When Is a Game’s Release Date Not a Release Date?

By | November 5, 2022

Call me an old crank if you must, but in my day a “release date,” also known as “day one,” was the day a game went on sale to the general public to buy and play for the first time. Want to buy and play it earlier than that, even if money is no object? Sorry, you can’t: it hasn’t been released yet! That’s literally what the word “unreleased” means. In recent years, though, that simple, seemingly uncontroversial concept has somehow been twisted to mean something else – namely, whatever a publisher’s marketing department wants it to mean. For the right price we can now buy and play certain games that publishers tell us – with a straight face, no less – won’t have their “day one” for several more days. This cynical toying with release dates, which have long been practically gamer holidays we get excited about and look forward to as our first chance to play a long-anticipated game, is manipulative and – in some – cases downright deceptive.

To be clear, I don’t have much of a problem with the practice of releasing a bundled edition of a game at a higher price before making a cheaper standalone version available. I’m not wild about cashing in on gamers’ enthusiasm to be the first to play, but there are good reasons for doing it that way: it prevents servers from getting overloaded by having everyone flood them all at once, and developers can spot and fix problems before most people start playing. That can help games have smoother launches for everyone.

My complaint is that publishers aren’t up front about it and instead go full “alternate facts” on us about when a game has and has not been released. It’s nothing new – fake release dates have been a more and more common practice for nearly a decade now, and most major publishers have gotten in on that technique at one time or another, including EA, Microsoft, Sony, and Ubisoft. For instance, to this day EA claims FIFA 23 wasn’t released until September 29… unless you “preordered” the $150 Ultimate Edition, in which case you got full access to all of its content three days earlier. There was a similar situation with Madden NFL 23, which according to EA didn’t come out until August 19 – but if you paid for the $100 All-Madden Edition you could start playing on August 16 on day… negative three?

Fake release dates have been a more and more common practice for nearly a decade now.

I would argue that if I pay money and immediately receive a game I can play, that takes the “pre” right out of “preorder.” You’re just plain old buying a game that’s on sale to virtually the entire world. These are examples of an attempt to use marketing language to trick you into thinking you’re getting something of value by paying the higher price. When you break it down, though, this form of “early access” (not to be confused with how Steam uses it) is only “early” relative to what a publisher has officially set as a release date. But if the release date that’s listed is not the actual release date by any reasonable definition, then the earlier date is not “early” at all; it’s the real release date. The later date is simply when people are allowed to buy that same, already-released game without bundling in extra stuff they don’t want to pay for. It is, in effect, the day a game is discounted to $70 after having been previously released as part of a $100 bundle.

Similar problems arise from using terms like “day one,” which becomes even more ethically murky when release dates are monkeyed with. “Play it day one on Game Pass” is clearly meant as an incentive to get people to sign up for Xbox’s otherwise excellent service, and the only reasonable interpretation of that promise is that you’ll be able to play that game on the first day it’s available to the public. In some high-profile cases, though, that isn’t what we’re getting for our subscription fee. For example, Forza Horizon 5’s official release date was listed as November 9, 2021, which is when it appeared on Game Pass – but the Premium Edition was available to all starting on November 5 for $100. Likewise, Back 4 Blood was made available “Day one on Game Pass” on October 12, 2021 – but for anyone enthusiastic enough to pay $90, the real day one was actually October 7. You could’ve paid $85 for the MVP Edition of MLB: The Show 22 and played on April 1, 2022, or you could have waited four more days for it to launch “Day one on Game Pass” on April 5.

The argument publishers rely on here is that this version of a game – the standard retail edition that doesn’t come with any DLC or other bonuses – has never been released before on its own, and thus this is the first day for that specific edition. I think most people would agree that while that hair-splitting logic might satisfy a judge in a false advertising lawsuit, it’s pretty obnoxious and flagrantly disingenuous to anybody who just wants to play a game they’re excited about as soon as possible.

Making matters worse, things are only getting more confusing. When was Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s release date? If you go to Activision’s website it’ll tell you it came out on October 28. But that’s at odds with the fact that anybody who “preordered” was able to download and play through the entire single-player campaign as of October 20; it’s the multiplayer mode that was set to launch on the 28th. You can plausibly argue that Modern Warfare 2 hadn’t been fully released until multiplayer arrived, but not that its release wasn’t very clearly in progress since the week before.

Granted, I find this chicanery especially galling because part of my job is to maintain a list of upcoming games and their release dates for review coverage. But if I find it confusing, I’m pretty sure fans like you do too. More than that, though, is the insulting audacity of it. It’s on the same level as telling you that the sky is not blue and water is not wet, or that a feral badger is still securely in its cage even as that same badger is hungrily gnawing on your leg.