Buy Before You Try: The Problem With Pre-Orders

Pre-ordering a video game is, on the face of it, a pretty dumb thing to do most of the time. You’re agreeing, before you can possibly know if the game is any good, to buy it for the most it will ever cost - and most video games depreciate pretty quickly. Before pre-order bonuses, the only real tack game-sellers could take to try to convince you to do this was to point out that it would guarantee you’d get a copy on launch day, even if the game sold out completely - but that almost never actually happens.

For the other parties in the transaction, however, it’s a great deal. It ensures a certain minimum number of sales, and allows demand to be gauged and thus indicates how large production runs should be. And if there are enough pre-orders, this fact can be used in the game’s marketing and drive sales up even higher. So it’s not too surprising that incentives would start appearing to make pre-ordering more appealing for consumers.

Link 'Hero' Shirt
The first pre-order bonus I ever received was for The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords Adventures. It was a t-shirt, featuring an eight-bit Link holding a Triforce, with the caption “Hero.” The most recent was for Secret Agent Clank, and was a figurine of the title character. Bonuses of this kind - swag - don’t change the game, but are things collectors and fans would enjoy having. The sellers and publishers get more pre-orders. The consumers who are enthusiastic enough about the game franchise in question to really want the swag are probably enthusiastic enough to be persuaded to buy the game at full price before the reviews come in, and vice versa. The consumers who are not this enthusiastic can safely ignore the bonus without feeling like they are missing something that will result in a worse experience if they decide they want the game later, once they know whether it’s good. The fans are rewarded, and the non-fans are not punished. Everybody wins - or at least, does not lose.

But swag requires manufacturing and distribution on top of what must already be done for the game itself. It’s expensive. And the current generation of consoles (as well as computers, of course) are all internet-enabled. So it was inevitable that bonuses would become digital. This experiment began tentatively, with bonuses conferring only cosmetic changes. (For example, when I pre-ordered City of Heroes, my characters received an ability that made them shiny when they ran.) These in-game bonuses did in fact change the game experience, making it different for those who pre-order and those who buy later. But as long as the difference is only cosmetic, it’s not that big of a deal. The non-enthusiast can still find it fairly easy not to care.

Up to this point in the trends, pre-order bonuses are luring in more consumers - but they are mostly the people who were almost certainly going to buy the game early anyway. It’s only natural for the sellers and manufacturers to want more. So the strategy changed again - and in-game bonuses started to actually affect gameplay in substantive ways.

Gigawatt Blades power
"Do you want to have these badass blades in inFamous? Well, you better get ready to pre-order the game at GameStop. The ‘Gigawatt Blades Power’ is a GameStop-exclusive download that’s only available when you reserve the game. According to the retailer, the weapon will allow Cole to ‘annihilate any foe’ with his hands. The electric blades that extend from his wrists may be powerful, but the retailer notes that they’re also ‘gentle enough to allow for the occasional tickling.’' Remember folks, you can’t always kill your way out of every situation."
Andrew Yoon, Get Gigawatts or go Home: inFamous pre-order bonuses detailed

Powers, equipment, even allies or locations - pre-order bonuses that give players an advantage or add content to the game are becoming commonplace. Now things are getting scary. Now parts of the game are actually being held ransom.

The consumer’s choice has changed, and it’s no longer win-win. If it’s impossible to know beforehand whether the game is any good, it’s even less possible to know how significant is the change wrought by the pre-order bonus. If it’s minor, then it probably doesn’t justify a risky full-price purchase to the non-fan. If it is not minor, then anyone who wants to wait for reviews has to weigh that against dooming themselves to an incomplete or crippled game.

Making the decision harder for consumers is understandable from the perspective of the sellers - it probably means more people will be swayed into pre-ordering. But doing it by making both choices risky is starting to get a little bit evil. Nobody can afford to pre-order every game they are interested in, and a trend that consigns people to inferior game experiences because they want to be rational with their money is a troubling one.

Down the road, however, something strange happens: the exclusive bonuses become downloadable content.

“…the Gigawatt Blades ability will be added to the PlayStation Store for free on December 10. Formerly exclusive to those who preordered Infamous at Gamestop, this DLC grants Cole a massive pair of electric, wrist-mounted blades capable of delivering instant-kill attacks to anyone unfortunate enough to be within arm’s reach."
Dustin Quillen, Infamous Getting Price Drop, Free DLC

As soon as the game launches, pre-order enticements no longer translate into revenue. And if they are digital, there is no extra cost associated with increasing their availability. The assets are just sitting around, waiting to be turned into money. So they get offered as downloads - paid, if the game is still popular enough, or free to renew interest in the game and generate more sales.

As long as this does in fact happen, it eliminates much of the problem. Instead of never being able to play the complete game if you wait to find out if it’s any good, paying the extra money early just gives some consumers a head start - which is how it’s always been, since most games depreciate so quickly. However, there’s a new problem - how long of a wait should there be between game launch and the separate availability of the pre-order bonuses?

If the pre-order bonuses are marketed as exclusive - like Infamous’s Gigawatt Blades - having them quickly be not exclusive may anger those who pre-ordered, making them feel misled. But if the wait is too long, it encourages the frugal gamer to wait that much longer to buy the game, by which point prices will be lower and used copies will be more readily available.

One solution is the tack taken by Dragon Age: Origins - never claim the bonus is exclusive to begin with.

“The first piece is ‘The Stone Prisoner’ download pack, a pre-order incentive that grants players access to Shale, a ‘mighty stone golem who can become one of the most powerful party members in the game’ and new environments and items. Don’t pre-order or buy new? It’ll cost you $15."
Michael McWhertor, Dragon Age Pre-order Scheme Gains +1 Against Used Sales

Pre-order the game and you get “The Stone Prisoner” for free. Skip it and wait for reviews, and right from day one you can buy “The Stone Prisoner” by itself.

However, the industry isn’t done tweaking the formula. It’s also becoming common for different stores to offer different in-game bonuses.

Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time offered four different bonuses depending where it was ordered - ranging from in-game money, to equipment, to a new location. Star Trek Online offers seven - four from physical retailers, three from digital distributors.

Backward Compatible comic for 2009-12-09

With this sort of scheme, it’s not reasonably possible for even the enthusiastic fan to get the complete experience right away. Even if they are willing to blind-faith full-price pre-order, unless they pre-order several copies of the game, they will miss out on something. Now all consumers are being punished, and encouraged to wait to buy until they can obtain the full game.

Secret Agent Clank figurine
It’s not an exaggeration to say that I have been waiting for Star Trek Online since I was twelve years old. But when I see that I have to choose between the original Enterprise, a Borg crew member, and a tribble - without even getting into the other four bonuses - it does not make me want to pay top dollar before I can reasonably know if the game is actually good. It makes me want to walk away and wait for the inevitable microtransactions. It’s the same reason I pre-ordered Secret Agent Clank as I mentioned earlier - but did not pre-order Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack In Time, despite my higher confidence in its quality as a game.

The industry is heading into dangerous territory. It’s only natural to experiment with new ways to make more money - businesses exist to make a profit, after all, and as I previously argued the gamers are better off when the game companies are rich. But they have to be careful not to alienate their fans in the process.

“I stopped by EB yesterday to pick up a copy of Deadspace: Extraction. . . . The girl told me that she had sold out of the couple they got and that I should have pre-ordered it. Being told that I should have pre-ordered a game is like the dentist telling me that I need to floss more. I’m not sure how shaming your customers is a good business policy.

I told her this was a big game from a big publisher and I just assumed they would have more than a couple copies. It’s not like I went in there asking for some obscure NIS game. She told me that no one had really pre-ordered it and again explained that I should pre-order the stuff I want.

I ended up going literally across the street to Best Buy in search of the game and had no trouble finding it. In fact they had a bunch.

Dear EB, this is how a fucking store works. You go there and you buy the thing you want. No one gives you shit for not pre-ordering it. No one asks you to pre-order games you might want six months from now. They don’t try and sell you a used copy. You just walk in and buy what you want."
—Gabe, No I did not pre-order it

If the methods undertaken to encourage pre-orders make the experience worse for the customer, they will take their business elsewhere. It’s hard to put a dollar value on customer good will, but it certainly matters. The industry will do exactly what it believes it can get away with - as long as people shell out cash, that’s a mandate for them to continue the relevant practices. Pre-order bonuses will keep affecting gameplay and varying between stores as long as that keeps getting people to buy. But I will not be one of those people. And I encourage you not to be one either.