Opinion Piece

Why Do We Pre-Order Games? What’s The Point?

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Pre-ordering video games is just one of the many, many things that baffle me about the modern gaming culture. So many people rush out to brick and mortar retailers and online retailers to pre-order a game as soon as they’ve seen a trailer or read a preview that so much as utter’s some vague praise, and for what? A few “exclusive” digital items that will be released as post-launch content, and that’s about it, usually. What are the actual genuine benefits of pre-ordering a game? The answer is that there really are none.   Sure, you get the game on launch day, but that comes at the risk of spending money on a game that turns out to be complete and utter dogs bollox.

The perfect example of this is, of course, Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game that was ripped to shreds by gamers and critics alike for being…well, bloody awful. A terrifying amount of people pre-ordered this game based entirely upon the many promises made by both the developers and media alike. Others pre-ordered because of the trailers, or simply because of the name Aliens plastered on it. Others gushed about the “Sharp Stick”, a piddly bonus pre-order gun. Before Aliens: Colonial Marines was released a visit to the Steam shop showed that it was the number 1 selling game, far outstripping games that were actually out. That’s a lot of pre-orders.

Aliens

As a result the vast majority of people were extremely unhappy when they received their copy of Aliens: Colonial Marines on launch day, discovering that what they had in fact bought was essentially a box of lies, that would have arguably been a sort of mediocre shooter had the pre-release hype not attempted to turn it into the greatest thing ever and thus left every feeling a mite upset about the finished product. Had they not  pre-ordered the game they would have been able to check out the reviews which had been embargoed until the day of release and get a better idea of what they were actually spending their money on.

A large part of the problem does indeed stem from the industry’s infuriating trend of embargoing reviews until the day of the game’s release, ensuring that those that choose to pre-order are essentially just blindly throwing money at a screen or cashier in the hopes that it will turn out to be good. Now, reviews are not the final word in any purchase decision, and I say this in complete honesty even though I write reviews myself but they can at least let you know if the game fundamentally works, and by reading a large swathe of reviews you can usually get an idea of the overall quality. If embargoes more often ended a week or even two weeks before release then perhaps I’d have less trouble with the pre-order system as it stands.

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Veering off topic a little here embargoes are a strange beast. The common qoute from publishers is that embargoes allow each reviewer a chance to actually play the game and get their review written and ready. This is fair enough and has helped me out numerous times, because as a small site I obviously am lower on the priority list for reviews copies and embargoes often give me a chance to catch up and get my review ready, allowing it to roll out with other sites work. But as we know embargoes have also become a force for evil, allowing publishers to hold off on potentially damaging reviews until launch day, which is too late for all of the people they’ve persuaded to pre-order.

In Aliens; Colonial Marines case things were made worse by the fact that the demos shown to the gaming media ahead of release were essentially a completely different game from that one that gamers got on release day, ensuring that previews would be overwhelmingly positive and therefore encouraging people to put down their money ahead of time. Couple that with the embargo and both SEGA and Gearbox had a brilliant way of ensuring they made money from the game that they must have known wouldn’t have normally.

Websites and reviewers don’t want to break embargoes for a couple of reasons. The first is that it gains you a bad reputation amongst other writers, because they’ll obviously be angry that you broke the rule in order to put out a review early and attempt to gain extra traffic by doing so. But the biggest reason is because doing so gets you blacklisted, meaning no more review copies from that company or access to previews builds or interview opportunities. For most sites this is a major blow to their business.

This is actually a bonus?

This is actually a bonus?

The state of many games upon release is also another fine example of why pre-ordering games can be a risky business. How many games these days do we see get released with major problems that should never have made it through testing? Developers and publishers alike simply shrug and say they’ll fix it all later on, that way they can meet the deadline rather than delaying the game to ensure quality.

Another good example is of the pre-order problem is Dead Island. Legions of people pre-ordered the game because of that hauntingly beautiful trailer, a trailer which I class as one of the best of all time.  People put money down based entirely on that trailer, on what was essentially an empty promise, despite knowing nothing about the game itself, and when it finally came out there was a lot of disappointed gamers because it simply failed to deliver anything nearly as good as that trailer. I’m not saying Dead Island was a bad game, but there was a lot of people who didn’t like it or felt disappointed , and that’s because the fell for the pre-order joke: here’s a cool trailer that really lets you know absolutely nothing about the game itself, so go and put some money down. The publishers back this up with a myriad of so -called pre-order bonuses, including a big-head mode. Seriously, that’s a pre-order bonus?

At leas you got an art book with this one.

At leas you got an art book with this one.

And the wierd thing is that when you pre-order a game you become almost locked into purchasing it no matter what. You know you can cancel that pre-order, but a part of your brain simply doesn’t want to because you’re now locked into this plan which says you’re going to buy the game because you’re invested in it, when you’re really not. I’ve had this happen to me many year back when I was younger and did pre-order the occasional game. I’d put down money, lock myself into buying the game and then finally when I was playing it and not really enjoying myself I’d think, “I saw this coming. Why didn’t I cancel my order?”

But why do companies give a damn about pre-orders? Because they use pre-orders essentially as sales numbers that they can wave about  and say, “look how good we’re doing!”. That really is it. It’s a particularly used tool by developers who are perhaps in need of more funding from the publishers. They can run to the publisher and talk about the vast amount of pre-orders, which they use as an estimate of how well the game will sell,  and hopefully persuade the publisher to doll out a bit more of that lovely green stuff. By which I mean cash, no marijuana. Although I suppose that’d make game development a bit more of an entertaining process.

When questioned nobody really seemed able to give me a genuinely good reason for their choice to pre-order the game. A few cited getting the game on launch or even a day earlier, but is that really worth the risk of laying down money on something that you don’t even know will work or be any good? I can understand the desire to get a game you’re genuinely excited about as soon as possible, because that’s a desire I have often. Some retailers even send the game out so that you end up getting it a day before the official launch. I can understand the impulse to just get it as quick as you can, but as they say patience really is a virtue and by simply waiting a day or two, in the case of those games with embargoes that do not lift until the day of launch, could potentially save you a good bit of money. And why do it on Steam? Steam doesn’t give you the game earlier, and since it’s digital there’s absolutely no chance of copies running out, so on the day of release you can simply doddle on to Steam and download it anyway. The main reason people told me about on Steam was because you can download the game early and it will activate on release day, meaning you can get to playing it just a tad earlier, but again is that actually a worthwhile trade-off for having blind faith in the product?

How many people got bitten by this game, once again thanks to pre-order "bonuses" and review embargoes.

How many people got bitten by this game, once again thanks to pre-order “bonuses” and review embargoes.

Others said it was to ensure they would get a copy, but in this day and age the chances of a game actually selling out are minimal. And again I repeat my Steam argument that digital copies of the game cannot sell out. I guess it is still possible for something like Grand Theft Auto V to sell out and thus leave you without a copy, but that kind of game is the exception to the rule. Even then if the game you’re after has been at the head of some massive marketing campaign then you can safely assume there’s going to be no shortage of copies available. Truth be told it’s the smaller titles, those flying under the radar and coming from some small developer, that are far more likely to sell out, so when it comes to these sorts of games perhaps there’s a justifiable reason for doing so.

By far the most common reason stated  was for the bonuses they got, but again was that really worth the risk, considering seemingly “exclusive” DLC tends to appear for sale shortly after launch? But my main gripe with this sort of pre-order incentive is that it’s actively encouraging a terrible industry trend. You see, pre-order  content usually falls under one of these categories:

1: It was agreed before development that the developers would create pre-order content.  Why not just put it in the damn game and give everyone a better overall experience?

2: A chunk of the game was removed during development in order for it to become a pre-order bonus. Removing a chunk of game to create day-1 DLC or a pre-order bonus is one of the most frustrating things about the current industry.

3: The development team created the content once the main game was finished. Many people don’t know this but the developers usually finish a game several months before release so that it can go through certification etc. If this is the case, though, why not simply provide the content you’ve created as a free download for everyone?

4: A piece of content that was cut from the game due to a lack of quality is instead used as a pre-order bonus. So, if it was cut for a lack of quality, why give it to those that pre-ordered the game? And if you think it’s good enough for them, why cut it from the game at all?

All four of those categories are, in my view, a bad practice by the industry, and by pre-ordering games with such bonuses you’re simply encouraging the companies do continue doing it. So many people complain about day-1 DLC, and yet this is exactly the same thing, in essence, and the only way to stop it is to stop pre-ordering the games, something which will have absolutely no negative effect on you.

Why not just put it in the damn game, or offer it to everyone as a free download?

Why not just put it in the damn game, or offer it to everyone as a free download?

Even worse is the irritating trend of creating different pre-order bonuses for a variety of retailers. Any given game can have about nine or ten different pre-order bonuses. Imagine if they just put all of that in the game for everyone to enjoy, then it wouldn’t matter if you pre-order the damn thing or not. These days, though, you can’t get the complete experience because bits of the game are scattered across the continents.

Don’t get me wrong, though, there are occasional pre-orders bonuses that I do view as perhaps worth the risk, if you’re already pretty sure about the game itself. Art-books, for example, are a pretty neat reward and give you some physical to show for faith. The cost of producing art-books would probably be prohibitive to giving everyone who buys the game a copy, so I can also understand why using it as a pre-order bonus makes more sense. Not to mention putting together something like an art book shouldn’t take very little, if any, development time away from the game itself.

This is why I hold that pre-ordering game’s simply is not worth it. The benefits for doing so don’t seem to outweigh the potential pitfalls. Now, naturally there are some exceptions: I wouldn’t hesitate about pre-ordering the next Grand Theft Auto game, for example, as the chances of it being something I won’t enjoy or of it being fundamentally flawed are considerably lesser than most other titles. The same could be said about a game in one of my favorite series, because I can be fairly confident that it won’t let me down, although I cannot know that for sure. But even then, why put down the money? Why not just have a bit of patient? The benefits I’m getting are so minimal as to be near pointless, and it just encourages a practice I do not and cannot agree with.

This one got a lot of people.

This one got a lot of people.

For all of my distaste for the current pre-order system, though, I don’t actually want it to vanish. Instead I want there to be a genuinely good reason for people to pre-order the game, namely monetary saving. Rather than some meaningless piece of digital content that appears on the marketplace a week after launch, let’s start giving those that pre-order a hefty discount, a sort of thank you from the publishers and developers for having faith in them. Quite a few places are already offering discounts to people who decide to pre-order, and that provides a solid benefit for taking the risk. When looking at a game I can decide whether the money I could potentially save by pre-ordering balances out the risk of blindly buying a game that I cannot guarantee being good. Those that pre-order could potentially save a lot money, giving them even more incentive. Let me pre-order a game that usually costs £40 for £30 or even £25 and I’d probably take up pre-ordering once more. The drop in price would open up a larger market as well, allowing those that don’t have a lot of disposable income to purchase more titles. Sure, a publisher wouldn’t make as much on a single sale, but the amount of extra copies you could shift should more than cover that. Meanwhile those that choose to wait continue to pay full price for a game, but do so in the knowledge that they’ll have a much better understanding of the game’s overall quality.

Mind you, much of my gripe with the pre-order system could be sorted out by companies ceasing putting embargoes in place that only lift on launch. Provide reviewers with copies of the games further ahead of time and let them publish reviews at least week before launch. But then, as we’ve seen so many times, the industry as a whole largely doesn’t give a damn about the actual consumers, and putting launch day embargoes in place can allow so many companies to get away with selling shoddy titles.

As it stands at the moment, then, I’m genuinely baffled by why people insist pre-ordering their games with the way it works currently. We’re offered largely points bonuses to entice us to pre-order so companies can wave those figures around, and in return we get embargoes that don’t lift until launch day. In my eyes the system needs to be revamped to give customers genuinely good reasons to hit that pre-order button

But that’s my view of it. What’s yours? Do you pre-order games? If you do, what do you feel makes it worth it? Why do you do it? Because as it stands I can’t see a good reason, but then I might be missing something completely.

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3 replies »

  1. Because it makes sense if it’s a game you know your going to buy…As many ghetto ass people as I have seen in GS spending money on COD and not getting their kids food poor people should be all for it, It’s like layaway IF you know your going to purchase the game instead of spending all your kids food money on the game at one time you can throw $10-$15 on it here and there until it comes out

    • But if you’re that troubled for cash would it not make far more sense to just wait the extra day and check the game you’re planning on getting isn’t broken in some way or just utterly naff? You’re throwing money at the screen based on promises more than anything else. And you could just put the money in a jar to save up for the game.

  2. I totally agree with you, actually. Once in a blue moon there’s a pre-order bonus that I’m really really excited about, but usually I’m left disappointed. Nothing kills my excitement for a game faster than having to decide where to pre-order from because I know either way I’ll be barred from playing some content the devs made. I also think that a financial kickback would be fair for buyers pre-ordering games, because right now pre-ordering only benefits those on the higher supply chain. You might find this interesting, but I’m so much on the same page as you on this that my friends and I actually recently started a company to address this exact issue.

    However, we can’t just give $5 or $10 off a game when someone preorders a game because 1) there are obligations to list a game for a certain price (for several weeks after launch) imposed on retailers, and 2) giant retailers would just give more money back (in “scumbag” company bucks). So we’re trying to see if people who pre-order would like an early bird rewards model. Basically, the earlier people buy with us, the higher of a discount tier they are put into, and the earliest people who get it for free. I would love your feedback on our idea (you can check out my blog, or our site http://adelieonline.com). Shucks you are based in Scotland, or I totally would have tried to get you to test our alpha, which is starting tomorrow. Still though, it’s reassuring to know that there are people out there who have the same opinion towards the current state of the pre-order market that I do.

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