I’ve had an interesting time in my years as a game journalist. I’ve seen a lot of trends come and go, and I’ve seen a lot of controversies (both factual and manufactured), and I think that the most recent one that intrigues me is the anger towards pre-ordering. Said intrigue is two-fold. I’m curious about what has angered so many video game enthusiasts, and whether or not it is entitlement or legitimate anger caused by a bad business move. What I do want to say is that I’m discounting the ideas coming from major internet outlets or e-celebrities. Many of these bloggers or supposed “consumer advocates” will use fake outrage to get more clicks and collect a fat YouTube check. I’m a journalist. The news creates its own controversy.
I’d like to begin with intrigue number one: whether or not this whole “controversy” stems from senses of entitlement or whether it’s a legitimate gripe. I want to get something straight: consumers do not, nor should they, dictate what a company can sell, what a company can price, how they choose to sell it, and so forth. The term “anti-consumer” is a buzzword that is often used to try and portray businesses as secretly hating their customer base, as opposed to the reality of businesses moving with the market. The free market in its purest form is, has been, and always will be driven by the almighty dollar. Where those dollars go determines what trends continue and which ones die. The market is not pro-or anti-anything except for money. Businessmen do not sit in their offices wearing green capes and plotting to kill Reed Richards. These are not comic books. Businessmen aren’t Victor Von Doom. Suggesting otherwise is consumer entitlement. Plain and simple.
With that said, not all gamers think that way or subscribe to those ideas. In fact, what I have found is that group of people with those particular ideals are a small but vocal Internet group that ultimately just have a few YouTube personalities with aligned views. The industry will most likely ignore them, and rightfully so. However, the amount of sensible people opposed to pre-orders seems to increase as time goes on. I’ve had some interesting discussions with folks who are of that particular camp, and the basic mindset isn’t too different than what I discussed in my video on “pre-order culture.” The fact of the matter is that it’s a risky investment. Even with pre-order bonuses as an incentive, there have been many recent examples of publishers hiding something behind the proverbial curtain.
Calling back to my video on “pre-order culture,” I think back to the biggest major burn that most anyone has had when it comes to a video game pre-order. Gearbox’s Aliens: Colonial Marines seemed like a win in concept. It seemed like a win in gameplay videos and trailers. Randy Pitchford seems nigh orgasmic when he was giving commentary on the gameplay at events. On release day, we found out that Randy and Gearbox lied to their entire consumer base. The game that gamers received felt like it was put together with an erector set. It wasn’t enjoyable. It wasn’t compelling. It wasn’t impressive. It was like being told you’re going to get a burger from Kuma’s Corner in Chicago, and then getting the bottom of the pretzel bun.
Still, outliers are called outliers for a reason, yes? Well, another nasty release came with Assassin’s Creed: Unity. Aside from being buggy as all get out, one controversy about the game that was legitimate was Ubisoft’s ham-handed attempt to add microtransactions and mobile app interaction into the game. Granted, some games have added both of those features and have done so in a way that doesn’t take away from the core game experience (see Star Wars: The Old Republic when it comes to microtransactions, and Grand Theft Auto V for mobile app implementation). However, one pastime within Assassin’s Creed’s single player for its fans has been being able to explore different areas and find loot. A staple of the franchise since the second game, it made no sense for the game to stop the player suddenly and ask if they’ve got the proper app on their smartphone of choice. It’s like asking children at an Easter egg hunt for some sort of ID. It’s pointless and interrupting what’s delicious.
Most recently, there was controversy surrounding the launch of Mortal Kombat X on the PC. Though the console releases went off seemingly without a hitch, PC players were surprised to find that the game used a piecemeal installment process. In theory, those who bought the game and pre-loaded it would have been able to play the single player versus mode with a few characters as a sampler. Didn’t happen. Folks on Twitter were calling the game Menu Simulator 2015, and it was an apt description. I and many other PC gamers only had access to the options menu and the Factions options. Everything else was either unavailable at the time or would cause a crash to desktop. What caused many heads to be scratched was that Grand Theft Auto V’s launch on PC was a smash success and didn’t employ the same approach. In fact, you could pre-load the game a week prior. The download method that seemed to be an experiment by Valve and WB Games was a failure.
Ultimately, there is a business solution with the woes that the game industry is having with the pre-order process: stop screwing with a simple process. Some of the aforementioned issues done in the name of improvement are akin to “improving” a sniper rifle by removing a suppressor and adding a clown horn. Video games aren’t any different than any other industry out there, and some of the smarter businessmen in the industry understand that. That’s why downloadable content is pushed more often as an upsell or incentive. However, why on Earth would the industry try to fix what isn’t broken? These maneuvers are so damaging to public relations that it can be difficult to repair it. In business, every interaction can either sweeten or spoil possible future business, and horror stories carry much further than good press.
To expand on that idea, let’s use WB Games as an example. How does the consumer know as of this writing whether or not the PC release of Batman: Arkham Knight isn’t going to be as bad as Mortal Kombat X? Are Valve and WB Games going to try and reuse an already failed method just to try and save face? Or will they learn from the mistake and go back to old-fashioned pre-loading? Until the audience gets an answer, they’re left in the dark on whether or not the game will be reliable upon launch day. Granted, misinformation is always spread around (Liu Kang is DLC! No, seriously!) but it’s the duty of public relations to smooth it over, and the duty of the producer to make sure that there is customer satisfaction.
Over in Europe, 12% of gamers have cut down their pre-orders. This should be a clear indication of one thing to publishers: your customer base is fed up with these stupid moves. Stop trying to fix what isn’t broken.