Pre-order culture is one of the most venomous vipers nestled in the games industry. A staple of the all too common ‘hype train’ that surrounds the release of the largest games. The games are often packaged with a number of cosmetic DLC pieces, early access to gated content or even emotes, in a bid to secure all the sales they can before release.
The first gut reaction might be: “So what? It’s a choice if you want to pre-order or not!” This is certainly true, consumers are able to choose whether or not they wish to pre-order their games, so it shouldn’t be too much of a concern. The problems appear when we have pre-orders being sold on the basis of falsified game footage, like the infamous Aliens: Colonial Marines video or the advertising around Witcher III showing the game with a level of graphical fidelity that the game would never actually achieve. Someone who can only afford to purchase a few games a year and so pre-orders accordingly to make sure they can afford them, might easily be mis-sold by such false advertising.
In addition to the possibilities of being sold a product falsely, pre-orders also have the potential to give the advantage to those early adopters. An example of this appears in the recent release Star Wars: Battlefront. In Battlefront, those who pre-ordered the game gained instant access to the DH-44 Pistol, a weapon that other players had to rank up highly to get. The weapon was vastly superior to other weapons on offer, a few hits being able to kill any opponent, regardless of where you hit them. This of course is one of the more egregious examples of pre-ordering allowing for pay-to-win or simply favouritism. In the majority of cases pre-orders only offer the purchaser some early access to map packs for example, or perhaps some cosmetic DLC or weapon packs, that will later go on sale for those who did not early adopt. In a games industry where the shelf life on big titles is progressively on the decrease, the fact that certain early-adopters are given the edge makes the experience all the more mercenary.
The drive to pre-order is what is most troubling though. The drive that encapsulates the gaming industries need to sell units based on promises of quality and not actual results. Of course, this is not something specific to the game’s industry, as it is the nature of the business of entertainment media to make it’s products as hyped as possible before it comes out for sale. A difference of course is that a movie does not release (very often anyway) in a broken, unwatchable state. Something that is very common by contrast in the gaming industry.
This then leads into the troubling situation that certain gaming personalities and reviewers are placed in when they are tasked with discussing a game before it is released. Embargo dates, that effectively block a reviewer from discussing a game before the publisher or developer ‘allows’ them to do so can be hazardous to their careers or later access. Many a personality have been blacklisted, not invited to press events, or even sent copies of games to review due to what the game makers or owners consider to be a ‘betrayal of trust’. The dilemma of whether to continue to play by the rules in order to be able to at some point break the story, and maintain coverage, or to out a crappy game as crappy early and lose the access for the good of the consumer is obviously a stark one. It is a decision which many in the realm of games media have had to make, or have had forced upon them, often resulting in fan backlash or a loss of face in the reviewer circuit.
What results is a system wherein the publishers of games are seen as the not offering a service to the gaming community, but instead that the gaming community is a piggy bank to be drawn from. Publishers often complain that game costs are too low, or that due to the rising costs of making a game, it is the community that should bare the brunt of it as the consumers of the product. What is never discussed of course, is the amount of content in games seemingly being shrunk down, or perhaps the simply fact that the amount of DLC in games has risen exponentially over the last decade. Profits from games due to this have seen record highs, and yet publishers still seem unimpressed, or even deeply concerned with the results. It is a bitter drink to swallow when games are cut into pieces and sold as such, to see publishers act this way and alienate their customers as a result. All in the pursuit of super profit, rather than establishing (or even maintaining) a fan-base in their products.
After all, that is what I see most of all in the drive of pre-order culture. I see a games industry that is desperate to appease shareholders and denizens of boardrooms, rather than the hopes of fans. Fans who have since the birth of these companies have bought into their games and stuck by them regardless of their mistakes or anti-consumer policies. It is this trend, this very trend to maximise profits regardless of it’s effects on the goodwill of fans that will bring this games industry to a crash, and not a pixelated alien in a shitty, broken movie tie-in. It is an industry that thrives on hype, and cosmetic throw-away DLC to entice potential buyers, that is just as likely to toss them away as soon as the money has been collected, and then used to fund the next game in the pipeline. Pre-orders ultimately serve, as stated previously, to solidify sales figures in the minds of higher ups and guarantee a games financial success. Let us hear no more guff about ‘securing your copy’ in a largely online gaming market…