Sit down. I’m afraid we need to talk about pre-orders, and it’s not going to be pretty. It’s a much bigger problem than a lot of us want to admit – they’re killing videogames, and we’re the only ones who can stop it.
Around a decade or so ago, back when videogames were younger and a little more innocent, pre-orders were kind of a necessity. Games never arrived digitally back in these cavemen times, and only came in the physical form of a disc (or cart, in some cases).
Obviously these physical products needed to be packaged, shipped, and then sold in stores around the world – often, there simply wasn’t enough money to meet supply, and the more popular games would quickly sell out in certain areas.
It wasn’t long before retailers like Amazon and GAME hit on the idea of essentially paying to guarantee a copy – something a few of my local stores had been doing for a while anyway, and something I’ve no doubt other smaller stores around the world had put into practice with their customers.
Unsurprisingly, the problems really started when the bigger chains got involved and saw the inherent advantages.
It was fine for a while, of course: place a small deposit of around £10, and pay the rest when you get the game.
Publishers would get an idea of how many physical copies they’d actually need to make to meet demand, and anyone who was genuinely bothered about getting hold of a title as soon as it came out was guaranteed a copy.
Maybe a fan could even pay a bit more to get a cool collectible bonus, like a poster or figure – what’s not to love about that arrangement?
But all too soon, the future arrived and brought with it the rise of digital. This was a problem for pre-orders, since what was the point of paying to secure an early copy if you could just download the game on launch day?
Hell, it even got to the point where AAA behemoths like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed could be physically manufactured in such bulk that we never had to worry about struggling to pick up a copy.
Honestly, I can’t remember the last time a popular videogame went out of stock or anyone who really wanted to play it somehow struggled to do so. Even a game like The Division – which sold over 4 million copies in its first week – didn’t go out of stock.
Enter the pre-order incentive: one of the most shamelessly wank pieces of marketing ever devised, put in place to ensure we still put money down on a product that doesn’t actually exist yet.
The problem is that so many of us lap it up, all for the sake of an extra skin, an advantage at the start of a multiplayer game, or maybe a bonus mission or two. Look beyond the glossy marketing and you’ll see that these ‘incentives’ are often quite pathetic.
Let’s use the otherwise excellent Batman: Arkham Knight as an example – namely, the Red Hood/Harley Quinn missions that you could only get (originally) via pre-order.
Both of these missions are pieces of content that were purposefully held back from certain people, despite clearly being ready by the time the game launched.
These missions weren’t awesome pieces of post game DLC that enhanced the game in some way. In my experience they could both be played through in about half an hour – yet they were kept back and given out to people who complied with the law of the pre-order.
Don’t get me wrong, there can be some cool pre-order bonuses that appeal to hardcore collectors, and that’s fine – but there are so many more shitty examples like Arkham Knight, like a certain skin, or a retailer exclusive weapon.
The fact that the majority of these incentives will more often than not be made available to all players to download at some point just adds insult to injury, and makes the entire thing even more pointless.
So why are publishers, retailers, and developers so desperate for our pre-orders? That’s easy: pre-order data is used to gauge interest in a title. Your ‘donation’ effectively allows the big companies to work out how successful a marketing campaign is before anyone has actually played the fucking game itself.
If you’ve put £10 down on a title, then the odds are you’ll be parting with the rest come release day, and that’s been having a horrendous effect on videogames for years now.
Have you noticed the number of crappy (very broken) launches for games over the past few years? Assassin’s Creed Unity, Arkham Knight on PC, Battlefield 4, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, No Man’s Sky, and Driveclub are just a few examples.
Assassin’s Creed Unity is perhaps the worst offender of the bunch. As gamers, I’m sure we’re all familiar with the nightmare fuel glitches and hilariously fucked character models, and while we laugh about it now – how the hell was a game launching so damn broken ever acceptable?
A big part of the answer (as I’m sure you suspected) is pre-orders. According to VGChartz – a site which ranks the most pre-ordered games in the USA by unit sales – Assassin’s Creed Unity had nearly 500,000 pre-orders in the US alone across both PS4 and Xbox One, one week before its November 2014 launch.
That might not sound like much – but that’s half a million sales on a product that wasn’t even out yet (again, in the US alone). With numbers like that, no wonder Ubisoft thought it was cool to ship an unfinished product to the masses.
Back in the day, if fans had waited for word of mouth or videogame reviews, they would have seen that Unity was an unholy mess riddled with issues, and would have perhaps hung on until a price drop or a guarantee that every issue was fixed first.
Unfortunately, the behemoth that is Ubisoft’s marketing machine worked its magic and managed to shift a crap ton of copies regardless.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, of course. Slowly, it seems that gamers everywhere are realising that buying into a game before it’s out gives license to put out any old muck, and change is happening.
For example, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate was punished for its predecessors sins. Syndicate failed to beat the sales of Unity in its first week by some margin. In pre-order terms alone, it managed around 120,000 copies with 1 week before launch in the US on PS4 and Xbox One.
While Ubisoft never explicitly said it, it was clear that this shocking drop for the franchise was down to Unity. Here’s hoping it’s a lesson learned while the franchise takes a year out.
Gamers are also learning to speak with their wallets elsewhere, as Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare is suffering from record low pre-orders.
As of July 30, with some 14 weeks to go until launch, Activision’s sci-fi themed Call of Duty is struggling to break 100,000 on either PS4 or Xbox One in the US.
For comparison, Call of Duty Black Ops 2 had over 900,000 pre-orders over both consoles with 15 weeks to go before launch. That’s clearly not good.
Folk in the UK (the number one location in Europe for pre-orders) are also finally standing up and fighting the scourge. A report from April 2015 carried out by Ipsos Media’s GameTrack project on behalf of MCV reported a whopping 20 percent decrease in pre-orders.
We can still all do better though. Recent launches like The Division and No Man’s Sky were rife with trouble – but while these games were indeed besieged with technical problems, they’re also two prime examples of titles where gamers didn’t fully research what they were getting into.
I personally love No Man’s Sky, but a ton of gamers were (and still are) furious that it’s not the game they were expecting. Much of this is down to ridiculous expectations, but a lot of the blame can be placed at the glossy marketing campaign, and a few false promises.
But here’s the thing, and it’s so important: getting angry after the fact – whether it’s over a broken launch, shitty bonuses, or simply because the game isn’t what you expected – does very little, because the publishers, developers, and retailers will already have our money.
If you think a big business gives a fuck that it upset you after it has your cash, you’re seriously kidding yourself.
So please, wait until a game comes out. Read a review, or ask a friend who already has it. If we keep pre-ordering videogames before release, we’re gonna keep on being subjected to an endless cycle of shallow pre-order bonuses, broken launches, and marketing campaigns that generate false hype.
Only we can break this cycle – stop pre-ordering videogames, and perhaps we’ll finally see a change for the better.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.