Sadly, pre-ordering has now become a fixture of the gaming experience. Call me a traditionalist, but I’d prefer a less buggy game over superfluous tat we don’t really need.
Ah, the video game pre-order. It’s been a fixture in gaming for more than a decade. I remember pre-ordering a single game in my life and that was Halo 3 for the Xbox 360 back when I was in high school. I did this, not because I firmly believed that the game would sell out and I wouldn’t be able to grab a copy, but because I’m a collector and pre-ordering was the only way to get the special edition with the pretty metal case.
And make no mistake, the original intention behind a pre-order was to ensure that you, the dedicated fan, would definitely receive a copy of this game that was sure to sell out. Nowadays, the game manufacturers make enough copies initially to guarantee not only will you be able to buy a copy two days or a week after release, but that it will never sell out. This especially stands in a world where most games are purchased as digital downloads.
There still stands that, if you are a collector, there are things that come with a pre-order that you might not get otherwise. However, this argument is somewhat mooted when you realize that it’s clear that not enough people pre-order games, as there are often collector’s editions on sale after the game’s release.
Release time is actually another really good reason to not pre-order. Pre-orders are a safe and damage-mitigating way for game companies to tell which title is going to be a financial success. Before reviews come out, you’re already on the hook for the game.
“There once was a time video game reviews and word of mouth played the most important part in determining the success of a new title,” Luke Plunkett says in his article for Kotaku. “By getting your commitment to purchase a game in advance, when all you’ve got to go on is a marketing campaign, you’re signalling that you, as a consumer, are totally cool spending $US40-$US60 on a game simply on the strength of how it’s been marketed.”
And that’s a huge problem. Not just because it means that they can push out any old product and people will buy it, but because it affects the actual outcome of the game that you were promised. All you have to do is look towards No Man’s Sky to see the story of a game that over-promised and under-delivered. This was – in part – due to pre-order fervor.
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Yes, it also had to do with the head of the company essentially lying and exaggerating, but if people had waited before ordering the game until the reviews came out, they would have known that. At the same time, pre-ordering a game signals to the company that they have at least x number of people who need the game to come out at a specific time.
The problem here is twofold: one, it forces developers to release the game on that date, no matter the state of the game’s completion, like Assassin’s Creed: Unity. This, of course, has led to more and more games suffering from enormous patches on day one of the game’s release. These can be so many gigabytes that you have to wait sometimes one or two days to actually play the game you bought.
Two, it also forces the hand of the creative forces behind the game. The team, much like those behind No Man’s Sky, might have some grand ideas. But because the game must be pushed out on a certain date, they have to keep sacrificing ideas and features in order to release a functioning game. Those features then either never see the light of day, are released as patches over the coming years, or are repackaged and sold to us as downloadable content (DLC).
Blizzard was (is still?) notorious for pushing back release dates for their games. They had a very perfectionist air about them as a company that inconvenienced consumers, but when the games came out, they were what the company envisioned them to be. That doesn’t always mean they were perfect, but they were at least finished. When Activision took over, before the release of the eagerly anticipated StarCraft II, they were finally being held to a specific date, and that led to some pretty intense disappointment.
Really, the only way to send a message to gaming companies that we will not accept broken, incomplete, or disappointing content is not to stop buying games – depriving ourselves of a hobby we love – but by stopping the pre-orders. Once we stop those, no matter how tantalizing the collector’s editions, companies will see their sales reflect what a good game is, not how many copies they “sold” before it ever even came out.