch of PS4 with Driveclub proved more difficult. It was Shuhei Yoshida himself, head of Sony Worldwide Studios, who confirmed the delay on the official PlayStation Blog, signaling just how seriously they took having to push back the release.
Some developers are notorious for missing release dates, and as long as you manage to create a great game in the end, most publishers tend to be forgiving. Even if it's not ideal to spend more money on a project than originally projected, most of the time the thought of releasing something unfinished is an even scarier proposition as you risk damaging an intellectual property for many years.
The ideal case of a delay is that of Batman: Arkham Asylum. Developed by Rocksteady Studios the game was being published by Eidos who was struggling at the time. When Square Enix came on board as the new owner in May of 2009 it was decided that Batman: Arkham Asylum should move from its intitial June release date to late in August. Clearly it would stand to reason that had Square Enix not stepped in to buy the Tomb Raider publisher, then that June release may have happened. But the game clearly needed more polish.
In the end the extra time proved fruitful as the game released to critical acclaim. Ironically the license had been granted to Eidos by another of its suitors, Warner Bros., and they promptly moved in to claim the developer and later came to publish the sequel Arkham City themselves. Obviously Arkham Asylum had quality and the game released in June wouldn't have been a terrible one, but perhaps there would have been some cuts made to content and parts may not have felt fully polished. Two months can make a world of difference if the game is on track to be great.
Of course, a delay can also be a sign that the game is simply not coming together. It may not be a case of polish, and titles that crash and burn on their eventual release (games like Aliens: Colonial Marines come to mind) have often been pushed back multiple times from the initial release dates. Clearly a delay can be a symptom of more than one thing - it can either be that it's a strong game that just needs a little bit of extra time in development to truly shine, or it's a project that for some reason simply isn't going well. As a games journalist you develop something of a sixth sense about these things, you read between lines of press releases, interpret silences, and learn to listen to your gut.
You could say that each game developed is a case of its own, but there are still similarities you can spot. Delays typically strike ambitious projects where the game design is being reworked and tweaked over and over (larger developers that have this approach often simply refer to release as "when it's done") and games that for one reason or another (poor management, flawed concept, lack of know how, etc) are trainwrecks where a delay only postpones the inevitable. There are of course the rare legal or market-based reasons (such as the case with Gears of War 3) for delaying a game, but the latter often happens when there is also a need to further polish.
There are games that force others to alter their release plans. When Rockstar decided to push back Grand Theft Auto V for further polish (clearly the online component could have done with some extra delay), it caused a ripple effect. Lots of publishers had decided to stay clear of the May release, but now GTAV would come during the more crowded release month of September. This time the delay came with plenty of warning, but clearly we would have seen more titles targeted for release in May had it not been for the projected GTAV release. Deep Silver were probably faced with a tough choice when they assumed ownership of Saints Row IV and Volition - the wound up hitting the August timeslot just in time to avoid GTAV, but clearly had it not been for the release of GTAV in September, then Saints Row IV could have gotten an extra month of development (which would also have put it even further away from the original GTAV release date).
Sometimes the games industry is being unfairly compared to the film industry where most deadlines are strictly kept (once a project is in production), but there are more complex mechanics at work when putting together a video game. To a certain degree gamers must learn to be patient and allow for delays - for the good of the game. And it also pays to be aware that a delay could signal that a project is suffering from any number of problems.