Is It Time To Put Pre-Orders Out of Business?

I am back, and yup, pre-orders are in my firing line. I don’t charge for ammunition.

When I saw the pre-order content for Alien: Isolation, I almost fell out of my bed in horrified laughter.

After the insidious and terrifying disaster that was Aliens: Colonial Marines, and the damned awful situation in which the screenshots, trailers and footage being used for marketing both on digital storefronts as well as on television (the UK advertisement for Colonial Marines was banned for implying that said footage represented the game when it didn’t!), one could perhaps forgive Sega – the publishers of the new Alien game again – to have a more cautious approach. Having been burned last year, and still facing its day in court alongside Gearbox over the misuse of conceptual footage as marketing material, it would have been no surprise to see them do two things; one, be more open about the game. And secondly, to keep pre-order bonuses to a minimum.

The reality is neither of those things have happened. Alien: Isolation is still as secretive as ever, and the pre-order bonus in this case is content based on the original Alien movie, with the cast reprising their roles as the crew of the USCSS Nostromo, just after John Hurt’s character has done his now iconic little death sequence in a new digital medium. That’s right, the original Alien content is now being held back as pre-0rder content and, later, as “exclusive DLC”, although to whom the content will be exclusive to has yet to be truly solidified, if it ever is. Far from learning lessons, far from actually having some humility over the huge consumer backlash, Sega is doing the same thing. And what’s more terrifying, is that many gamers are jumping up and praising this content, long before its even landed in their hands, parting with up to £54.99 in order to secure this content, and a copy of the game.

Pre-ordering was a thing once. I remember doing it, and knowing in many cases that I’d (a) get the game on release day, if not in some cases before, and that this wasn’t going to hurt publishers in any way because a sale was a sale and (b) beat any queues, or any threat of games selling out. Because once upon a time that was a real present threat, that you couldn’t get games just anywhere. You had to go to specialist stores, and my nearest specialist store was a 120 mile round trip that, on public transport, took the best part of a whole freaking day. And many runs were limited; there were finite resources available, forcing most of us to make sure such treks were worth it, that all you needed to do was to pick it up meant that the journey wasn’t a wasted effort. This was in 2002-2003, so it was hardly a lifetime ago.

These days, I find it more and more impossible to actually justify pre-ordering games.

First, there is no shortage. There are lots of copies of these games pushed out, and nowadays you can find them just as easily in your local supermarket as any specialist games shop meaning if one shop doesn’t have it, you won’t have to go too far to find another retailer. The threat of having only a select few places to go is all but gone, and in those extreme cases where copies of games have very limited runs and therefore do run out, the push into the digital age means that we can get this content whenever, wherever we like. Steam lets people download games via mobile apps. We’re seeing a push where Nintendo is allowing games to be purchased outside its eShop remit, even going so far as to let independent retailers sell download codes for games, download codes which cannot possibly run out because ultimately, they are generated by a central system. The idea of a pre-order to absolutely, 100% guarantee yourself a copy is gone.

Again, this week we had a brilliant demonstration of the perils of pre-ordering, although in this case, it’s a crowdfunded game called Project CARS (which stands for Community Assisted Racing Simulator). The Wii U release was for a long time central to their plans, though admittedly not in their original scope. But on offering the game on Wii U, many more people jumped on board the project and parted with their money in order to secure themselves – and the platform in question – a good racing sim. Even their own polls showed that the Wii U version was by far the most wanted console version – not surprising, as around the release of this indie gem (which now has Bandai-Namco handling commercial distribution) on PS4 and XBox, we’ll see new DriveClub and Forza, which are already well-entrenched franchises with a loyal fanbase. Taking their own poll, the Wii U sales would account for more than the PlayStation 4 and XBox One combined.

So, when they had to announce a delay, guess which one got it? Yup. The Wii U version. The version which was most popular, and pushed their crowdfunding campaign into overdrive.

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This is an image of their poll.

All those promises of finding more power, all that time spent buttering up the community and promising they would be treated better, desperately pleading for the money in the crowdfunding drive, and all evidence telling them that on consoles, the Wii U version was probably the one they could least afford to delay. And they have done. In spite of many complaints from people who paid money for this game, now facing a delay for systems never intended in the original drive. You think the money you spend on securing these copies is safe, that it will guarantee you a code for a proposed release date? Hardly. Welcome to the new face of ‘pre-ordering’, where you pay today for something that now looks exceedingly like it won’t happen, with those inside the forums even suggesting that the Wii U version hasn’t had any development for over a year now, and any questions or requests for information on the situation being met with stone-faced silence! Not even a real apology, or promise of extra content. They got your money, and they’ll do what they want with it. How’s that feel? Hurts, doesn’t it?

So if I can’t actually guarantee my content arrives in timely fashion – or that the platform I pre-order on will get any actual release parity (and it’s not just Nintendo, as both Sony and Microsoft try to continually one-up each other with extra content that their rivals won’t have!) – the idea of paying upfront is foolish. And if I can guarantee a copy, why pay more than you have to, when some stores will even charge you full-price then and there in order to secure your copy. The only way to get around this tends to be the likes of Amazon, with pre-order price promises, but that still isn’t the norm, even if many would be stunned at the suggestion.

But, I said before, people like the feeling of getting something for nothing.

They’ll put that good feeling above any logical arguments: Can I afford this? Do I have time to play this with other releases out there? Will there be a Game of the Year/Definitive Edition a year down the road with all content in it for a fraction of what I’d pay otherwise? Is this value for money? What happens if I don’t like the game at all, or it turns out like Colonial Marines? All serious questions that could, potentially, put people off a pre-order if given the chance to do it. But instead, we’re teased with the idea of nostalgic references to the original source material, or nice words from developers which turn out to be little more than barefaced lies from some eerily dishonest people.

Pre-order bonuses aren’t for us. The irony is that this content probably would make sense as a DLC extra, but the point of putting it in a pre-order bonus is that the retailers who offer such deals stick rigidly with the concept of Recommended Retail Price, meaning that there is little leeway in terms of how much you actually end up paying. Chances are, you’ll pay between £39.99-£54.99 for the game (depending on the platform, with new-gen consoles commanding the £54.99 pricetag!). You’ll get no flex in that price, and you’ll definitely see very little variation in price. Competition? Pfft, that’s the genius behind these deals. In order for some retailers to supply them, they have to stick with the retail price. And if you pre-order from some places now, they will want all the money. And days after release, those copies not sold will start to be heavily discounted; who remembers seeing The Elder Scrolls Online for £50, and then finding it for less than half that price a month later? No-one? Just me. Oh well.

My point is simple – these things are rarely good value for money, or in the interests of consumers. They are an arrangement between businesses in order to convince some people to part with their money on a promise; a promise that in the real world has no legal weight, and until consumer rights catches up, means that if the game doesn’t meet expectations or – god forbid – does turn out to be as truly awful as Colonial Marines, then congratulations. You just spent a lot of money on what is very quickly going to become a very, very worthless object. Games depreciate fast, but bad ones depreciate even faster as more and more people try and get rid of theirs whilst there is still some residual value to it.

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Let’s also “remember” some of these games quickly end up on subscription services, and cost no extra monetary expense…

A pre-order must be because you trust the publisher, or developer, to meet standards, to uphold integrity and to not turf out a pile of half-baked tripe onto the market. In more and more cases, this is becoming harder and harder to justify. EA defending Dungeon Keeper Mobile because it “innovated too much” (yup, they used that excuse!). UbiSoft suddenly talking about supporting Wii U again after a spike in sales – oh how interesting. And predictable. And downright mean-spirited. “Oh people like you now, we can talk as friends again!” Phst. The term ‘Fairweather’ springs to mind. Oh, and let’s not forget Gamestop wanting to get involved in games whilst in development, presumably so they can carve up big slices for exclusivity. What if that makes the game worse for non-Gamestop owners? Oh that’s OUR problem, not theirs. At a time when trust in the industry is at such a low ebb – especially after a disappointing E3 for the most part – is it really fair, or in the industries interests, to keep asking us – the customers – to extend our already well-worn trust just for them?

If the answer is no, then we must stop pre-ordering. I know, this might hurt crowdfunding drives, but the principle is important. Consumers have for a long time now been forced to accept a very difficult and limiting set of factors; far from competition driving the market, it’s a conspired drive between some publishers, developers and retailers to keep prices as artificially high for as long as possible, to make the most from it from the off and to limit information where possible to ensure that consumers are not spooked away from something that isn’t measuring up. What’s more, I thought most of this was actually illegal under EU rulings. I mean, Nintendo were fined quite heavily for doing similar things in 2002 – to the tune of 149 million (which remains one of the biggest antitrust fines dished out by the European Commission). Guess some just don’t learn, huh?

And fundamentally, it’s important we all remind the industry that our money should be earned, rather than expected. No, people will not wait for a delayed game. No, people will not accept rising costs. No, people cannot be expected to part with money up-front, for something that may or may not arrive in time. It’s silly to say it, because it should be obvious, but we’re the ones with the power. We, the gamers, the buyers, the customers, the consumers. It’s been hard as over time, we’re being conditioned to accept this as normal. We’re the ones asked to take the risks. And it’s becoming obvious that far from rewarding customers and early adopters, they are the ones being punished quite heavily for it.

If you’re happy with that, then cool. I’m glad you feel your money is being spent “wisely”. But I will continue to hope that sooner or later, a legal once-over by a judge, or an investigation by the European Competition Commission, will drive a lot of this away. Will it hurt the industry? Yes. Of course it will. It’ll hurt them like hell.

But then, right now, it’s customers being treated badly in most cases. Is that a preferable situation? Somehow, I doubt it…

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