Editorial: The Pre-Order Heist

By John Walker on November 14th, 2012 at 8:00 pm.

NOWWWWWWW!

Over the last few years we’ve seen the pre-order become a central aspect of gaming. Heavily relied upon by both major publishers and the smallest indies, more people than ever are paying for their games long before they’re even finished. And with Kickstarter and its crowd-funding sisters, the matter’s become even more complex and nuanced. Shops tend to so massively over-stock on major console releases that there’s no real need to bagsy a copy, while PC games are of course infinitely available via digital channels. And yet pre-ordering games is a bigger thing than ever before. Why’s that, eh?

Time was you could loudly declare yourself for or against the concept – now it’s a subject that requires a little more thought. I’ve given it some below.

Pre-ordering began with sensible intentions. A new, highly anticipated product was coming out, but stock was likely to be limited. So customers could pre-order. Whether it was a game or a new console, it was essentially reserving your place in the queue, ensuring there’d be one there for you on the day the thing came out. That notion still exists, of course – should you want a Wii-U on the 30th this month, you’d probably be sensible to pre-order one today. But with games that’s no longer really the case.

It’s essential to break pre-ordering down into various groups. Where once you could form your opinion and tattoo it on your face, now you’re going to need to put different arguments on, I dunno, different eyelids and cheeks. Simplifying somewhat you’ve now got:

1) Pre-ordering a publisher-distributed game either online or in-store.
2) Pre-ordering an indie game.
3) Contributing to crowd-funding at a tier that secures a copy of the game.

And each is a distinctly different beast. What I’m mostly interested in doing here is grumbling about 1), so let’s get the distinctions out of the way.

Every pre-order is a risk. You are giving money to someone else for nothing in return. It’s an act that possibly requires a little more thought than many give it. But the second and third forms are arguably acts of generosity. Self-interested generosity, unquestionably. And sometimes perhaps because of significant discounts in a game a person believes they’re going to buy anyway – that’s likely not quite so generously driven. But it’s usually an aspect of the pre-order that the customer is trying to help a game get made. And often, this comes with immediate reward – access to a portion of the game, or alpha code to see it in its current form. It’s a sort of relationship between the developer and the customer, where paying early has advantages to both. It’s symbiosis.

There are obvious current examples, like Prison Architect, where developers Introversion have made a significant amount of cash in letting people get access to their in-progress game in return for buying a copy before it’s done. It goes back quite a way too – 2D Boy did the same for World Of Goo, back before it was trendy, offering the first chapter of the game a year early to those who paid for the lot. And it’s becoming quite a familiar business model, more and more small development teams adopting it to remove the need for external investment or loans.

Clearly anyone investing in an unreleased indie game is taking a risk. The game may never get finished, perhaps not enough pre-orders will come in alongside yours to fund the development, or maybe the game will turn out to be a stinky mess. And at that point, the developer or team are in a spot of bother – the money’s been spent, and they’re going to have a hard time paying you back. But it’s perhaps not as big a risk as Kickstarter.

I’ve argued before that people need to see Kickstarter as an altruistic process, rather than a pre-ordering system. But it’s a pretty futile argument since even I don’t adhere to it. Here you’re more often funding a idea that hasn’t begun to exist – you’re paying for hopes to become a completed game, in a medium where so many faithfully started projects can never come together. It’s a lesson that will eventually be learned the hard way, but also a completely valid thing too. Clearly there are all manner of complications – did a game not get completed because it just never came together, or because the developers spent their Kickstarter money on hammocks and booze? What are people willing to tolerate?

But in the end, Kickstarter games as pre-ordering, as much as it might be just plain silly to approach it as such, shares many of the risks with chucking early cash at an indie – you could well get early access as a result, and you could well see your money disappear in a hole. Or most likely, you’ll get the game on release, or before release, probably for less money than it costs at that point. But the motivation for the developer is one of simply being able to make the game, no matter the intentions of the person spending the money. And that’s not the case for publisher-funded games.

Right now, if you go to the Steam pre-order page for Square Enix/Crystal Dynamic’s Tomb Raider, you’ll see a strange green bar. It’s for the “Pre-Purchase Rewards” that are available, which “unlock as more people pre-purchase”. The idea being, the more people who “pre-purchase” (at least “pre-order” makes a degree of sense – ordering something pre its being released) the game, the more rewards those who do will receive. Because… because we’re all supposed to rush off and market the game for them to ensure enough do? (Hey! Maybe that’s why her Twitter page was…) What’s the motivation we’re meant to be experiencing here? Begging our friends to pre-order the game, to nudge the percentage ever so slightly higher so we can get a free copy of a game that’s been given away free more times than gonorrhoea.

That’s when this meter reaches 33%. (33% of what?, you ask. 33% I reply, this time more authoritatively. You nod and dutifully agree.) At 66% of the Mystery Meter we get “everything above” which is a grand way of saying “one old game”, as well as some bloody DLC. And then for reward 3, which appears once the whole 100% of… people on Earth?… is achieved, you get all both of those things, and… MORE DLC! So, basically, a bunch of shit that should have been in the main game in the first place.

This is what pre-ordering is really all about. I’m picking on Tomb Raider because of this bloody daft Steam thing. But it’s not exceptional.

It’s a horrible practice, that has somehow become embedded in the culture of gaming, and is barely queried as a concept. We post that pre-orders are now open for a game along with every other site (although increasingly less often as we become increasingly fed up with it). Tomb Raider, if it doesn’t slip again, is due out in March next year. The game, funded by Square Enix, isn’t finished yet. It’s a full-price game, pre-ordering at its cheapest at £27 on PC (£38 on consoles), that people are being strongly encouraged to buy now Now NOW!

Why? It’s not because without the cash the studio won’t be able to get the game finished. That isn’t how it works. They certainly want money to be coming in a more continuous fashion, over months before a release as well as after, and the pre-order process certainly helps the books look better. But the reason it’s of concern to you is that the more people who buy the game now, the more sales they’ll have before anything like reviews, bad word of mouth, or a Metacritic kicking could spoil things. That may well not happen with Tomb Raider – Crystal have made four stunning games in a row, and I have no reasons to think this one might fall short of their very high standard. But it might. As might any other AAA game that you’ll see such energetic campaigns trying to get you to pre-order, bribing you with ridiculous bits of tat, minuscule discounts, or content that should be in the game in the first place, and most likely will be a month after release.

A huge part of it is about duping customers into committing their money before they can be put off. During the build up to a game it’s all hype. Trailers, screenshots, big campaigns. And the coverage at this point is non-critical, because there’s nothing to be sensibly criticised. They’ll very carefully select what they’ll show the press, to ensure it’s seen in its best possible light, and by the nature of previews unfinished projects are (rightly) given the benefit of the doubt. In the build-up to the release of an anticipated triple-A game, you’ll see very little negative press, because there’s nothing to be negative about yet. Publishers must have high-fived until their hands chapped when they realised they could get people to pay for the game at this point. And it’s interesting to note that you can see the signs of other forms of entertainment beginning to follow. Book pre-ordering is almost as ridiculous a business, although thank goodness the film industry has yet to figure out a way to get us to pay for cinema tickets months before the film’s finished. We really don’t want gaming to be leading a charge here.

It’s a ridiculous trap so many have fallen into. It’s now become a massive part of how games are sold, and thus how profits are managed. And it’s getting increasingly elaborate, despite the customer rarely getting anything worthwhile out of it. A £3 saving really doesn’t strike me as enough to so generously hand over your cash for a game that might be a massive pile of shit, months before the people equipped to warn you it’s such are able to say.

Publishers know a game is a gamble, no matter how positively they may feel about it. Take a look at Medal Of Honor: Warfighter. EA had no reason to believe this would be the game where the rest of the games writing industry finally woke up and realised what a tiresome mess it and all its many cousins are. I’m quite certain they were banking on its being a big Autumn hit for them. And then it received a worldwide panning, with the lowest mark most major sites and mags seem to be able to use – 5 – all over the place. Its Metacritic score has settled at an average of 54. You can bet your bum they were grateful for every pre-order that came in, every person who invested their cash long before they could be warned.

So this is my appeal: Stop pre-ordering publisher-funded games. Stop letting it be a thing that works. Buy games when they come out, once you’ve read about them, and decided if you think they’re worth your money. Because £30-£50 is a lot of money! Most people won’t risk the £10 it costs to go to the cinema without first checking to see how a film is scoring. Why risk the same for something so much, much more expensive? Sure, you may well have pre-ordered a game you thought would be good, and then it was good. But you might also have won the last three rounds of Russian Roulette, so pointing a loaded gun at your head is plain sensible, right? When you pre-order a mainstream game, you’re not supporting a developer you might like – you’re funding a publisher who already worked out their budget, probably years ago. You’re just gambling your own money for no personal advantage. Wait – you get the same game either way.

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196 Comments »

  1. HadToLogin says:

    Problem with PC preordering is called Steam-like-Services, where there’s NO WAY you can’t get your order.
    But it’s still quite vital on consoles, since I know of many times when there weren’t enough boxes in whole towns to get game.
    And that’s without remembering all those bonus they put it. When you have console, you preorder new CoD, because there are really big chances you won’t see DVD in shops, unless you camp before it.

  2. absolofdoom says:

    I understand and agree with you somewhat, but if there’s a significant discount for preordering a game I’m going to buy anyway, I’ll do it. A game like MOHW I was never going to buy without finding out if it was good first.

  3. InternetBatman says:

    I rarely preorder anyways. Normally the GOTY edition has a lot of the bugs picked out, has all the content that was DLC, and is a lot cheaper. People will still be willing to talk about it if it’s good.

  4. Zarunil says:

    I’m firmly in the wait-for-€10-GotY camp. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that by pre-ordering I am giving the developer my money and saying “Hey, I don’t care if your game is shit, I’ll give you my money anyway.”. I can’t remember the last game I pre-ordered.

  5. Premium User Badge

    PikaBot says:

    I will occasionally preorder a Publisher title, but only in the last few days of the preorder window, when reviews have started to come in to confirm that it isn’t a piece of shit. This last-minite preorder will usually save me 10% on Steam.BAnd I only very rarely do this, because I very rarely buy non-indie games are full price these days; Steam sales are so ubiquitous that I can easily just wait until I can get it for 25-30-50% off.

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  7. JBantha says:

    Things like Bioshock I don’t see it like pre-ordering a game, but buying a sculpture I really like plus a game of a franchise I sort of like and would like to see developing even more. But I have into account the fact that some of the big daddies of previous releases had sold as high as 10 times its original price.

    • JoeGuy says:

      I pre-order if the price is cheaper for a physical copy and I want it to arrive on release day. An example is BioShock Infinite. I ordered that for €30 from GameStop before they upped the price. And Hitman: Absolution is €20 from WOW HD so I thought that wasn’t too much of a risk at that price. But I’d never order a game for full price for no reason.

  8. Somerled says:

    I pre-ordered Guild Wars 2 (only a few days before the head-start access) after watching scores of beta videos and liking what I saw. I really just wanted to experience those first few weeks of newborn MMO. An MMO is an entirely different game before it’s all been picked apart, number crunched, and optimized, and that happens too fast, well before the post-release reviews hit. I’m glad to have had the opportunity, and will gladly never pre-order again (not any panning of GW2 here, mind).

    I also pre-ordered Halo 2 and waited in line at its midnight release with my (not yet) wife. I’m not as stupid now as I was then. I does learn.

  9. JoeGuy says:

    John, can I ask did you have a little bit left in the tank from the whole Rab fiasco? Not asking from a disapproving standpoint. It just seems that if someone were disillusioned with the industry after that incident and how it advertises and pushes its product on customers; encouraging undeserved brand loyalty and rewarding customer trust with content that would otherwise be in the game anyway. That pointing out a game like Tomb Raider which is now synonymous with objectively underhanded game promotion would be such a game to mention.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Siresly says:

    That stuff makes me exasperated to the point that I just ignore what pre-order incentives publishers concoct. Can’t be arsed with that petty bullshit.

    If I pre-order I do it when there’s a particularly good price. Zavvi/The Hut made their codes inapplicable for pre-orders, so I’ve moved on to GMG. Pretty much the same price, only since it’s digital I don’t have to wait 1-2 weeks for delivery.

  11. Blad the impaler says:

    Methinks you’re preaching to the converted here, but good on you for preaching.

  12. namad says:

    pre-ordering a book is actually a totally sensible thing, some popular books end up selling out, at least in various local parts, of course books that sell out will print another run, but if you wanted the 6th harry potter book on day1 you had to pre-order because the store was entirely full of people wanting that book, and of course the store ended up having a fun time, because everyone dressed in costume….

    it’s not quite the useless practice pre-ordering a digital video game is, it’s a solid object that takes a while to do a production run of

  13. namad says:

    after I pre-ordered demigod, I’m never pre-ordering another stardock title again, and stardock even hands out beta access a bit like an indie would..

    saved me from pre-ordering elemental, thank god, about the only companies I might still be willing to pre-order from anymore are obsidian or bethseda, although I think pre-order dlc rewards are the devil, I’ll take a 10% discount from a publisher I love.

  14. Arkanos says:

    Pre-ordering is double-bullshit since anyone who pirates it gets all the rewards, as well.

  15. Premium User Badge

    ffordesoon says:

    Well. I feel like an asshole.

    I pre-ordered TR, AC3, and Far Cry 3 on Steam, and I’ve pre-ordered other stuff on there as well in the past, like Borderlands 2. I’ve been lucky so far, as all the stuff I’ve sunk cash into has proved to be worth it, but John is absolutely right. And I feel like a schmuck, because every time I’ve pre-ordered a AAA game on there, it’s been without much thought. I just did what the marketing told me to do, like a good little lemming. As someone who likes to believe he’s an independent thinker, I find that disquieting, to say the least.

    So I’ll take up John’s challenge.

  16. Jimbo says:

    Wait until what though? Until you’ve read the opinion of somebody whose wages are paid for by advertising of the exact product they’re commenting on? None of these games you’re talking about review badly, ever, and I can guess with near certainty what the game will play like from the minute it’s announced anyway (it’ll play like Gears, CoD or Uncharted).

    Preordering far enough in advance from, say, CoolShop, usually saves £5-£10 (compared to launch day Steam prices) and has a physical copy at my house on day of release. I don’t guess wrong often enough about whether I will enjoy a publisher funded game for this not to be a much better way to buy my (new) games. I would wait until release and use digital distribution, but it is incredibly overpriced.

  17. Roz says:

    Whatever you do, never pre-order anything from amazon.

    Not unless you enjoy paying more to get the game 3 days after release.

  18. Cytrom says:

    I have no problem with preordering. Tearing a complete game into tiny pieces to serve as “bonuses”. Thats the issue.

  19. Rack says:

    There’s a level of temptation that just overwhelms the risk of pre-ordering. I got Diablo III for £17 by pre-ordering early (just as soon as I saw how much they were charging for Starcraft II). I got Xcom for £22 including a copy of Civ V and some pre-order gumpf of extremely limited value. It seemed worth the gamble. If the deal is good enough I’ll bite.

    It doesn’t help that games aren’t reviewed anymore. How many games in the last 5 years actually posted disappointing scores? And how many were legitimately disappointing. Whether it’s corruption, incompetence or just a difficult challenge you never hear about a games flaws in its review. No-one mentioned Mass Effect 3 had writing that would be an embarrassment for an 8 year olds creative writing class. We didn’t hear that Diablo III was stupidly easy on the first two runs of the game and pay to win after that. It’s extremely unusual that a review differs from the publishers own marketing message. If you are interested in a game it usually only makes sense to pre-order a title or to buy it 6 months down the line when opinions have had a chance to ferment.

    • bill says:

      I’m pretty sure the RPS review said exactly that about diablo.

  20. Apocalypse says:

    The pre-order marketing is one reason I buy these days mostly stuff from the bargain bucket. That way I get most of those DLCs as well without playing russian roulette. And I get as well the final polished version and not some early beta released to the public … big publishers are a mess and its ridiculus that most indie developers offering better support and have a better qa than those studios that are under control of those resourceful and big publishers. And now I nearly started ranting again, sorry about that.

  21. aeromorte says:

    If people are too stupid to understand not to buy games before they saw the gameplay, read a review or anything like that, buying a gamy because of a trailer or a shitty bonus then let them throw thiers money away. What pisses me off are the dlc’s you can get by ordering in different places: order on steam you get this special exclusive dlc, preorder on gamestop youll get this special exclusive dlc … etc. Buying an unfinished product … the idea of it pisses me off … but when you think about it, when you buy a game from one of these places youll never get the “whole” finished product since it is already chopped into smaller pieces. You will get the core experience but never 100% of it.

  22. Avish says:

    Pre-ordering a game is not much different than ordering food at a restaurant. It’s just a purchasing decision based on faith, impression and the amount of money you are willing to spend.

    When I consider pre-ordering a game, I usually base my decision on the price and not the bonuses (most of the time they are worthless crap or game-breaking bonuses).

    • El_Emmental says:

      The difference being that you pay after eating the food, and can refuse to pay or ask for a different meal if the food is digusting. You’ll be able to talk to the restaurant manager in less than 5 minutes.

      Meanwhile, pre-ordering games… you pay before eating, you can’t ask for refund/replacement, you can’t meet the manager (hurrai for Customer Support taking hours to finally get the mail address where you can send your letter asking for a refund, to finally wait weeks until you get an answer).

  23. Mario Figueiredo says:

    The argument has been made. And I read it all, John Walker. You address this issue in pretty much the same way I’ve been addressing it every time I felt discussing it on a comment box of some game review website, including RPS.

    What nags me about the thought process however is who is John Walker on this article? An RPS staff member or John Walker, the brit, a gamer who happens to review games? Because, quite frankly I got sick and tired by the numerous times I’ve been told by this website to pre-order something. If you are the latter, so be it. I’ll leave this criticism aside. If you are the former, then its time to put your actions where the words are.

    • El_Emmental says:

      I don’t think he ever told people to pre-order a publisher-backed game like “GO OUTSIDE/ONLINE AND PRE-ORDER THE HELL OUT OF IT”.

      At worst he mentionned “you can pre-order it and get the DLC as a bonus”, because some people want that information, because some people actually like pre-orders (and pre-orders bonus), because a journalist isn’t supposed to censor informations (he should comment it though).

      Also, surprisingly, he is a human and can change his opinion on things. Like, finally realizing the pre-order thingy is going too far and is something we should fight.

      Perhaps you could help him by reminding him of this article whenever he writes about a game with pre-orders.

  24. bill says:

    I can honestly say that I’ve never pre-ordered any game, and never understood why anybody does. The benefits are minimal and the risk is huge.

    It’s a strange custom that seems have developed due to the practice of games stores giving bonuses to their managers for pre-orders. Meaning that managers actually had an incentive to not stock enough of the game for anyone other than pre-orders.

    I totally get it for funding indie games and donating on kickstarter, but pre-ordering professional games is just kind of confusing. Especially when it’ll be cheaper within 2 weeks of release anyway.

    • El_Emmental says:

      Brick’n'mortar retail shops have to ship, store, handle, ship around other shops, store again, ship back to publisher, etc. The less copies you have in each shop, the less money you spend on logistics and storage.

      Giving bonuses to your managers for pre-orders makes sense in that setting: you’re giving early data on the expected sales, you’re making sure some of the shipped copies will be sold in the first week, you’re making sure more customers get a copy when they really want it.

  25. Grogmonkey says:

    I pre-order about 85% of my games (the other 15% being reduced price games that I would like to play but wouldn’t want to pay full price for). I have never once been disappointed or regretful about pre-ordering anything.

    What I don’t understand (I would genuinely like some feedback about this) is how people don’t know if they’re going to like a game or not. I will know from the early preview stages whether I’ll be interested in a game or not, and in fact it will often take little more than a gameplay video to allow me to make that decision.

    I haven’t paid any attention to any kind of critical writing since I was kid, and no amount of reviews (either through the writing or an aggregate of scores) is ever going to change my mind or enhance or detract from my opinion about something I’m playing. Am I really that unique in this? Am I alone in being able to safely pre-order games because I am self-aware enough to make early decisions about the content I know I will enjoy?

  26. frightlever says:

    Stop telling people what to do.

    Wait, wut?

  27. El_Emmental says:

    Brink…

    Red Orchestra 2…

    I was weak, I was young, I believed in gaming. I’m sorry.

    (Natural Selection 2 might try to make me feel better, I just can’t preorder anymore)

  28. Tony M says:

    The reason we’re willing to preorder for a measly 10% discount is because we plan to buy it on release day anyway.

    The reason we want the game on release day is because of the Release Day Hype Culture of gaming. That culture is as much a product of games journalism as it is of games publishers.

    If gamers were rationale we would wait a couple of months and buy the game half price. Instead we buy on release day, so we may as well preorder.

    • El_Emmental says:

      “The reason we want the game on release day is because of the Release Day Hype Culture of gaming. That culture is as much a product of games journalism as it is of games publishers.”

      I see what you did there. Blaming journos and the PR for the ephemeral hype. How easy.

      Who’s carrying the hype, once it’s thrown by the PR and presented by the journos ? People, people and people.

      Who’s giving less value to someone’s cultural current state of mind if he’s a day late ?

      How many posted that 606th xkcd ?

      How many “saw it months ago on —” and “need help RPS ? that news is a week old” comments on “old” news ?

      Why no one want to hear about Mirror’s Edge, but will rush to see a MoH: Warfighter news ?

      Because they want socially-relevant and socially-valued cultural elements, and anything older than a week lost its value. Don’t forget to blame the people for that.

  29. Brun says:

    I’m sorry, but couldn’t everything you said about Publisher-Funded games also be true of Indie games, or Kickstarters? You have zero proof that someone running an Indie shop isn’t asking for preorders for the same reasons.

    I’m just sensing a bit of a double standard on indies vs. big publishers here, not that I haven’t sensed it before on RPS.

  30. SuicideKing says:

    First game i’ve ever pre-ordered was BF3. It’s also going to be the last, now. Got seriously pissed with EA.

  31. frenchy2k1 says:

    In the US, pre-ordering has one more goal for the store: doing their inventory management for them.
    GameStop will not try to predict demands, they will only order PreOrder numbers+2 for any game. This is their way to force people to preorder as they will not stock the game otherwise. Of course, their competition, mostly big-box stores, will happily stock huge numbers of expected block busters on day1, leading them to rack all the sales without bothering you to preorder.

    And then high street game stores lament that consumers do not patronize them any more…

  32. Ciber says:

    I got caught out by my own idiocy when I pre-ordered Test Drive Unlimited 2 via steam. I got an amazing 10% off the £30 price. Bad, bad idea. Awful value. The game turned out to be utter cack. It made driving a pretend Veyron around an imaginary version of sunny Ibiza less fun and more boring than driving a real white van on a grey and rainy day in January in real dreary England. Which would seem like quite an achievement I’ll grant you, but not in a good way.

    TLDR: I agree, don’t buy pre-orders. TDU2 is a dirty smudge of fecal matter of a game.