Is Pre-Ordering Games an Archaic Tradition?

March 2, 2015 Written by Michael Briers

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Unbalanced micro-transaction systems. Overpriced downloadable content. Egregious abuses of trust. It doesn’t take long to compile a list of common complaints leveled at the video game industry, and you only have to take one brave glance at your go-to forum to glimpse the vitriol and backlash that these topics so often elicit.

That said, while the Internet isn’t renown for being an oasis of calm reflection, these criticisms are far from unfounded. Particularly when it comes to the hot-button issue of pre-ordering games.

A Hot-Button Topic

Strip away all the hyperbole and the glitz and glam that surrounds the launch of a video game and you’ll be able to track a fluctuating trajectory from reveal to eventual release. Essentially, in debuting a new product to the public, publishers are tasked with designing a marketing campaign that sells an idea long before it is fully-formed.

It’s the reason we so often see posters and trailers emblazoned with snazzy taglines in the vein of “it’s X meets Y!” et cetera. The vertical slices. The high-profile demonstrations. If a fully-fledged video game is the main course, then its marketing campaign acts as the flamboyant appetizer.

Often times companies are seen stoking the embers of excitement in an attempt to make a lasting impression on the player, and this modus operandi almost always involves making some form of promise.

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Coercing public perception of a product prior to release is by no means exclusive to our industry, but thanks to a string of day-one mishaps leaving promises unfulfilled and consumers frustrated, the culture of pre-ordering has become synonymous with all-things-negative of late.

The Sins of 2014 Still Loom Large

Couple this with the staggering amount of delays that befell a myriad of AAA titles last year, as developers wrangled with the technical innards of new hardware, and you have a community that is much more apprehensive about making that all-important financial commitment ahead of time.

The effect of this is two-fold: primarily, companies such as Activision are beginning to note that pre-orders, as a trend, are experiencing an “industry-wide decline.” While on the other hand, publishers can be seen experimenting with various incentives in a bid to meet the same end goal; secure a portion of the audience untainted by review scores and word of mouth long before shipping.

Cynicism aside, it is clear as day that publishers and high-street retailers consider pre-order revenue to be money in the bank. It’s business 101. Customers pledge support to a still-susceptible concept while companies use this data as a metric to gauge an IP’s popularity in the market space, raising questions of artificial scarcity and fatuous exclusive content.

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Yes, much digital ink has been spilled regarding this issue in the past, and it’s one that only continues to grow in prominence as we gradually shift to an all-digital future, adjusting our norms in the process.

In fact, this trait came to the fore quite recently when Turtle Rock Studios revealed the pre-order incentives for Evolve — or, rather, pre-purchase bonuses, as they are now so fetchingly referred to.

The Monster in the Room

Cut from the same cloth, the pre-emptive lure essentially opens up the third tier of characters from the beginning, an echelon of hunters that you would otherwise have to grind for to unlock.

Much like the more common controversy that rears its head when developers allegedly hold back content to release as DLC, this method of approach raises questions of fairness, and puts pressure on the already taut relationship between developers and players.

Responding to the backlash, Evolve Creative Director Phil Robb stated that: 

We have the game set up in such a way that we can expand upon it if that is the desire. Our plan is one we pushed for as consumers. If we’re going to make money we want to feel good about the way we’ve done it. We don’t want to feel like we’ve hoodwinked people.

In the case of Turtle Rock’s asymmetric, these DLC plans — including the fourth playable monster, Behemoth — are a necessity if the game wants to retain a sense of staying power. They are, in essence, designed to prevent you from trading the title in soon after you’ve had your fix with the content available.

It is a financial reality to making new software, particularly in a market so competitive that everyone already seems to have one eye trained on “the next big thing.” It’s a fact that we, as a community can’t afford to lose sight off.

After all, what good is a multi-million dollar flash in the pan?

Nevertheless, this model does not excuse the notion that good-to-go content should be withheld from the player based on an arcane approach to the pre-order.

Holding Back Content?

The Creative Assembly bore the brunt of this controversy twice during the course of 2014, first for accusations of pulling content in Total War: Rome 2 not to mention Alien: Isolation’s most peculiar pre-order bonus.

In terms of the former real-time strategy, fans of the turn-based title noticed that some assets used during promotional material were missing from the final product. Conspicuous by their absence, Creative Assembly later confirmed that the units had underwent substantial revisions in the time that lapsed between pre-launch footage and the eventual release.

And that’s understandable. Plenty of times movie trailers will contain snippets that don’t make it into the full-length feature, instead remaining on the floor of the editing room.

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But Alien: Isolation was unable to fall back on such an excuse. For a brief period in time, the Crew Expandable expansion was only available to those who secured their copy of the survival horror ahead of time.

What exacerbated this issue was the fact that Creative Assembly pulled together almost all of the original cast from Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 film, forcing ardent fans of the IP to shelve out additional money if they wanted to gain access to the exclusive content.

Convenience, or Marketing Ploy?

Alas, the studio took the passionate feedback on board and released said DLC as a standalone expansion; still, when companies leverage financial risk by holding back content, it sets a worrying precedent.

In the end it all boils down to one single question: why pre-order in the first place?

Pre-ordering is a privilege, yes, but for many it also comes down to a question of convenience. Busy livelihoods and other responsibilities eat away at our already finite gaming time. But in the past, long before Amazon and Steam rose to prominence, there was a genuine rarity with mainstream games on day one.

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Now, high-street retailers are clamoring for mind share with companies such as GameStop and Best Buy offering exclusive bonuses that you wouldn’t find elsewhere. And as frustrating as this business model can be, the fact that it still exists is proof that people are still buying these premium products.

Heck, Destiny proved to be the most pre-orderded new IP in history thanks to the reputation behind it. In strategically referencing Activision’s shooter heritage through Call of Duty not to mention Bungie’s Halo lineage, the company was able to attract as wide a demographic as possible

However, outside of these tentpoles, the pre-order culture is beginning to get long in the tooth as evidenced by companies experimenting with pre-purchases and different avenues.

Couple this with the fact that the average consumer is likely to be much more educated and indeed apprehensive about putting down the $5 ahead of time to secure a copy following last year’s non-starters, and it lends credence to the entire model feeling somewhat outdated.

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As a business concept, pre-orders first crept onto the scene in and around a decade ago, a time long before adding games to your digital basket on the go was considered second nature.

Familiar Faces

The takeaway? Don’t believe the hype. Pre-ordering a piece of software doesn’t benefit you, no matter how enticing those incentives may be; rather, it helps the publishers, PR representatives and high-street retailers that are tripping over one in another in a bid to secure your hard-earned cash.

What should in theory be a mutually beneficial partnership has become twisted and outdated as time has progressed, and if the sins of 2014 have taught us anything, it’s that the wait-and-see approach may be the best course of action to take.

Besides, you wouldn’t buy a car without first kicking the tires, right?

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