Editorial: The Pre-Order Heist

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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