Over the last few years, gaming pre-orders have become quite the most peculiar thing. What was once the province of the over-excited has now become one of the most crucial revenue streams for big publishers, with games offering as many as eight different versions of their bemusing pre-order bundles, where you can buy the game months before it's finished, on the promise of some plastic tat and a book of concept art that the game doesn't look like. And throughout, we've been suggesting that no, you really shouldn't be partaking. And in light of the recent disastergeddons of Aliens: Colonial Marines and SimCity, it feels appropriate to reiterate that.
Yes, I've recently covered this before. But I'm saying it again, in different words - maybe it'll work better this time. In lieu of simply saying "we told you so".
Times are a-changing. Clearly. But not always in the most logical way. Throughout the 90s it was the case that games reviews appeared on the thinly sliced lifeless corpses of fallen trees, usually about two weeks before the game came out. Now, with the lightning-fast reflexes of the internet, a major AAA blockbuster game will likely, er, not have any reviews accessible to anyone until either the moment of release, or moments before. We've gone backward. There are still exceptions, like the console version of Tomb Raider this month, but more and more frequently review embargoes match release dates, while pre-order periods can begin at the very moment a game is announced.
So yes, of course, as an olde-worlde writer-about-games, I could be cast as Mr Resentful here. My powers have been taken away! I don't get to finish the game before you get to start it! But I can assure you it's really not about that. It's about our increasing inability to recommend or warn against a game before it's on sale. Especially because it's on sale up to a year before it's even finished. Yes, absolutely there has been a democratisation of reviews, with anyone with a copy and a keyboard able to publish their own review. Or even just click their own score on Metacritic. But of course all of this occurs after the fact, after the game is on sale. And even if your favourite trusted source of reviews gets their opinion up a few days before the game's available, the increasing propensity for pre-ordering renders the process a touch moot.
If you pre-ordered Aliens: Colonial Marines or SimCity, to take the two most recent examples, you're in a tough position. You've already paid, to make sure you got your more expensive version of the game, with that extra DLC or presentation metal box. And when that game turns out to be a massive pile of dung, or it simply doesn't work as promised, you're screwed. With the difficulty of returning digitally purchased products, and the complete lack of a desire to lose the trinkets you'd pre-ordered for in the first place, it's a horrible position to be put in. Some will, of course, go on the defensive - it's a very well known phenomenon that those who have invested are far more likely to want to fight for their purchase to have been worthwhile. Most, however, will feel cheated, gutted, or embarrassed. None of these are good places to be.
But say the game was great - what is gained? Well, those trinkets, and the same discount that's likely to be running through week one of its being on sale anyway. I want to argue that those trinkets aren't worth it. And indeed were everyone to recognise at once that pre-ordering is a con by publishers, that offers no one any real advantages, we'd soon find the baubles and bonuses would appear as optional released versions of the game.
From the publishers' perspective, this is a brutal argument. They've redesigned how they fund projects, how they expect their revenue streams to appear in their accounts, around a pre-ordering model. There's a reason they push so hard, and so loudly, with their dozen different ways to buy Assassin's Duty VII, with the Uber Digital Supreme Deluxe version containing one more novelty playing card than the Ultra Digital Deluxe Surpreme version, although lacking the replica stab victim figurine in the Supreme Ultra Uber Deluxe boxed version, only available in GameStop if you pre-order on Amazon. But it's a reason that is entirely benefiting them, and not benefiting gamers.
Subverting the review model is traditionally an option taken by the self-knowingly dreadful. When Die Hard 5 was released with no press screenings, no reviews in the magazines and websites ahead of its cinema debut, it was for a reason. Everyone involved knew it was a piece of crap, and they wanted to hide that fact from potential film goers for as long as possible. But that's not the case in gaming. This is happening with all manner of games, from those you'd put money on being splendid (say BioShock: Infinite - I've not played a single second of it, and watched few trailers, but I still have a far greater expectation that it will be great than I do that it might be poop, simply because of who's made it), to those you'd expect to be terrible. It certainly serves the same purpose - to prevent negative press putting people off making the purchase - but no conclusions can be drawn from its use.
Let alone because the game might still be in some pre-alpha form when the money starts rolling in. (This is completely separate from alpha-funded projects, that allow access to a game to those willing to pay up front - of course it's nothing to do with that.) There simply isn't a meaningful advantage to customers.
A boxed copy may well arrive on your doorstep on release day, saving you a trip to the shops. But we're PC gamers, and that's just not realistically how most of us consume games these days. Buying a game on its moment of release on Steam gets you the game almost at the same time as buying it in advance and waiting for it to unlock. Pre-loading, yes, that's a useful feature, but surely not one more important than knowing what you're buying before you buy it?
There are discounts, yes. But they're rarely more than the 10% you'll see most games discounted for their first week on sale. (And there as nothing compared to the discounts you'll see a month later, although asking people to wait a month for the next big thing isn't realistic.) And 10% off a steaming pile of shit still doesn't make for very good value, and it's still just as much hassle to get your money back no matter the discount.
As I mention above, those fun extras, and indeed those extremely not-fun extras like unique DLC that should obviously just be in the game, wouldn't disappear if people widely boycotted the pre-order model. They'd move forward. In a sensible world, where people weren't paying for things before they know if they're worth paying for, those super-dooper bundles would appear as week one offers, as alternative forms in which to buy the game. They'd be there to encourage people to pay a little more, or even to pick up the regular priced version just for the bonuses. It would be a model designed for customers.
No, I don't think I'm the Great Arbiter Of Games, whose opinion should be heard before a purchase is made. But I do think the reviewing press serves a useful function, and that can be even more useful with the easy availability of consensus from the internet. Someone who knows their tastes regularly match mine, or indeed anyone else in the industry's, will find that expert opinion useful in advance of purchase. If Adam thinks the latest Map War Epic is utter rubbish, Map War aficionados will be well warned away. If Jim warns you that First-Person Multiplayer Shooter: The Shootening is an absolute mess, despite everyone's high expectations, his words would be well worth listening to. And if you still weren't sure, you could compare them to everyone else's, and draw a useful opinion.
And the consequences of refusing the pre-order model reach further. Not only would it make publishers more likely to make sure good games are in the hands of the press well ahead of launch, so positive buzz would be out there ahead of sale, but it would make them more likely to return to the demo model. If they know they have something good to sell you, but also know you're not going to buy it before it's released, they're far more likely to make sure a demo is in your hands. While they can rely on people handing over money based on a box image and a bundle of promises, why would they invest the time and money into a demo - take that daftness away and there's a much greater incentive to ensure you're encouraged before it's out.
So please, just stop pre-ordering. It's not offering anyone but publishers an advantage. It's like paying for your meal at a restaurant before the kitchens are built, and months before the food critics have been in, let alone before you've been able to even read a proper menu. That just doesn't make sense. Let's start making sense.