Should players pre-order video games?

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The concept of pre-orders was a solution to a problem, the problem being that shops could not keep up with demand for a product on release day due to its popularity. Thus Pre-orders came about, a practice which guaranteed the consumer a copy on launch day.

Pre-order numbers are good for the industry because it gives the developers and publishers an idea of the initial reaction to the game and how large production runs should be. They can also budget for how much marketing they’ll need based on early reactions and pre-orders. The retailer also benefits because they can be assured of minimum sales. But sadly, what should be a beneficial arrangement for all actually gives rise to certain questionable industry practices, specifically things like review embargoes.

The official reason for a review embargo is so that the various reviewers have sufficient time to finish a game and to do a proper review, which seems fair since analyzing a title and writing a review takes time. An embargo should, in theory, allow reviewers sufficient time to finish the game and write their review. But this practice is easily abused.

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Aliens: Colonial Marines pre-order bonus

Taking Aliens: Colonial Marines as an example; there was a review embargo on it that was enforced by Sega. While at the same time, the marketing department would aggressively market it with stellar trailers, impressive gameplay demos and enticing pre-order bonuses. They utilized the review embargo as a form of gag order to prevent the media from revealing how bad the game truly was until everyone who pre-ordered has collected their copy and were subsequently burned by the final product.

It would thus be advantageous for any developer who made a lousy triple-A game to enforce a review embargo and rely on marketing to convince consumers to pre-order before the cat is out of the bag.

Naturally there are negative consequences for players because of such practices. Because players got burned by pre-ordering a bad game, one of two things will happen. One group of players will likely rage against the developers for releasing such a horrible game in as vocal a way as possible. The other group of players though will get defensive about the game and actively defend what is, objectively, a sub-par if not outright horrible game. This actually happened with The War Z. Players actually paid for the privilege to be a shill for The War Z because they were in complete and total denial that they could actually have made a bad purchase.

There are a plethora of drawbacks for pre-ordering a game. The most basic of which is that you do not know how the game will turn out. Just take a look at what happened with Aliens: Colonial Marines. The marketing did what it was specifically designed to do, to get players committed to a video game on day one for which they otherwise would not. Even Steam itself was a victim when it had to take down The War Z off their library due to false advertising.

With always online DRM these days, it further enforces the point of why players should not pre-order games. Take Far Cry 3 and the recent SimCity as an example. These two games were marketed so strongly and there was a lot of hype surrounding them because of their pedigree. Players were so excited to play these games on day one that they had massive pre-order numbers. But because of the always online DRM, the developers’ servers could not handle the massive influx of players and their servers crashed and burned quite publicly and spectacularly. This essentially locked players out of the game on launch day. SimCity even had many of the same server issues a full month after having been released.

With the release of any game, developers tend to offer incentives like bonus content to players should they decide to pre-order the game. This can come in the form of exclusive content such as weapons, outfits, missions, in-game resources or even early access to a MMORPG. But let’s be clear on one thing, pre-order bonuses are carefully crafted marketing material that is specifically designed to entice the player to shell money out for a game that hasn’t even launched yet.

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BioShock Infinite pre-order bonus

Most retailers also offer unique pre-order bonuses. If consumers were to pre-order BioShock Infinite from GameStop, they would receive an exclusive shotgun while consumers who pre-ordered from Best Buy would receive an exclusive sniper rifle instead. The Amazon pre-order offered consumers who pre-ordered a free prequel story for their Kindle. Steam even offered tiered bonuses, a first in the industry, which unlocked subsequent rewards as more players pre-ordered Bioshock Infinite. The first tier was a free copy of the original BioShock, the second tier included seven items for use in Team Fortress 2 and the last tier being a free copy of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Tomb Raider also had retailer specific pre-order bonuses. Gamestop offered players an exclusive in-game Challenge Tomb. Amazon offered an exclusive 32-page ark book, the unique Hunter skin and a download of a behind-the-scenes documentary about making the game. Best Buy gave players who pre-ordered an exclusive graphic novel which told the story of the ill-fated voyage of the Endurance as well as an exclusive Aviatrix character skin.

But do any of these pre-order bonuses enhance your gameplay? Apart of the GameStop bonus for Tomb Raider, I don’t see how the other bonuses will add value to your in-game experience. And because the market is so competitive, retailers have to offer unique bonuses to entice consumers to buy from them. All the bells and whistles aside, the pre-order only guarantees the player a copy of the game on release day.

It’s even gotten to the point that games industry takes pre-order numbers so seriously that it has begun to directly affect the retailers. Some retailers directly grade their employees’ performance based on the number of pre-orders they sell rather than the level of service they offer. Their paychecks might even depend on the number of pre-orders sold. But from a customer standpoint, I’m more concerned about getting good service and information about a game rather than being persuaded or badgered into pre-ordering a game.

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There are some people out there who might argue that they would have bought the game even with the foreknowledge that it was badly received, and that’s a fair point. I know there are some cases where I would as well. But we as consumers can influence better business practices with the ways we spend our money. By not pre-ordering games, developers will be less inclined to enforce review embargoes till the day of release because there would be no good reason to preserve the pre-order “bubble”. Review embargoes would instead expire before the release day to allow players to go through the reviews and buy the game on day one with an informed position.

Patience is a virtue when it comes to buying games. There are just no reasons good enough to justify pre-ordering a video game unless you’re fully prepared to potentially throw away your hard earned money. As both consumers and fans alike we have all seen time and time again how horribly a game’s launch can be handled.  You may indeed be unable to play an anticipated game on launch day, and you may even miss out on some utterly insignificant in-game trinkets, but at least you can rest easy being a responsible consumer and not rewarding horrible business and review practices. Be part of the solution, not the problem. Don’t pre-order your games.

*Readers should note that I did not mention about pre-order pricing practices regarding brick-and-mortar stores such as Wal-Mart and GameStop. This was done on purpose because where I’m from, I do not have stores such as those and thus, I’m feel that I’m not in a position to criticize on it. Where I’m from, pre-ordering a game with pre-order bonuses from brick-and-mortar stores are generally slightly more expensive, but I would be able to get a full refund should I cancel my pre-order.*