Like most things on the internet, I wasn’t aware this was a thing until I stumbled across it. Apparently someone somewhere on Reddit took it upon themselves to declare this year “Pre-Order Free 2015.” I’d never really given much thought to pre-ordering, or how much hatred the practice seems to be garnering these days. I myself don’t typically pre-order much. Usually I only pre-order games if I’m sure I’m going to buy them no matter what, & even then it’s usually just so I can have the game on release day. I don’t usually give much thought to any sort of bonus pre-order content. I mean, it’s nice, but it doesn’t make my decision.
But when I actually started thinking about it, I realized that I wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea of doing away with the whole pre-order schtick. At the very least, I understand what’s got people so upset.
On the one hand, people argue that pre-orders force developers to mangle their end products, cutting out portions of the game that were originally intended to be part of the full version of the game. While in many cases pre-order bonuses are little more than cosmetic (new guns, costumes, soundtracks), which I feel are harmless because they don’t affect your experience, some games have cross the line, removing whole chunks of content. One of the most recent cases I can think of was with Mass Effect 3. At launch, two versions of the game were available for pre-order: Standard & Collector’s Edition. As you’d expect, the Collector’s Edition cost more & included various in-game & material bonuses, such as a special game case, artwork book & robot dog (in-game). Pretty standard. However, what got people up in arms was when it was revealed that the Collector’s Edition would include the “From Ashes” content, which was a major plot point in the game, giving you a new set of missions & an important crewmate to recruit, but the Standard Edition would not. If you bought the Standard Version, which was cheaper than the Collector’s Edition, if you wanted to experience the full game, you’d have to pay $10 on top of the price of your game. BioWare & EA tried to argue that the reason the From Ashes content wasn’t included in the original game was because it hadn’t been finished in time to be included on the discs, & that it was going to be available as DLC for all consumers. In other words, with the Collector’s Edition, you were just getting a free code to download the DLC. However, I find this more than suspect, given that both versions of the game went on sale for pre-order at the same time. It wasn’t like the Collector’s Edition wasn’t available until later, & BioWare decided to include the free code then. Also, if you’ve played through From Ashes, as well as the previous DLC companions from Mass Effect 2, you’ll notice a drastic difference in the way the content is integrated. The two downloadable recruits in ME2 (Kasumi & Zaeed) aren’t particularly well-integrated into the rest of the game outside of their specific missions. They don’t interact with the others recruits nor do you have the lengthy scenes with them on the Normandy that you do with all the others. Given that these characters were created after the fact, that’s understandable. But Javik, the recruit in From Ashes, is fully integrated into ME3, interacting with characters, having full-blown cutscenes & providing integral development in the plot. Therefore, it’s hard to believe he was added after the game was completed.
The other side of the argument is that pre-order practices strangle consumers. For one, some publishers have gotten out of hand with the whole pre-order thing, hacking out chunks of their games not only as pre-orders, but as specific offers from certain retail chains. I’m sure you’ve all seen the Gamestop adverts promising “exclusive” content if you pre-order the game from them. Heck, they even do this between different versions of the same game! I could go on explaining it, but I think a visual aide could do a better job. Look at this graph of the different versions of Watch Dogs & the content hacked into each:
Even worse from the consumer angle, is that when you pre-order a game, you’re essentially buying blind. You don’t know what you’re getting. You’re basically buying a game on the promises of the marketers. And we all know how fantastically that’s worked out recently. Aliens: Colonial Marines ring a bell? It’s easy for a marketing department to generate hype with empty promises, raising gamers’ expectations until they’re in a frothing frenzy.
But I think the greatest fear of people calling for an end to pre-orders is that, by pre-ordering, we encourage these sorts of behaviors to continue. It’s true that as consumers, we vote with our wallets. Giving a company money basically says, “We approve.” Publishers won’t learn until it starts hitting them in their pocketbooks. So long as something appears to be making them more, they’ll ride that horse ’til it’s dead & rotting. And what better way to increase their profits than to hack up their work, sell it to make extra money on top of the original purchase, & get everyone’s money before anyone has time to say, “Hey, this game isn’t so great.”?
While this may sound paranoid, I believe publishers have shown this to be a common trend. Pre-ordering, in theory, isn’t a bad thing. But publishers have shown that can never just leave a good thing alone. They have to misuse it. Look at the direction microtransactions, free-to-play, & alpha access is going. Publishers just aren’t responsible enough to be trusted with such things.
I’m not calling to any action one way or another. I myself will probably still pre-order a game if I support the developers & have reason to believe I’ll enjoy it regardless of reviews. Just give a little forethought. Remember that hype is often deceiving. It’s better to expect nothing & be pleasantly surprised, than to expect the world & be sorely disappointed.