The pre-order condition; why do we do it and will it go away?
With so many issues surrounding games, combined with the price of the latest AAA titles, what should be done about the quality and content of games? What can be done? In a way we (the collective of people who purchase and consume gaming content) are to blame, thanks to voting with our wallets. Crying about it to friends or on social media means a lot less to a company than money does. An obvious statement, but too many times I have watched people complain bitterly about a game, threaten a boycott and then go buy the game. So let’s try break everything down because this is a pretty complex issue, rather than just throwing “DON’T PRE-ORDER” at people.
Reasons why we pre-order
So before tackling whether pre-orders are the terrible bane of gaming’s existence, let’s look at the reasons why people pre-order titles.
1. Limited stock
What happens if a game launches and when you hear that it is the best thing since the last best thing, there are no copies of the game in any of the stores nearby. You can’t download it (no internet / over your cap / don’t have a credit card / whatever reason) and now you are stuck without the game. What you have heard through the grapevine is that more stock is on the way, but that will take weeks. In this same category are those Collector’s Editions which generally arrive in small consignments meaning the chance of you finding it in a store after release is pretty slim.
2. Discounts / free extra content
Games are pretty expensive, so when a retailer offers a 10% discount, or offers the first DLC if you pre-order now, it gets difficult to resist. Or maybe, it is just easier to ignore everyone telling you to stop pre-ordering games, because you want those extras. Like Goro as a playable character in Mortal Kombat X. What if the game turns out to be great, then you need to buy it sans discount and pay for those bonuses, unless they were pre-order exclusive (yes, I hate that such a thing exists) and you have to miss out?
3. Loyalty to publisher / developer / franchise
So when Super Shooty 27 or Mega Magic Large Sword 19 are coming out, you have to have them as soon as possible. You played every other game in the series and you know that you will love it. Because you trust the franchise or director or publisher enough to get it without reading reviews or looking at previews. Who does that for a game you know is going to be a sure win anyway? Brand loyalty is a very real, motivating force and when a franchise or developer catches the heart, due to whatever reason, those purchases become pretty much guaranteed.
4. Urgency / Relevance
Did you notice how several points, leading up to this, basically boil down to the fear of missing out? Gamers have a huge fear of missing out, something that can be seen underlying several of the points under this heading. If you login and everyone in your friendlist is playing the exact same game, the one that launched that day, it can be a very strong motivation to get the game. People love to talk about the games they are playing right now and will take any chance you give them to discuss how fun, how great, how amazing etc etc a game is, which can make weathering that storm of excitement and shared triumphs pretty difficult. Add onto this the few people who will take it upon themselves to tell you how wrong you are for not playing game x right now, because you haven’t lived until you have played game x. Three times. Without saving. Blindfolded. Playing a game straight away also allows you to engage in these conversations, to share experiences or knowledge of mechanics with each other. Because for a brief window, game x is pretty darn relevant, before disappearing in the haze of the next game, which you have to play, because it is the thing. Journalists do this too, buying games so that they can also give their opinion on it, even if their publication has already reviewed it. It is about relevance, about having an opinion.
That game you saw last year looked amazing, right? Then you saw it again, and the teaser, and you read about the amazing trip someone went on to meet LowKick McDuck, the head of Smack Em 5. Then you saw the cool c0ncept art, the opening cinematic and a section of an amazing (yet highly scripted) level that promised you the world. This game is going to be the best thing ever, it is going to change the way we think of games, the way the whole industry makes games. You buy into the sweet, sweet siren song and you pre-order.
Your friends are all going to play this multiplayer only title, right? This means you will have no-one to play your normal multiplayer game with, and nobody wants to sit in party chat and listen to how much fun everyone else is having while you browse the internet and look at screenshots of the game or play some Minesweeper. Also, why would you want to be far behind everyone when you start the game, when everyone has unlocked the super sniper rifles and learnt the best spots to camp or how to beat the level the fastest, you don’t exactly want to arrive then, because nobody likes being last. You want to be the first up that mountain if you can. If not world, server or province first, you need to be the first of your friends to beat the game, to get the thing and show off the thing. Also, if you pre-order you get to start playing three days before everyone else. Yes, a headstart!
So while that list isn’t exhaustive or in any way complete, it covers the general reasons for why we pre-order. So why does the industry, the people who make money out of this, want us to pre-order?
Reasons why the industry wants us to pre-order
1. First week sales
Be it the movies or anything else, consumerism has created this metric where the sales during the first weekend / week / month of something’s release count for a lot. It is a measure of success and regardless of how the game does after that sales-wise, these figures will be referred to whenever discussions about the marketing, the success of the game and many other topics come up. Those numbers get used to make a lot of financial decisions and as such, boosting pre-orders is a great way to do that.
2. Forecasts / logistics
If various shops and outlets have a pre-order campaign running, the distributor (in our case in South Africa) has a better idea of exactly how many copies to bring into the country. While a large part of it comes down to forecasting, knowing that you have pre-orders lined up for 5,000 of game x for launch day sounds a lot better than having no pre-orders and 5,000 games about to arrive in the country, which someone just paid a fair amount of money for. Oh and local distributors don’t have the luxury of just sending unsold games back, because it isn’t in-house distribution. In general it gives a nice picture of how well a game is being received and what it will do at market.,
3. (Almost) guaranteed sales.
People that pre-order will get the game and have paid for it before, in a lot of cases, the bad news arrives with terrible review scores, mentions of broken gameplay, shoddy graphics or lacklustre story. The sales have been made already before all that hard work that the marketing and PR teams were doing can be undone and who goes through the hassle of returning products, even in the cases where returns are allowed, because you opened the product already and used all the relevant codes that came with it. Also, don’t forget the people who saw the game at some point and pre-ordered without following news about it, because they don’t really play games that often and they paid for it ages ago, so they tend to forget about it until it arrives.
Consumerism, Capitalism, Community
So pre-ordering is a lot more involved than first glance might lead you to believe. It splits into three driving forces, each affecting the other in various ways. The consumers of gaming media fall prey to consumerism, where owning the next big thing and keeping up with the Jones’ is a really important factor, even in cases where it might not be a conscious thought. We are driven to experience new things, to own new things, to increase our collection of things at every turn, and games are pretty damn shiny things to own and collect. The second driving force is capitalism, because yes, this is an industry and business. BIG business. Marketing budgets and PR funds that could solve poverty in several African nations are spent every year to encourage and entice purchases. The final part is community, which can be split into two groups: we are our own enemies. Being overly excited about a game on release day, telling people they haven’t lived / aren’t real gamers (ugh) until they have gone and bought game x are pretty strong forces. When several people start with the same message, it becomes harder to ignore. The second group is the press, which often ends up being an extension of the marketing message by doing previews, being excited about the latest game and in some cases, just adding to the hype, the excitement and the magic of gaming in general. While this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing, sometimes the PR stink is hardly washed off of things before being paraded out as news or a story of interest, which has long-reaching effects.
The topic is slightly more complex than telling people that not pre-ordering will cause all the troubles to go away, just in the same way that telling people DLC is bad won’t stop people from buying DLC. Though with insight into what we do and why we do it, maybe we can stop ourselves the next time we pre-order a game, and rather wait for a review from someone whose opinion you either trust, or whose likes tend to mirror your own. Because despite all feelings to the contrary, the game will still be there after a week or two, it really isn’t going to run away or get worse.