Editorial: On Pre-orders and Other Malevolent Designs

But in all fairness, I've never had a problem with their employees. Not at my local stores.

Gamestop hasn’t been the target of much ire lately, but that’s not indicative of anything really.

I would like to start this week’s column by announcing that I have an active pre-order at my local Gamestop. It is for the console version of the next Smash Bros. game but I did not intentionally place it. When last I stepped into the store my very friendly clerk informed me that I had a lapsed pre-order “from a long time ago” and that I could put that five bucks toward something I might want that is coming down the line. Since I was buying Mario 3D World he suggested Smash and I blinked dumbly for a moment before agreeing and wondering what pre-order I could have possibly placed that I forgot about. Thanks to events like this it has become abundantly apparent to me that pre-orders are so unnecessary and meaningless that I could not manage to keep track of a single one.

At some point, a long time ago in fact, I stopped regularly pre-ordering things when it became clear to a younger me that the process avoids no great risk of low stock. New games, especially in recent years from bigger publishers, are released in such quantities to so many outlets that running out of any title upon release day is a rarity at worst. But as the usefulness of a pre-order has become apparently null to more and more consumers, something terrible has cropped up around the practice to keep buyers in the habit of agreeing to a pressured clerk’s up-selling. Pre-order exclusivity often in the form of timed exclusive retailer specific DLC has become a common parasite for most major releases. When in the past retailer specific content was limited to very expensive often absurd collector’s editions that might feature some ugly bust of Master Chief or dinky art book, today the content includes increasingly gameplay-relevant DLC pieces. While many of these features remain cosmetic additions or early access to equipment normally obtainable later, recent talks have surfaced that Gamestop wants to get in on the development process of games to, presumably, coordinate exclusive content more substantial than cosmetic or inventory changes.

Pre-order to play... today... nope. I don't get it.

Am I missing something here? Does that sign make any sense?

This potentially chilling notion of an increasingly close connection between retailer and creator comes at a point in this industry where moves are continually being made to singularize the process of production, distribution, promotion and even consumption all often to the detriment of the consumer. These attempts operate to pare down options and eliminate pressure for competitive pricing and trade-value in an environment where game pricing and trade-value are already prohibitive for the average consumer. This is not to say that all options have been removed, indeed the many alternatives speak to me more of an industry populated by businesses desperately attempting to wrest control back from the end-user. Thankfully the right choices remain clear, resale of games can be done online without the need to settle for a retailer’s low trade offers, for example. As well, some digital distribution platforms such as GOG and, to a lesser degree these days, Steam offer regular discounts and generally unhindered access to games purchased.

The sadder part of this remains the deeper involvement of game distributors and game promoters, that is to say of games journalists in bed with AAA devs and pubs. The expense of website management, especially for the bigger feature rich sites like IGN, can at least theoretically if not necessarily lead to less than scrupulous arrangements that few people involved in games journalism ever outright deny as an occurrence at large. However this is nothing if not a insular industry that likes to echo its habits and problems all down the spectrum of those involved, and to that end the issues the big AAA developers have in managing their massive game dev budgets are the same ones massive gaming sites have with resisting pressures to accept deals from publishers to help keep a post-ad-block website up and running. But again, the right choices for the ones affected do remain quite evident as IGN and Kotaku’s successes belie a vicious skepticism across the internet whereas smaller outlets remain a source of more likely integrity.

But lots of kids love the game and their parents sure don't know any better. So sure, have five bucks for some skins Billy.

On the console versions of Minecraft trivial mods like texture packs and skins cost money. In no way are these things worth a damn penny.

Pre-order exclusivity is also another example of game content being cut up in an attempt to raise game prices while not actually increasing the price tag another ten dollars like they did at the start of the previous generation. Along with infamous free to play examples of obnoxious pay gates, day one DLC, the continued frustration of on disc DLC, and the outright gamble of season passes for completely unknown content at a minimal discount, the games industry has grown only too fond of the kind of retail hoop-jumping forced on many consumers in any retail environment in lieu of a straight discount or product offer. So while hardly endemic to gaming, retail shenanigans like pre-ordering in a way help to highlight the the pitfalls of this industry that a savvy consumer would do well to avoid. And more than just save time and money today, a continued resistance to practices like these can only help delay or diffuse the onset of still-worse practices the likes of which Microsoft has recently been loathe to be inelegant about.

Much and more has been learned, in the positive, about this industry regarding MS’s debacle launch and that is the lightning fast overturns pressured onto the industry players for things not even yet released. While a double edged sword, as this same dialed in enthusiasm has helped produce soft baked ideas like the Ouya, it tells me that though gaming and the people who enjoy it are beset by dubious industry practices, these same practices are often easily identifiable and readily avoided with a little education. An odd kind of hope springs from the industry titans also being out of touch laggards that leave plenty of room for smaller more agile content creators who might know, for instance, that survival horror is not a dead genre or that difficulty in games is not a problem to be solved.

Do you pre-order games from retailers, or have you in the past? What are your thoughts on retail exclusive content? Any other major consumer pitfalls you would like to mention? Please address any and all comments a to a couple inches down the screen in the comment section. Do it now and you will receive an exclusive extra paragraph in next week’s column that I have not even thought about writing yet!

3 comments on “Editorial: On Pre-orders and Other Malevolent Designs”

  1. I do pre-order games, but not from brick-and-mortar retailers who require cash money down in advance to ‘reserve’ my copy of a game whose scarcity is entirely a decision by that retailer GAMESTOP GAMESTOP GAMESTOP.

    Instead, I pre-order games on Amazon when they are something that I know I definitely want and will play at release: Pokemon, Final Fantasy, et cetera. This requires no money down, and ensures that I do not simply forget to order the game–a real possibility given the many other things I have to remember. The more of it I can automate and forget about, the easier it is for me to function.

    As for exclusive content, it is deplorable. Everyone who pays for the game should get all the content. I have been firm on this for years. DLC is very nice, but it should be free and available to all, or it shouldn’t exist in the first place. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy into the ‘what if they want to add to the game!’ argument. If they wanted to add to the game, they could have waited a little longer, put that DLC into the game, and increased the value to consumers and the likelihood of sell-throughs.

    In fact, this is what would have been done before. Nowadays, developers release less and less in their games, so that they can sell us more and more of the game content as DLC. The fact that it has been fiddled to make it APPEAR as though it is extraneous doesn’t mean that it must be so. It is, of course, purely a device of the developer.

    Look at Unreal Tournament in 1999. There were vast amounts of DLC, patches, add-ons, new game modes, models, skins, voice packs, and so on. None of it cost a penny. They released a game, and then they released extra stuff for it to make purchasing the game even after launch a good value proposition. Patches, add-ons, and new modes drove continued sales of the game.

    The industry has become incredibly greedy over the years, and I am less and less inclined to buy into it. Indeed, large quantities of planned DLC actually tend to turn me off nowadays, to the point where I sometimes decide not to buy a game for that very reason. If a developer is going to be so avaricious as to release a cut-down shell of a premium title, and then charge me for the bits that should be in the game, then I am going to reply by not buying the game. I have too much other stuff to play anyway. I’ll do that, instead–you know, those PS1 games where the whole thing is on the fucking disc to begin with.

  2. “If they wanted to add to the game, they could have waited a little longer, put that DLC into the game, and increased the value to consumers and the likelihood of sell-throughs.”

    But but, if we don’t release copious DLC then we can’t sit on our old assets and pump out miserable side stories to pad the budget for the sequel that will ALSO use the same assets! What do you want from us? REASONABLE expectations? REALISTIC development processes that don’t require cash injections from DLC to validate the absurd expense we inveigled others into believing is a matter of course in game production? pshh

  3. Great article, Mel!

    Steam and GOG are great but I want unhindered access to physical copies of console games. Gaming will never feel as good as it did during the PS1 era.

    I only pre-order collector’s editions that come with extra items that will only be manufactured in limited numbers. For example, I wanted the physical copy of the Ni No Kuni Wizard’s Companion so I pre-ordered that one.

    I don’t see the benefit of pre-orders to even the producer. They don’t tailor the number of copies they plan to manufacture to pre-order numbers, do they? The game companies know that early adopters exist so, if it’s free to pre-order a game, what do they gain from a couple thousand pre-orders?

    “Do you pre-order games from retailers, or have you in the past? What are your thoughts on retail exclusive content? Any other major consumer pitfalls you would like to mention?”

    No. Yes. It’s horrible. Digital game renting. Ugh!

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