Monday, December 14, 2009

Buy Before You Try: The Problem With Pre-Orders

Pre-ordering a videogame 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 videogames 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 screenshot
"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.


  1. That more or less echoes my sentiments. Before my 360 broke down (with a specific fault that didn't get me the extended RRoD warranty :( ) I almost bought Soul Calibur 4... Until I noticed that the collector's edition had more outfits than the normal one. And that's the same problem because people who buy the game later would not have access to all the game's content.

    It's rather sinister and gouging, and it just highlights the abusive relationship producers and distributors have had with gamers. And yes, gamers with self-respect should take a step back and realize they're being gouged. They have the right to call embargo if a developer does them wrong.

    I sometimes wonder if the addictive quality of games as compared to other media has something to do with how developers treat their audience.

  2. There is a marketing rule, that when you want your customers to buy product A instead of B, you introudce product A- to the offer. A- is similar to A, but significantly less atractive. If choosing between A and B is 50/50, introducing A- shifts choices in favor of A.

    Similarly, when having two versions of a game (standard and "special edition"), could shift consumer choice from "buy this game or that game" to "buy this version of this game, or that version of the same game". It's just a hypotesis though and sadly I don't think anyone except the distributors themselves can verify this.


  3. I agree with your sentiments on the Bonuses, but pre-ordering itself is often usefull. I know I could just go to Best Buy or Target where they don't take pre-orders, on release day, and get a copy of whatever. This is usually what I do.

    However sometimes there is a game that someone MUST have the day it comes out. They don't even want a .1% chance that it will be sold out, they don't want to spend any additional time going to alternate stores to search for the game. They want a 100% gaurantee that they will be able to acquire the game at an exact time and an exact place. And for that, pre-ordering is a god-send.

  4. @midnightteatime:
    It's strange how powerful that effect can be... that blatant reminder that the companies you're supporting (or considering supporting) don't love you back, and are in it for the money. It can sour the whole thing and destroy brand loyalty. I have definitely walked away from games for the same reasons you walked away from SC4.

  5. @Anonymous:
    That is fascinating. I'm aware of the phenomenon, but I hadn't thought to connect it to this. It goes a long way toward explaining the ridiculous frequency of special/collector's editions we're seeing more and more of. Interesting stuff.

  6. @uhzHiro:
    Sure - for some titles, and for some fans, pre-ordering makes sense. These are the situations where pre-orders would occur regardless of bonuses. I have no problem with pre-orders being an available option, because they make everyone happier in these cases.

    My problem is that somebody decided they could make more money if they got other people pre-ordering too, and started using increasingly skeevy tactics to encourage it, culminating (for now) in strategies that actually punish all consumers, but enthusiastic fans most of all. That makes me not want to pre-order even in the cases where I don't want to risk that .1% chance that the game will sell out before I snag my copy.

  7. @Doctor Professor:

    I'm going to play devil's advocate here and suggest that the business practices you describe also create competition amongst various sellers, and creates more choice for the buyer.

    If seller A includes a plush Mario with Mario Galaxy 2, and seller B includes $5 worth of DLC new levels for the same game, the buyer has a choice. You're suggesting that the alternative is to offer both, so that everyone gets the "full experience". But the alternative alternative is that the sellers offer neither.

    I can see definite advantages to several retailers competing over who will get my pre-order. It's only a matter of time before one of those advantages is price - and in a way it already is if you consider packaged DLC or meaningless trinkets you might have otherwise bought.

  8. You've placed me in an interesting moral quandry, DP. To date I've had no reason not to pre-oder games that I am going to buy on day one from a digital distribution service. Let's take Mass Effect 2 as an example. I'm already quite certain that I'm going to buy this game from Steam or D2D the day it's released. Why wouldn't I pre-order it? I might get a sweet set of armor (if they attach a suit to one or more of those services) and I'll be able to download the bulk of the game earlier in the week so that I can fire it up as soon as I get home from work on 1.26.2010.

    Except... you made a really good point. The sorts of shenanigans that publishers and retailers are subjecting us enthusiasts to are really uncool. I may just skip the pre-order to stick it to the publisher.

  9. Long-time reader, first-time poster here.

    While it may upset some completionist-type people that the pre-order shenanigans make it expensive for them to get everything, this type of stuff doesn't offend me at all.

    Imagine two universes: In Universe A, the running sparkle effect is available for users who pre-order and for users who pay. In Universe B, the sparkle is only available for purchase. If these are my options, I prefer Universe A. Clearly I've cherry-picked a favorable point of reference, but you seem to have similarly picked an unfavorable one, when really the choice of reference point is pretty arbitrary.

    To say that these choices are dumb because they upset people and hit the companies' bottom lines in the long-term (since consumers' cognitive biases make them more upset than happy) is defensible. But to suggest that we the consumers should embrace that bias and look at the glass as half-empty is where you lose me.

  10. @uhzHiro:
    It is competition, but it's a really weird kind of competition. When it's actual game content, it's pretty clear that it's a result of negotiation between the seller and the developer/publisher. That smacks of collusion to me, and I am deeply suspicious of it.

    When I weigh various in-game bonuses against each other, I don't know that that really reflects on the stores themselves. I prefer Amazon's service to Gamestop's, but if I'd rather have the Enterprise than the Borg officer, I have a weird decision to make. A lot of stores will price-match. Nobody can content-match.

  11. @partialcharge:
    I suppose the pre-download is the rough equivalent of the guarantee-you'll-get-it-in-your-hands-on-day-one advantage of pre-ordering physical copies, since obviously scarcity doesn't enter into it when digital distribution is involved. By itself, it's a perfectly sufficient motivation if you know you want the game right away anyway.

    It is the creeping other behaviors that bother me. If the ME2 armor makes that much of a difference in gameplay, then it shouldn't be eternally withheld from players who wait to buy, or who buy somewhere else.

  12. @Steve:
    My problem is that the extra options that are being created are deliberately being created in a way that is deeply suboptimal for the customer. Yes, you have extra choices and ways to get content. But they are mutually exclusive, and they don't have to be.

    Businesses will do what turns a profit, so if customers signal through their purchases that it's okay to give them these kinds of choices, that's what they'll do. If customers instead signal they want better choices, that's what they'll get.

  13. I was struck by midnightteatime's musing about whether the addictive quality of games as compared to other media has something to do with how developers treat their audience.

    I sat here trying to come up with other-media examples of a developer/audience transaction wherein (1) the consumer's enjoyment of a product could vary significantly depending on the retail outlet where the product was purchased and (2) it was plain that some effort was being made to capitalize on the consumer's particular (and perhaps even completist and/or addictive) love for the product in question.

    I couldn't come up with anything, so I decided instead that the addiction/consumerism/abuse equation just conduces really, really well to videogames, with particular regard to their unique capacity for what I've called "storymakingtelling" (but which Doctor Professor has more elegantly called "metanarrative.") Along those lines, DocProf has argued that choices with irrevocable consequences should not be tied to game mechanics; so it makes a lot of sense for him to take issue with choices bearing (potentially?) irrevocable consequences that also cost you real-world money and real-world vacillation while vaguely threatening game mechanics via your specific and personal experience playing the game.*

    And so the pre-order bonus becomes the pre-game game: It's the story about the player that the player gets to play before the player gets to play the game. And (like real-world money and real-word vacillation) I think real-world You starts to enter the picture in a new and uncomfortable way here, too.

    In order for the consumer to feel abused enough to, say, abstain as a matter of principle, then he or she must first have some some semblance of control ("if I'd rather have the Enterprise than the Borg officer...") and some awareness of the stakes of this decision ("...I have a weird decision to make").

    But be honest: Is pre-order abstinence robbing you of some fuller experience of the game itself, or of a fuller experience of yourself playing the game? It's possible (in fact, likely) that, even if you don't pre-order anything, you can still see and spend time with someone else's Enterprise, or someone else's Borg officer. Is it enough for a man to just appreciate someone else's cool stuff? No! Of course not! It is the Great Truth of Successful Marketing that What You Have and When You Have It totally defines how cool you are.

    But, for argument, let's say you scored the original Enterprise; does that say "I am so proud to be a geek," or does it say "I shop at Gamestop"? Either way, it says "I [something]," and that's a powerful thing to manipulate.

    * Also: a downloadable-content bonus means you're probably playing these games online, which means there's a good chance you're playing these games with other people, which implies further that you're operating in an arena where self-expression is on display (if not, in fact, for sale). You're going to run all over this world; people are going to watch you do it; and if you're sparkling while you do it, that makes you more awesome than some schlub running around all nooby-dull and normal-like. I think it's possible to argue that the degree of self-expression a game offers is basically in direct proportion to how addictive it is, but ... this is already kindof a long comment.

  14. I don't have a problem with pre-order bonuses which give you a discount or include content you can buy anyway. Save 10% and get the first DLC pack free if you pre-order? Yeah, okay, if I'm going to buy the game anyway, I'd go for that. It's fair and everything is still available to everyone whether they buy the game ten days before or ten years after its release.

    Nintendo including a Mario figure with the pre-orders for the latest Mario game? Okay, that's fine with me. People who are going to pre-order a Mario title are going to be big fans of the series, anyway, and probably collectors of Mario merchandise, too.

    What I have a problem with is including something with the pre-orders which isn't available via any other means. How is it fair that the users who didn't know the game even existed at the pre-order stage can't get the Infinity Plus One Sword because it was only available to those who pre-ordered the game?

    Answer: it's not.