With the end of the year closing in, all the big releases are lining up for the holiday season. As of early September, fans of Red Dead Redemption have already pre-ordered over 400,000 copies of the game’s much anticipated sequel and other big names such as Spider-Man and Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros. are pulling in similar numbers. A survey from 2016 shows that a majority of gamers pre-order at least some of the time, with a full 20% claiming to do so regularly. With numbers like that, the pre-ordering of games has almost become an industry unto itself, and that’s a problem
Criticisms of the pre-order model are nothing new but despite numerous reasons the practice is bad for both the consumer and the industry as a whole, it hasn’t become any less common. Anyone who remembers “Assassin’s Creed Unity” hilarious texture issues is familiar with the problem of publishers treating their customers as beta testers who have to pay them for the privilege, but it’s become so common that consumers don’t even bat an eye unless it’s something truly egregious.
Back when online services such as XboxLive and the Play Station Network either didn’t exist or were still in their infancy, if a game wasn’t ready it just wasn’t ready. There were no day-one patches, meaning developers couldn’t get away with shipping games in a fundamentally unfinished state. While it’s fantastic that a developer can now easily fix bugs on an already sold copy, too many have abused the system for their own gain.
While that sort of thing is annoying it is also important to remember that we’ve created a system where a product can be financially successful before it’s released. No Man’s Sky was one of the most anticipated games of 2016, and its pre-orders in the US alone outsold the developer’s previous release. Then the game launched and players realized it was a technically impressive but poorly designed slog across repetitive environments. In fairness to Hello Games, the problems with “No Man’ Sky” stemmed more from over-ambition than greed and they’ve continued to support the game with free updates that made some fairly substantial changes, such as reworking the crafting system and adding proper multiplayer support, but not every company is going to demonstrate that same level of commitment. Would anyone trust the likes of EA or Ubisoft to do the same? While it’s unlikely that a multimillion-dollar AAA title would be able to pull off this kind of premature success in the same manner as a comparably low-cost indie production like “No Man’s Sky,” it really should not be possible.
The whole practice of pre-ordering is even stranger considering the lack of any real benefit to the consumer. Once upon a time it was possible, and in some cases even expected, for a game to sell out on day one. Back then pre-orders meant a guaranteed copy that didn’t require camping out in the parking lot the night before, but it’s been years since that was a real issue. Stores simply don’t buy stock in a way that allows them to run out, and the prevalence of digital downloads makes it literally impossible for a game to sell out completely. Many publishers try to sweeten the deal by offering various pre-order bonuses, but these are rarely more substantial than an extra weapon or half hour of gameplay.
Pre-ordering may once have served a purpose but for a long time now the practice has been little more than a way of rewarding developers before the product is even complete. There is nothing wrong with supporting a developer you like, but at the end of the day the relationship between gamers and developers is and will always be one between consumer and manufacturer, and average consumers wouldn’t pay for a car a year before it rolled off the assembly line.