Pre-ordering is a practice left over from the days when games were only available on physical media and availability was limited. But now, in an age where more and more people are turning to digital platforms to get their fix, pre-orders have changed from a logistical necessity to a nefarious practice with all the benefits for the developer but none of the advantages for the purchaser.
It’s time we put pre-orders to bed: and the only people who can do that are the gamers.
A Brief History
Pre-orders, when they first began, did exactly what they say on the tin. You put down some cash for a game before it is released, ensuring that you are going to receive a copy when the game actually ships. Back when Steam was still just a twinkle in Gaben’s eye, this was often the only way you could make sure your local retailer didn’t run out of copies before you got your product. It was an absolute necessity for some titles, particularly AAA ones, and it was a great signal to distributors how many units were going to be needed in a particular area.
It was a symbiotic relationship. Consumers got guaranteed day one copies, while distributors got all the information they needed to make sure that hungry gamers didn’t miss out. There was something really exciting about slamming down the cash to reserve a copy of the latest game – and it meant you didn’t have to queue up in the wee hours of the morning of release.
He who preorders should see to it that he himself does not become a preorder. And if you gaze for long into hype, hype gazes also into you.
— Jim Sterling (@JimSterling) August 12, 2016
However, this purpose is no longer served. No part of the world has been left untouched by the march of progress; the game industry being one of the major drivers in enormous technological and cultural change. Digital distribution through Steam or the various console online stores is now the favoured method for many gamers, and while physical copies are still in circulation, it doesn’t feel like they have much longer to go before being replaced entirely.
But pre-orders live on, despite the main reason for their existence dying. You no longer have to reserve your copy, because Steam is never going to run out of the latest title. Distributors don’t need to know how many gigabytes of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided they need to deliver to this particular part of the country – you are guaranteed a copy just by clicking the checkout button. Pre-orders, in their original incarnation, no longer serve a purpose.
So why are they still here?
A Simple Answer
Money. That’s what it comes down to. Pre-orders are all about making money. In fact, what they amount to is making money not from a game, but from the promise of a game. Unlike Early Access titles, where anyone who is buying into it should know that it is an investment rather than a game they are purchasing, pre-orders have no such caveat. And that is an enormous problem.
It’s quite ingenious really, in a terrible, terrible way. Rather than having to actually produce a quality product, publishers can instead rely on their marketing to build hype, build pre-orders, build up their fat stack of cash, without ever needing to worry about critics slamming the title; because the consumers have already paid for it.
Think of it this way: Pretend that Half Life 3 is finally going to be released, exclusively on Steam. Everybody is frothing at the mouth to play it, and what’s more, if you pre-order then you unlock a secret prologue mission that revisits some of Gordon Freeman’s journey to this point. So, of course, everybody does. On release day, however, the game ends up being sub-par, buggy and essentially incomplete.
Some features that were heavily advertised beforehand are either not-as-described or outright missing. Reviewers slam it, word-of-mouth spreads and some people even choose to get refunds – assuming they’ve managed to play less than the two hour Steam cut-off point. But it doesn’t matter. A significant bulk of the pre-order crowd won’t refund it, even though they wouldn’t have bought the game had they known what kind of state it was really in. Half-Life 3 ends up being one of the largest releases in decades, even though it’s terrible – all because of pre-orders.
In essence, pre-ordering promotes hype instead of content. If you can make the bulk of your money simply by releasing some trailers and doing some interviews, why on Earth would you use the more expensive method of making sure the final product is made of sufficient quality? There is no business reason to do that, and pre-ordering does nothing but encourage shady practice.
With Sugar on Top
Speaking of delivering on content, you might be one of those people who pre-order so that you get the exclusive goodies for doing so. A skin, a character, a weapon, something along those lines, something that makes you feel like a VIP.
What you don’t realise is that a lot of the time, this isn’t really a bonus: It’s something that should have (and likely would have) been included in the base game, cut out at the last minute in order to promote pre-ordering. What, you think that developers, out of the goodness of their heart, create some special little something for the people that have so much faith in their promised game that they paid for it on little more than a trailer and some interviews?
No. Pre-order bonuses exist to tempt you into buying the game early; publishers know pre-orders get them their money and relieves the pressure of actually having to deliver a quality product, so they cut something out and hold it out like a carrot-on-a-stick. They know that without the bonuses, there is very little reason to pre-order. Sure, you might preload the game and be able to play it right on the launch day. For some people, particularly those with slower internet, that might be extremely helpful: but is it really worth the gamble if the game ends up not being worth your money or your time?
— Call of Duty (@CallofDuty) August 31, 2015
The reality is that any time you pre-order a game, you are doing nothing but saying to the developer that they can have your money regardless of the quality of the product they give you. Back in the days of yore, there was a purpose for it, but the world has moved on. Digital delivery doesn’t need to have pre-orders, and by keeping up with the practice, people are doing nothing but encouraging shady marketing and developing practices.
Stop the madness. Stop pre-ordering. Demand that you are able to know the quality of a game before you put money down for it. Otherwise, the industry is heading for a future where the hype machine is king, where you can’t trust a single trailer, interview, feature article or news piece because the final release is so far from the advertised product that it might as well be a different game entirely.
The power is in your hands. Stop enabling broken products, a hype-machine that never stops, and an industry that thrives on misinformation and false advertising. Remember – no more pre-ordering, it’s time to leave them in the past where they belong.