Pre-ordering a game doesn’t help the consumer. It helps everyone else.
That’s the reality of the situation. Good pre-order numbers sound good on earnings calls, and they’re evidence of an upcoming successful launch. They can be a PR weapon if a company wants to crow about strong early support for a title. They’re treated like money in the bank, and rightfully so: A customer is more or less committing to buying a game before they’ve read a review or heard from others who have played the game to completion.
Pre-orders help publishers, we know this.
Pre-orders also help stores like GameStop manage inventory. Selling new games is a low-margin business compared to selling accessories, used games, and the other trinkets you find in the store. This is why you’re always upsold when you go into a specialty video game retailer: They don’t make that much money on new games, so they want to push you towards products that earn them more money. Knowing the demand for a game allows them to order the minimum amount of product to meet that demand, so they don’t waste money on inventory that sits and takes up space.
Pre-orders help publishers, we know this.
When you’re pre-ordering a game, you’re giving a retailer money so they don’t have to order enough copies to fulfill a demand that may not exist. Any scarcity on the part of the retailer is artificial; they’re trying to save money by ordering the minimal amount possible, and you’re giving them a data point to help in that quest.
You’re also locking yourself in to that retailer: You’re given them a financial commitment that you’ll come back to that particular store to pick up the game, and won’t go to a competitor. It’s also saying you’re likely to come back and buy the game no matter the reviews, or even before the reviews hit.
You’re fighting a problem of potential scarcity, a problem created by the retailer
If you decide not to get the game, you have to go back to that location, ask for your money back, and they’re going to try to get you to either buy the game anyway or move the preorder to another title. There is nothing a retail gaming store hates more than returning the deposit on a game.
So you’re fighting a problem of potential scarcity, a problem created by the retailer, by making it harder to back out of a purchasing decision later.
Pre-orders help publishers and retailers. They’re bad news for consumers. This is a general rule, but for today I'm going to talk about Alien: Isolation, a game you should in no way pre-order. This is an example of a larger trend; the counter-attack against the idea of not pre-ordering using increasingly attractive exclusive content.
Why pick on Alien: Isolation?
Well, I also warned you against preordering Battlefield: Hardline due to that franchise’s abysmal reputation for game launches. But Alien: Isolation, despite the somewhat crazy pre-order bonus, is a bad bet. Pre-ordering games in general doesn't make much sense, and the move towards more substantial pre-order bonuses in terms of exclusive content is a reaction to the fact the industry is aware of how messed up the pre-order culture is on its face.
Pre-ordering is bad news, and the Alien: Isolation content is the reaction.
Let me be clear: I hope the game is good. As a fan of Aliens, I hope the game is great, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve played at events and in virtual reality. I hope the game does everything it sets out to do, and does it well. I’ll buy it in a heartbeat if that’s the case.
But I also saw many demos for, and played, Colonial Marines prior to launch. It looked great. It played well. I was excited about the game, and I came close to pre-ordering the super-special editions and buying the season pass and all the fun stuff based on that enthusiasm and love for the property. Then I played the game, and the reviews hit, and it became one of the biggest turkeys of the year.
Previews and interviews are important, and I enjoy reading them and writing them, but I also know that you can take a rotten piece of steak out of the garbage and cut out a bite that still looks and smells pretty good. Publishers are adept at showing every game in the best possible light pre-release, and we should treat these things as hints at greatness, not greatness itself.
But Sega doesn’t want you to wait for reviews, it wants your money now. It doesn’t want to risk you thinking critically or hearing from friends that the game isn’t great, it wants your money and commitment right away. So it’s going to set up a nice piece of bonus content, and say that you can only have it if you promise to purchase the game before we know more about it.
That’s not marketing, that’s consumer hostility. That’s a steak place saying you can only have potatoes if you show up and order before you see a picture of the food or hear from anyone else who has eaten it. We wouldn’t tolerate it in any other business, and we need to tell publishers who attempt this bullshit to get lost. This move should make you more skeptical of the game, not more excited.
That’s not marketing, that’s consumer hostility
I can’t even show you the trailer for the content, since it’s an exclusive with another publication, and I feel goofy with limitations put on how we can share marketing materials for a pre-order bonus. Let that sink in: Sega won’t let a commercial for a pre-order bonus go into wide distribution. That doesn't inspire confidence.
The more Sega waves its hands and repeats that we have to buy now, right now, before we read a review to get this great content … the more I feel like the company is trying to slide something past me. Imagine buying a house where the realtor said if you wanted to wait for a walkthrough you couldn’t have windows. Would that make you feel confident in your purchase?
High pressure, exclusive content that’s locked to pre-orders with marketing materials that’s limited in distribution is all the evidence I need that confidence in the game is low. These moves make me take a step back, not forward, especially when Sega has more or less pulled a fast one on us with Aliens games in the past.
You can pre-order to get the content if you want, but be aware you’re voting for this practice to continue. I hope the game is good. I want it to be good. I'm not telling you not to buy it, I'm telling you to wait until we know it's good. That shouldn't be a controversial or risky idea.
But we know that the pressure for pre-orders will only continue; this is why GameStop is willing to fund exclusive content. If GameStop pays for the content it gets to control that content, and that means more pre-order exclusives to get your money before you have all the information about a game.
I’m not interested in helping retailers or publishers just to get content that’s being held back to provide the illusion that pre-ordering isn’t consumer hostile. There is no reason in the modern market to pay for a game before it comes out, and everyone involved in the business knows it. That's why pre-order exclusives are becoming more and more attractive; they have to give you a reason to pass on making a rational decision in order to get this special content.
That’s a game I’m not willing to play anymore.