Opinion: The Problem With Pre-orders

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As autumn rolls around, the AAA games industry awakens from its summer slumber and begins to churn out titles in anticipation of the holiday season.  With a slew of big budget titles scheduled for release in the next couple of months and Bungie’s first-person space opera Destiny reportedly becoming the fastest selling new IP ever in the UK, this might be a good time to talk about pre-order culture and why you should be wary of it.

Physical pre-orders used to serve a clear purpose; if you thought a game had a strong chance of selling out then you could have a retailer set aside a copy for you.  This was, of course, when lots of games actually stood a chance of selling out.  Between the rise of digital delivery platforms (Steam, PSN, Xbox Live, etc) and the vast quantity of units that publishers ship these days, the prospect of a big game coming out that you can’t just walk into a shop on release day and buy is exceedingly small.  Which begs the question, why do people still pre-order games and who benefits from it?

Retailers and publishers track pre-order statistics to try to divine how well a game will sell when it hits shelves and, as you can probably tell from the various physical and digital goodies on offer, they really want consumers to pre-order.  Admittedly, the bonuses offered are often fairly insignificant (a new skin or costume for the main character, for example) but some come in the form of in-game content (such as unique weapons or missions).  The upcoming Alien: Isolation will have special missions for those that pre-order featuring most of the cast of the original film.  An Alien game withholding Sigourney Weaver as a pre-order bonus; that’s what we’re dealing with here.

So why are these companies going to all this trouble?  What do they stand to gain besides some statistics to show the stockholders?  Well, reviews and word of mouth play a big part in determining the success of a new videogame.  Professional critics and like-minded peers can get their hands on a new title and tell you if it’s worth your time and money.  Publishers and retailers who, understandably, want to sell as many games as possible don’t want potential customers being put off  by poor or mediocre reviews and encouraging a pre-order culture is a way around this.  By signing up to buy a game in advance with only the marketing campaign to go on you are signalling that you, as a consumer, are absolutely fine with paying £40-£50 for a game based purely on the talent of its marketing team.

If the game lives up to the hype then that’s great but what if it doesn’t?  What if it turns out to be an absolute mess?  Aliens: Colonial Marines failed to meet expectations so spectacularly that it resulted in an ongoing class-action lawsuit claiming that the publisher (Sega) and the developer (Gearbox Software) had falsely advertised their product using faked demos of the game at E3 and other trade shows.  So when the next big title comes around and you’re thinking about pre-ordering, sleep on it.  You have very little to lose and everything to gain by waiting for the reviews to come in.

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