In Defense of (Informed) Pre-Ordering

In Defense of (Informed) Pre-Ordering

I recently read an article on Rock Paper Shotgun by John Walker – whose writings I am a fan of – entitled Editorial: Let’s Not Pre-Order Games Any More, Eh? I disagreed with the sentiment expressed in this opinion piece which, as the title suggests, is that we ought to discontinue the practice of pre-ordering games. Reading the article over, I couldn’t help but think the idea an overly heavy-handed response to the disasters that Simcity and Aliens: Colonial Marines recently unleashed upon the unsuspecting gaming public. I mean to contend that pre-ordering itself doesn’t need to be abolished, for it is in itself no evil. Instead, the only thing that ought be rectified is that gamers need to be able to make more reasoned and informed decisions as to whether or not to pre-order an anticipated title, which is their own practical onus but should be aided by the responsible reporting of the gaming press.

So let’s examine what purpose pre-ordering serves for the publisher selling a game and the consumer looking to buy it.

The benefit for the publisher is essentially threefold. Firstly, tallying the number of pre-orders that a game receives allows a publisher to gauge the interest in their game, estimate the number of copies that will likely be sold, and manufacture enough of them to meet this demand without incurring too much wasteful surplus. Secondly, the money spent by consumers to pre-order a game provides a small revenue stream before the game is even released which can potentially be reinvested in the game’s development to bolster its progress or, more likely, spent on marketing. Thirdly, the artificial scarcity of overpriced special editions allows publishers to conveniently upsell the rabidly hardcore fans who otherwise would only be milked for a single standard game purchase.

None of these things are necessarily bad. For the most part, pre-orders don’t force gamers to spend money they otherwise wouldn’t have or more money than they would have, they simply provide the option to do so. Publishers go about baiting the trap with cheese because they know that some of the mice won’t be able to resist it. Furthermore, pre-orders have become an important element of the business of selling games as they comprise part of a game’s economic life cycle which simply can’t be removed without great effect, and those consequences might entail hesitancy about certain games getting green-lit or released because of the uncertainty introduced into the financial equation. At this point, most games are available to pre-order from the day that they’re announced and so publishers begin to receive the metrics concerning interest in their game from the get-go – a poor showing in this area could conceivably contribute to a game getting canceled down the line. Now this obviously doesn’t mean that gamers ought to pre-order their favorite upcoming games as soon as possible in order to help secure their release, it’s simply something to think about in terms of how pre-orders relate to the business of selling games.

What benefits pre-ordering offers to the consumer is a little more difficult to pin down as the reasoning which prompts gamers to opt to pre-order is varied and sometime indeterminable to examination.

The most obvious enticement is the actual pre-order incentives, which range from discounts on the game’s purchase price or later DLC, physical baubles and virtual trinketry, exclusive DLC, et cetera. Some people are quick to disregard or ridicule the physical baubles in particular as necessarily worthless tat and I’ve little doubt that they disdainfully throw away all of the miscellaneous knickknacks, the books of concept art, the posters and maps, the comics, the statues, et cetera which are bundled with games nowadays. Whereas some people gleefully geek over these little novelties, and their inclusion with the game tangibly enhances their enjoyment of the entire experience of buying and playing it – for this type of consumer, these things represent a worthwhile expenditure and reason enough to pre-order a game.

I would say though that the practice of obnoxiously excluding in-game content, and only making it available as an exclusive pre-order bonus is both asinine and maddening. Obviously this petty ploy is meant to encourage coerce gamers into pre-ordering, but it often only serves to discourage them from doing so out of spite and resentment for the inherent elements of greed and manipulation. The reward of physical baubles necessitating a pre-order is justifiable because the publisher is actually manufacturing something and so they need to leverage this increased cost of the overall product with the nominal guarantee of a later sale; whereas unless the in-game content was created after the game’s discs are pressed (which is very unlikely), it could have been provided in the game without extra charge, and even if it was such a late creation, the provision of redeemable codes to download it requires only the cost of ink and bandwidth, and so either way it is simply an indefensible marketing contrivance.

Some consumers choose to pre-order a game not for the pre-order incentives or the potential discounts – these things are merely secondary concerns – but rather for what the act of pre-ordering represents. These people often see pre-ordering a game as a gesture which either solidifies their excitement for it or signifies the pledging of their fanboy allegiance to it – both constituting an expression of approval which is a more significant and meaningful version of clicking ‘Like’ on the game’s Facebook page. For these people pre-ordering a game is about more than their anticipation of buying it down the road, it’s a way to express their feelings about the game itself.

Now with the purposes that pre-order may serve elucidated, I think it clear that they all have essentially harmless functions, and that pre-ordering is, in and of itself, not necessarily bad. With this in mind, the only argument to be made here then is ‘don’t pre-order bad games’. This seems to be a fair recommendation, but, of course, the obvious rebuttal is “how will consumers know whether a game is good before pre-ordering it unless they wait until they can read the reviews?” Well, the answer to this has two parts and they relate to the nature of the review embargo in place, be it pre- or post-release. So that gamers know the score, the outlets bound by these embargoes should endeavor to be more transparent about each one’s particular stipulations, especially when it is scheduled to end.

So, the first part of the answer is simple: if review embargoes are lifted before a game is released, gamers should simply wait until then in order to read the reviews and make an informed decision as to whether or not to pre-order. The timing of the pre-release lifting of embargoes varies a great deal though, and consumers can make use of this information itself to judge a publisher’s confidence in its game: an embargo may end a month before a game’s release, or it may do so a day before it, and this tells a story in itself. Regardless of how long you have to wait, and painful as it might be to do so, if the embargo is lifted pre-release you should wait until it is so that you can read the reviews and make a more thoroughly informed decision. The temporary inconvenience of waiting to pre-order beforehand is always outweighed by the aggravation of always regretting the purchase afterwards. The only possible exception to this rule would be if an anticipated game has a ‘limited edition’ version that is truly limited (insomuch as stores will only receive a small number of them and so pre-order allocations will genuinely be ‘first come, first serve’); in this scenario, if you really do enormously value that version’s exclusive pre-order incentives, I think it warranted or justifiable if you chose to pre-order it way in advance in order to secure one for yourself. Needless to say, this is a rarely applicable exception though: ‘limited editions’ are usually anything but, and can often be secured on release day without a pre-order assuming that you’re willing to expend a little diligent effort on shopping around to find an unreserved copy.

The second part of the answer is as follows: if the embargo doesn’t lift until the game’s release, or the embargo stipulates that a pre-release review cannot talk about certain key components of the game (which aren’t simply spoilers), red flags should rightfully be raised in your mind and you shouldn’t pre-order the game. Such stipulations often bespeak a tremendous lack of confidence in a game by the publisher, and so often signal that it is especially bad. Naturally, it’s in the publisher’s interest to prevent word of this terribleness from being spread before the game’s release, so that naive consumers won’t be dissuaded from buying their game in ignorance. If a game’s embargo doesn’t lift until its release, you absolutely shouldn’t pre-order it beforehand, nor should you buy it day one until you’ve read some reviews first. All in all, it’s simply not worth the risk. You will only have yourself to blame if your self-control wanes and you end up rolling the (loaded) dice and picking it up anyway, only to discover that it’s atrociously bad.

A corollary of this of course is that in the case of something like Simcity where reviewers simply could not experience the game in the same way that the average player will post-release (a fact which they have an obligation to disclose), you also shouldn’t pre-order beforehand or purchase it at launch without first reading reviews of the post-release experience. It’s really that simple. The risk here is similarly obvious and large, and if you choose to fly in the face of reason by disregarding it, you once again have only yourself to blame for lacking the self-control and patience to wait for applicable reviews.

Basically, consumers ought to make as informed a decision as possible, and this can be achieved by remaining heedful regarding what the timing of embargoes signify and waiting to read reviews if possible. However, this also comes down to the gaming press enabling consumers (e.g. the gamer/reader) to make educated and intelligent decisions.

One of the hindrances in educating consumers is that the review, being ostensibly the only thorough critique based on the finished game, is all too often seen by them as the only concrete evidence which can be used to make their purchasing decisions. This is mostly due to the nature of PR in the games industry but also, in some part, to the way that games writers approach talking critically about games before their release.

The former presents issues because the PR representatives for a game can control precisely what information about it becomes known to games writers, and therefore to the gaming public; they hold all the cards as it is completely their prerogative as to what is revealed and when and how these revelations happen, and they naturally endeavor to present only those perspectives of their game which engender a positive (or at least not negative) appraisal. This element of spin pervades basically all pre-release coverage of games, diminishing the informative and evaluative worth it can offer to the consumer. All games writers can do, to avoid presenting a disservice to the consumers they are advising, is be completely honest and frank about what is shown to them and what it might signal: if you’re only shown the dreaded ‘vertical slice’, then explain that to the readers, and tell them why someone might deem it necessary that the game be presented in this artificial and unrepresentative way. That’s all you have to do. Give the reader your opinion and all of the facts and their context, and let them ultimately make their own evaluative decision. No more could be asked of you and no more is needed. This alone will help to thwart a great deal of poorly informed purchases because readers will be able to judge the value of each instance of information they receive about a game, and collate these into a reasoned and knowledgeable judgment. Of course, games writing is not supposed to solely be sterile consumer buyer advice, but you can’t ignore that this is a big part of what people take away from your coverage.

The latter is due to games writers frequently being too timid or hesitant to profess a definite opinion about a game before they get their hands on a final version of it, because, they protest, the game could change before it’s finished after all. This problem is best exemplified by the worthlessness of the current form that previews generally take. The practice of previewing a game has long had an unmistakable aspect of being overly forgiving and uncritical because it deals with an unfinished product, and such previews always seem to include some iteration of the devaluing concession that “it could very well get better before its release”.

Thankfully, this type of feeble, gunshy previewing of games looks to be increasingly recognized for what it is: worthless as anything other than quasi-advertorial hype building. Instead, there is a growing trend in games writing which seeks to move towards a format of previewing which is suitably critical and candidly evaluative of whatever is put before the previewer, unfinished or not, and doesn’t seek to qualify all its assessments with mealy-mouthed caveats that the game is still in development. If you’re shown (or allowed to play) the game itself, regardless of whether it is a work in progress or not, you should be critiquing it; otherwise you’re just an unknowing second hand mouthpiece for the game’s marketing effort, and the reader might as well have watched a gameplay trailer for all the productive contribution your coverage can provide to their evaluation of the game’s potential. The aforementioned progressive form of previewing a game is the only methodology of doing so that provides any semblance of useful information to the reader, and if all pre-release coverage of games was as fearlessly critical and unqualified, the gaming public, as consumers, would be able to make to make far better informed choices as to their pre-orders and purchases. That being said, there are some rare exceptions to this like with every hard and fast rule: in the case of something like Aliens: Colonial Marines, even an aptly critical pre-release assessment would ultimately have been of little value considering the smoke and mirrors utilized during demos of it because what the preview would be critiquing isn’t actually the game itself. The bait and switch that this game displayed has certainly persuaded some people to adopt a ‘once burnt, twice shy’ mentality, but you’ve really got to give the benefit of the doubt more often than not as it’s self-defeating to assume that the pre-release representation of every game is party to that kind of audacious deception.

To put it simply, I don’t think that pre-ordering is necessarily an evil. The worth and relevance of its role in today’s gaming landscape has diminished considerably, but it is still nonetheless useful and valuable in certain aspects. There can be no doubt that as the entire practice of purchasing games continues to advance ever closer towards digital distribution, the constraints and risks of pre-ordering make less and less sense. It’s an increasingly antiquated practice that will, at some point, no longer make any sense to partake in. However, we are a long way away from that turning point, and unless in the foreseeable future there is a radical paradigm shift in the way that the gaming public understands the process of purchasing games, pre-ordering will continue to be an important and indispensable part of how gamers go about buying games, and publishers go about selling them, for a while longer – and that is not, intrinsically, a bad thing. The only evil to be protested here is the fact that consumers are so often denied the capacity to make educated, informed decisions as to whether or not to pre-order, and purchase, a game. Thankfully, this problem is relative simple to rectify: it just requires that we stop complaining about pre-orders and reviling the business practices which necessitate them, and go about making pre-ordering games compatible with intelligent purchasing decisions.


Article from Gamersyndrome.com

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