Pre-ordering has become a subject of controversy recently. What people get when they pre-order, or more accurately, what is denied to those who don’t, has been used as ammunition in the war against rip-off game retailers across the internet. What was once an innocuous way of showing your interest, guaranteeing a copy and giving retailers some idea of how many copies to buy in, has become almost a Satanic practice to some. YouTube warriors TotalBiscuit and Jim Sterling have both denounced pre-ordering and encouraged their viewers to do the same and boycott the practice. According to them, it’s only purpose now is to trick gamers into buying into the hype of a game before it’s released and the reviews that pop up. While I’m not totally in agreement with them, I see their point and thought it prudent to give my own take on the issue. The three main things everyone seems upset about are pre-order bonuses, pre-order content locks and the need to pre-order in the first place.
The pre-order bonus, a small piece of insignificant contact given exclusively to those who pre-order a game, was initially designed as a thank you gift. You show your support for the studio and the game by putting your name on a list that guarantees you a copy on release day. In the beginning, the content was relatively insignificant; a badge, a weapon, a piece of armour. Gradually, however, this ‘optional’ content has become more and more necessary.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. At the end of the day, video games are media and media is business. While developers are creative geniuses spinning new tales of wonder for us to enjoy, publishers are rubbing their hands together and desperately trying to think of ways to maximise revenue. For them, it’s ultimately about money. How much they’ve spent and how much they can make. If at any point the number looks like they’re not working properly, panic ensues. This can often result in aggressive marketing, significant gameplay changes, delayed releases and more significant pre-order bonuses. Offering an unmissable morsel of content for pre-ordering makes the practice all the more necessary for the consumer who wants a full product. And herein lies the problem.
I personally have no problem with companies offering little presents to pre-order customers. Bungie, for instance, let all pre-order customers have access to the beta. Despite restricting Xbox One owners to just a few days on it and then cutting that short by opening it up to everyone at the last minute (more on that in a future article), the fact is it wasn’t necessary. All we received was an early go on the game, an impression. We’d already lodged support for the game by pre-ordering, so to let us play a taster before we got hold of the full package felt like Bungie giving us a little head start as a thank you. Even if our progress doesn’t carry over into the full release, we’re comfortable with the systems, gameplay and combat. We’ve honed our skills against the Fallen and Hive and had a play on a Sparrow.
The insanity being practiced by SEGA in regards to Alien: Isolation, however, is a totally different story. Lopping off two missions featuring the original film cast and set in the films series of events was a massive misstep. Alien fans have been waiting for a game that would bring the brooding, sci-fi horror of the fantastic movies into the virtual domain. They’ve had combat games, good and bad, but nothing that captures that. They get their hopes up every time a new Alien game is announced and find them dashed when it’s released. As a life-long Superman fan, I feel their pain. And just as Isolation looks like the one to break the cycle, SEGA go and fuck it all up by restricting content that only die-hard Alien fans, their core and dedicated audience, would be bothered about. It’s a clear attempt to force fans into pre-ordering the game. It’s like having to commit to buying a ticket to see a 3-D film otherwise you don’t get any glasses. You know full well your enjoyment of the experience will be significantly reduced without the glasses, so you have no choice but to submit. It’s stone cold selling, hardcore business ethics. Make people an offer that just can’t refuse.
The odd thing is that anyone with half a brain could’ve seen the backlash coming. SEGA cannot be that stupid. Considering the rage rought by consumers at the mere thought of significant content being included in collectors editions, when people have actually paid more money, it only takes a minute logical step to conclude that people will generally be unhappy when that content is restricted by not a paywall but a commitment choice.
Special People Only Beyond This Point!
On that note, I’m going to switch my position a little. I have never, nor am I ever likely to, understand people’s anger at collectors edition content. That studios want to offer a larger package, complete with digital and often physical goodies, for a larger price has never seemed that insidious to me. I also feel that pre-ordering is justified in the case of a Collectors Edition. Often retailers only order a specific amount of them and you’re almost guaranteed to miss out on release day unless you pre-order. Retailers rarely get any more stock in either, meaning that forgetting to pre-order can literally mean missing out for good or relenting to paying extortionate prices from unscrupulous hawkers on eBay.
I am, of course, biased. I have a fondness for gaming tat; key rings, coasters, bookmarks, canvases, postcards. Most of all I have an almost unhealthy like for statues. Pretty much any collectors edition of a game I want, if it comes with a statue, must be mine. I will regularly skint myself during silly season loading up on pointless, but lovely, figurines of various leading characters. Digital content, while appreciated, doesn’t excite me as much and therefore I usually avoid buying editions that only offer additional digital stuff. In the case of weapons or items, it’s often early-game stuff my character quickly grows out of or overpowered kit that gives me an unwanted early advantage. For instance, I’m not going to buy the Limited Edition of Destiny, with its exclusive Sparrow and Ghost skin.
However, I do draw the line at cutting out chunks of significant game and selling them back to us for more money. Take Mass Effect 3. I had the Collectors Edition ordered ahead of time, knowing full well that I wanted to play the final chapter in the story. This time, it was the N7 cloth patch that hooked me, the idea of it adorning my already patch-covered jacket too good to resist. I was also pulled in, unusually, by the digital content on offer. An exclusive mission and character, giving more context to the mysterious Protheans whose technology enabled much of the wonder in the Mass Effect universe. It sounded interesting but relatively unnecessary. I probably should’ve guessed it would be more significant.
The content, featuring probably the most interesting new character in the series and a more than ample explanation of not only who the Protheans were but how they became extinct and how that related to the Reapers, was clearly significant. In fact, for series fans, it was practically unmissable. To chop it out and offer it up for more cash felt wrong, even for someone who had purchased that content. Offering it to everyone at a later date was inevitable, considering how important it was, but it was no surprise that excluding it from the vanilla game in the first place caused outrage.
Locking out content like this not only alienates a chunk of your audience but seems to achieve no real benefit other than making a little more money. The same argument could be made for multiplayer maps, although they are often developed after release. On-disc DLC is also an interesting moral dilemma that often causes backlash but it’s hard to have a go at developers who want to make life easier by integrating DLC content into the base game and simply providing an unlock code. The practice also helps those who have terrible internet speeds, a serious issue across much of the UK even now.
The fact is, walling of important bits of story and gameplay and charging customers more money to access them is, and likely always will be, seen as insidious no matter what the intention. While big publishers like Activision and EA generally don’t give a shit because they field multi-million selling titles that people always buy, smaller publisher can take serious damage from doing this. Eventually, the community will turn and flat out refuse to participate in large numbers.
The need to pre-order something has always somewhat been in question. Back in the days before the games industry made more money than movies and TV put together, it was seen as a niche market. Dedicated video game retailers were rare if they existed at all and most had to rely on local department stores for their games. In this time, pre-ordering made perfect sense. The store would likely only order in as many copies of this niche entertainment as necessary, lest a large order remain largely unprofitable. I remember going into Toys ‘R’ Us as a child and seeing a tiny little aisle devoted to SNES and Mega Drive games. Now, the games section occupies a large chunk of the store.
In more modern times, online and high street game retailers are abundant. Gaming has ballooned into a hugely popular pastime and an enormous industry. There are no shortage of titles and it’s generally pretty easy to walk into any store on the release day of any game and buy said game as normal, no pre-ordering required. This abundance, while great for us consumers, is actually a negative for retailers and publishers.
Market economics work on supply and demand. What most people take this to mean is that the demand for something denotes it’s value, which is true, but coming at it from the other side demand also dictates production and stock. If you know there are only ten people in your city that want a product, you can be confident that ordering 20 or so copies into your store will result in at least 10 guaranteed sales, while allowing wiggle room for walk-in custom and people who forgot to log their interest. For the publisher or manufacturer, they can convince you to buy 20 copies as the numbers add up and you’re confident you can sell most if not all of them.
However, if no-one in your city raises any interest in that particular product, you have no figures to work with. You could order 10 and sell out within days, hastily logging another order as fast as you can while disappointed customers abandon your store and look elsewhere. You could also order 100 and only sell 15, the remaining stock languishing on your shelves until you’re forced to sell at cost, or even at a loss, just to shift them. It’s this uncertainty that drives the vast majority of marketing and advertising around pre-orders. It gives publishers confidence that their product will sell and retailers confidence in ordering in large numbers.
So this all begs the question; why should I pre-order anything? Well, for a few reasons, but as usual all need to be taken in context. Unlike what some internet denizens would like you to believe, it’s not as cut and dry as it may seem. Pre-ordering depends on your preference and your retailer. Aside from any retailer-specific bonuses, another practice I detest but I feel has been discussed more than enough, the benefit you receive from pre-ordering with online retailers is greater than doing so with high street chains. Delivery to your door on release day can only be guaranteed with a pre-order which makes perfect sense. If the game only goes on sale that day, the online retailer cannot be expected to process your order and get the game to you on the same day. While pre-ordering from a high street store may feel more secure, in reality, it’s often unnecessary. I recall the launch of Modern Warfare 3 in Nottingham, where a friend told me even pre-order customers were being told to pick a copy off the shelves and wait in line.
In the case of Collectors Editions, especially those with significant physical content, I will reiterate that the need to pre-order is much greater. In these cases, the old niche market model still applies most of the time and only a percentage of your prospective customer base will be wanting the more expensive edition.
At the end of the day, while it feels great to rally up and slam the entire act of pre-ordering, as usual I implore a level head. If you feel a publisher is withholding important, significant content from you simply because you don’t want to pre-order, think about what you want. If you want the content and you’re planning on buying the game at release anyway, it may be smart to submit on that one occasion. I understand the need to ‘vote with your wallet’ and all that, but publishers generally don’t care. We gamers want the complete package and if pre-ordering is the price we must pay for that then in reality it’s relatively small. While the submitting to this pre-order bonus bullshit practice will never stop it, I doubt refusing to partake will stop it either. I’m not here to tell you what to do, just to implore you to make sure you’re making a decision that gets you what you want, not what everyone on the internet is saying you should want.