Let’s talk about pre-ordering for a second. It’s done for one of two reasons: Either the game is so phenomenal, so well marketed and so hyped up that it is worth securing your spot early, even in a world where there are infinite digital copies and no limit to the amount a store can stock, or, as is the case FAR more often, the game publishers have wrapped some sweet extras in the package if you buy the game before it releases.
With recent flops like No Man’s Sky as evidence, let’s not kid ourselves. There has not been a game released in recent memory which, by itself, justified paying full retail cost for the game ahead of time. As good as the game might be, in a world of digital distribution, paying for the game a month in advance is pointless. Gone is the age of people lining up around the block for the next new game release. Now, we just type in our credit card numbers and let Steam do the rest. No hassle, no lines, and no risk of getting to the counter only to find out the store is out of stock.
So why don’t publishers abandon pre-orders all-together? Simply put, pre-orders are good for business. They’re guaranteed sales (barring the pre-orders being cancelled) which sometimes come in months before the game is released. This makes the investors happy and may be used as fuel for last minute changes, or to get a head-start on making DownLoadable Content (DLC). The benefit to the consumer, however, lies only in this potential for the funds to be put toward more features for the game they have ordered, a weak incentive at best.
By and large, publishers understood this and made attempts to keep incentivising players to pre-order by offering small perks and packages. These started in a rather simplistic manner, a free poster here, a figurine or cosmetically different controller there, often with a small additional cost. In recent years, however, we’ve seen a much more aggressive approach to the issue. While not only a pre-order issue, one need look no further than the Watch_Dogs fiasco to see what lengths publishers are willing to go to in order to obtain more money.
If one needed a second, more specific example: Deus Ex: Mankind Divided attempted to make use of a blend of Kickstarter-esque crowdfunding and the worst of pre-order practices. The “Augment your pre-order” campaign encouraged potential buyers to chip in early by keeping a cumulative total of all pre-orders and unlocking scaling rewards based on the number of pre-orders. Unlike Kickstarter and other services of the same nature, Square Enix concealed the target numbers of each tier until they were reached. The rewards in question were also lacklustre, but this pales in comparison to the gaping, festering flaw in this system. If for some reason, the digital comic book and novella in the fourth tier were compelling reasons for someone to pre-order, but too few people pre-ordered the game, they wouldn’t get their reward. The nature of the incentive system at play was simply broken.
The community was OUTRAGED over this horrible decision. It comes as no surprise, then, that Square Enix cancelled this miserable excuse for a pre-order incentive, but by the time the program was cancelled in October, a full month after being announced, Square Enix had already made their money. They went out of their way to ensure that everyone who’d already pre-ordered the game got the same benefits as those who did so after the cancellation, stating:
“To our faithful fans who’ve already pre-ordered: we will be taking care of everything necessary to ensure that all of the changes to the program will be automatically applied to your purchase.”
No mention was made, however, of going above and beyond to reward the players who had already put up with the nonsense or the players who’d paid the $150 USD, more than double the price of the game. Players got what they had paid for, but only after Square Enix had browbeaten the community into buying into the crowdfunding system. They drove players to encourage friends and family to pre-order as well, in the interest of unlocking higher tiers of rewards, including the early release of the game.
All of this serves to highlight the inability of publishers to motivate players and incentivise the behaviour they want in a positive manner. Changing this isn’t an easy thing, but it is simple. The solution, however, depends on whether this behaviour is malicious, or simply born of ignorance.
If the behaviour is the result of publishers ignorantly blundering into poor decisions and being out of touch with their consumers, we need to reach out and teach them what it is we actually want, rather than just screaming what we don’t like. There has always been only one remedy for a lack of knowledge or understanding, and that is diligent patient education. We can not be drunken, screaming parents who can not cope with their child’s misbehaviour and expect a positive change, any more than you can train a child to use the toilet by hitting it whenever it has an accident. It learns that it isn’t supposed to do what it did, but it has no idea what the correct behaviour is. In this case, our feedback needs to be gentle and compassionate. When we scream and shout, what we say doesn’t matter to the publishers anymore. All they want is for the scary noises to stop, even if that means they have to curl up in a ball and cover their ears while waiting for it to stop.
That said, if the behaviour is malicious in nature, due to financial costs, time, or simple contempt, then it falls on us, the consumer, to be the better man and provide incentives for the behaviour we want. Death threats, mad howling, and boycotting seem to have been effective if we look at the short term, but the very fact that this conversation is happening serves as proof that it is not a deterrent. We can talk all we want about voting with our wallet, but publishers, by and large, are not listening. When we raise hell over a specific game, the publisher may back down, but it is not long before the next one steps up, or the heat dies down and the publisher goes back to the same behaviours.
However, there is a party that will listen to us. The people we know. Thus far, we’ve done a decent job of warning those close to us when a game is going to be horrible or letting them know about that super cool First-Person Shooter (FPS) that is coming out, but this does not incentivise them to shop intelligently. After all, we are not going to disown our friends and family over them pre-ordering a game. Imagine if, instead of letting your friend pre-order a game you know they should not, you told them “Hey, if you don’t pre-order that game, I’ll buy it for you” or “Hey, instead of pre-ordering that game, let’s go to a movie every week until it comes out.” This style of positive reinforcement, providing those close to you with something rewarding for acting the way you want, is much more likely to be effective than trying to appeal to a massive corporation.
Unfortunately, until the system changes, there will be times where it is smarter to pre-order than to buy later. Deals like “Pre-order now and get all the DLC for the game as a cheaper combined price than buying it piecemeal later!” are financially responsible, if not helpful to the overall goal. In such cases, offers like “Don’t worry about the DLC, I’ll get you it when it comes out.” are both more affordable than buying the full game for your friend, as the cost is stretched over a longer period of time, and prevent sunk cost fallacy from acting as strongly, as the friend or family member is not committed to all of the DLC from the start.
Of course, for some, none of this advice is applicable. Funds are tight, social circles are too large to reasonably purchase the content for everyone, and so on. However, the entire weight of this problem is not on any one individual. There is no electoral college acting against this initiative, and no need to dash to the finish line. This is a long-term fight, and while the individual vote is only a drop in a bucket, video games are not going anywhere, and neither are we. In sowing these seeds and breeding rejection, not hatred, for pre-orders which are not pro-consumer, we create a future that will outlast any record of us or what we did.