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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.

Pictured: Assassin's Creed Unity. A game with an inexcusably bad launch due to needless experimentation and lack of disclosure.

Pictured: Assassin’s Creed Unity. A game with an inexcusably bad launch due to needless experimentation and lack of disclosure.

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.

Micah Curtis

Micah is a man returning to the fold of video game journalism after a bit of time away. He's a conservative with a passion for business, and a love for the art of video games. Micah has been gaming since the NES, and knows a bit more about art than he probably should........

  • Ryan Juel

    Equally as infuriating are the collectors editions. I had a rant on my blog a couple years ago. You might get a kick out of it:

  • Typical

    The Preordering situation was caused by Gamestop. In the day, places like best buy and walmart and such didn’t treat video games and movies like anything other than the rest of their merch. When a game was released, they’d get there on the next shipment after release day, usually thursday.

    Gamestop was the gamer’s place to get new releases Tuesday, I remember many times out regional manager going to the airport to meet the fedex plane to get the hot titles. Eventually Gamestop started only provisioning product to stores based on preorder volume, creating a false shortage, and making desperate kids put down $5 way ahead of time to “guarantee they get a copy.” This money sat in a nice interest bearing account for months and was a really lucrative setup. But then, best buy and other big boxes realized, they could drive a lot more traffic getting release day games and having such a stock that preordering wasn’t necessary, and started paying to get games at store on release day. This made preordering pointless, so now they need to give you an incentive to do so. It used to be you get a tshirt or some crap for big titles, but now it’s more lucrative to cut out parts of the game to give to different retailers as bonuses, then sell to people who bought elsewhere 6 months later.

    I’d love you to tell me how you don’t think that’s “anti consumer”?

  • dsadsada

    Of course businessmen don’t wear green capes while plotting to kill Reed Richards. That’s silly. They stare resentfully into a mirror over their baldness while plotting to kill Superman.

    Jokes aside, it’s not that hard to see why publishers push pre-orders. It’s a guaranteed sale without the product needing to have come out yet. Besides that, it reduces the work needed to calculate how much stocks they need to produce for retail which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as it reduces the risk on the part of the publisher.

    What can be argued as anti-consumer in this case is the inherent mindset of prioritizing ensured sales over delivering a quality product as outlined in your Aliens and Assassin’s Creed examples. Once a pre-order is made and the transaction is complete, the customer no longer has the luxury of seeing feedback from others about whether the game is running correctly or if the developers made good on their promises in their advertising.

    To be perfectly honest, I’m having a hard time trying to imagine an argument in favor of pre-orders for the customers.

  • Preorders for broken games are not free money for publishers; it’s more like treating trust as a second currency and cashing in at a bad exchange rate. Takes a while for the market to catch up, but in the end it’ll show this business model isn’t sustainable.

  • Heh. I just wrote a big long comment about exchange only taking place for mutual profit and the natural checks and balances of a free market, but you’ve put it much more succinctly. Spot on.

  • cypher20

    Well, I suppose we could debate whether the current pre-order culture is “anti-consumer” or not. It is frustrating to be unable to get a “complete” (as in, have all the features) copy of a game because various skins, characters, weapons, etc get scattered around as various pre-order bonuses. Certainly in the case of Colonial Marines and Unity you had games being pushed to market that the companies simply must have known would be flops but they pushed them anyway because the they’d already sold so many copies. It doesn’t help that video games are not always easy to return, especially if you bought a digital only copy.

    I could allow that it’s not anti-consumer, just a stupid practice. Still, I think you point out exactly why people are so against pre-orders right now. It’s seen as enabling bad behavior on the companies part and really, for very little gain on the consumer side. Hopefully the backlash over the several failed launches of the past year was severe enough that people have learned their lessons, we’ll see.

  • Nick

    Pre-ordering is also a really good way to gauge how many copies you need to order from the publisher to prevent overstocking or understocking. If you can pre-sell the item, you know you’re going to have that many gauranteed sales, and you can extrapolate that to gauge how many walk-in non pre-order sales you can have. This helps brick-and-mortar stores deal with inventory management side of things and logistics. Having too much stock of an item actually costs the company. Having too little results in loss of potential revenue. Both of these are really bad for business as selling an item allows for attachments/up-sells etc.

  • Typical

    Especially in the age of digital distribution, there is no scarcity of product requiring you to secure a seat.

  • Soloman Seltzer

    I think that the description of “anti-consumer” used in the article is… wrong. Obviously companies do not actively hate their consumer base, but that doesn’t mean that they always act in their best interest. “Anti-consumer”, to me at least, means that the company not only puts the desire for profit before consumer good (that is generally to be expected) but completely disregards the latter.

    Pro-consumer practices prioritise the balance between customer satisfaction and profit, anti-consumer practices throw balance out the window and simply assume that customers will accept what they are given and throw money at you anyway.

  • Laivasse

    Warning – tangential post unrelated to the central topic of pre-orders:

    A far more egregious buzzphrase than ‘anti-consumer’ is ‘entitlement’, when it’s it’s used in a pejorative sense. That happens a depressingly high percentage of the time nowadays and I’m disappointed to see it regurgitated here.

    Entitlement is a good thing. It describes certain things people deserve, due to legal and contractual obligations. ‘Self-entitlement’ or a ‘sense of entitlement’ (as opposed to a certainty of entitlement) is what you’re describing, as in the behaviour of people deciding they deserve more for their money than has been offered. Some behaviour that could be described as ‘self-entitlement’ is: demands for better treatment, demands for (non-binding) promises by businesses to be honoured, haggling, negative criticism, and general pronouncements that a product offers bad value for money. This ‘self-entitled’ behaviour, where customers seek as much value as possible from a product or service, or respond negatively when they don’t see sufficient value, is not only natural but necessary for the healthy functioning of a market. It reflects people seeking their maximum advantage based on the resources they have.

    While some instances of it may be distasteful to watch, as a term of contempt for the attitudes of other consumers, the term entitlement/self-entitlement itself is completely useless. Customer reactions generally are not up for review, except as a source for drama and tittle tattle. The only true review of a person’s grievance comes from the market in the longer term, should it display or fail to display a trend of people sharing that grievance. Customers have no obligation to shield people, be they business-people or other customers, from their negative opinions. In the case of businesses, the smart ones will use any reactions, positive and negative as data for the future. As for anyone else, well… it’s literally not their business.

    ‘Anti-consumer’ practices are not exactly the figment of people’s imaginations either; remember that ‘entitlement’ wouldn’t be the only example the games industry has of trying to dismiss the importance of certain consumers by messing with the connotations of a word.

  • Timothy Riggs ✓ᴺᵃᵗᶦᵒᶰᵃˡᶦˢᵗ

    When you’re speaking about physical copies, sure, at SOME level that makes sense. When you’re speaking about digital delivery however that doesn’t hold any water.

    The resell market drove some of the want for pre-ordering sure, but I have a philosophical problem with paying full price for a product without knowing what exactly I am getting, hence I don’t pre-order. I sincerely wish more consumers were like me in this regard, because from what I’m seeing, it’s leading to very very sloppy day 1, week 1, MONTH 1 releases. Bugginess and lack of complete content are only some of it. When the games require connectivity to servers to function, and those servers don’t function properly for a month (a la SimCity), that’s a big bloody issue.

    Pre-orders have moved from inventory management practice to poor product delivery insurance. It’s about generating as many sales ahead of time as possible to ensure that even if you deliver a crap experience, you still get buzz sales. That is a cynical and very poor way to treat your customers.

  • Guy Montag

    Unless there’s a substantial pre-order bonus of some kind, I don’t see the point in pre-orders on mainstream commercial games, especially if it’s going to be available on PC.

    Obscure console games in limited print, that’s different, but generally those only tend to appear on the Nintendo 3DS anymore.

  • Samwisekoi

    I cannot speak for or about console gamers, but for the rest of us, what tangible benefit does pre-ordering provide? Getting 9 physical disks in advance? Fair enough. Beyond that, publishers (not devs) seem to be creating artificial benefits to start early revenue collection. So perhaps the capitalist message being sent by the 12% and others is that the artifical benefits are hugely outweighed by the risk of non-delivery.

    Futures markets work for *commodities* where the future delivery will be a *known good item*. If the future delivery was for an unknown item of uncertain quality on an uncertain date, then the market would account for that by reducing the net present value of the future delivery — discounting.

    So looking at this situation from a strictly business perspective, then the market (game players) should be able to discount the future price of a known item to allow for risk. And since we cannot bid or otherwise define what we think the advance value is, then the “futures market” for games (pre-orders) is broken, and our only option is to opt-out.

    If we HAD a working futures market, compare the likely discount on the next WB title with whatever the successor is to Cities:Skylines. I imagine there would be plenty of opt-in for a value-rich pre-order for Cities:Skylines II.

  • GEhotpants101 .

    Preorder games don’t make me mad…I just have never trusted a product until I could test it. I don’t even see movies before hearing what the general internet has said about it, or it comes out on redbox/netflix if reviews are mixed. Paying a boatload more for a game makes me even more hesitant to pay before I see the goods. It’s not that I hate preorders…I just don’t like them…lol

  • SevTheBear

    Pre-orders have always been a bad idea. But yeah the last 5 years it have just gotten worse. It’s not even worth buying the game the first year it’s out anymore. You are better of waiting for a complete bundle with all the DLC and updates with it + the game will be at half price by then.

  • Nick

    Right, my response is just an explanation as to the reasons why pre-orders are beneficial both for hard-copes to the consumer, and for the store to maximize their profits. My comment is not an opinion, and doesn’t even attempt to explain why Publishers decided they need to offer digital pre-orders once they phased away from boxed copies.

  • Inquiring

    Exactly. I have trouble believing more than a minority of people, with a low degree of intelligence at that, believe that businesses are full of mustachioed twirling businessmen who hate the “lower classes” and are trying to think of the best way to screw consumers is what “anti-consumer” means.

    Anti-consumer is not a buzzword, and it correctly identifies that a business is putting profit as a priority, with quality product and consumer satisfaction as distant (or non-existent) secondary and tertiary goals.

    Anti-consumer businesses think customers exist to provide the business money for whatever cheap product they put out; they see products as cash cows to be milked, and customers as being undiscerning. Pro-consumer businesses see customers as a group (discerning or not) they must provide quality products that will make the customer want to spend their hard earned money on. It is a not so subtle difference that completely alters how businesses treat their customers and products.

    Both anti and pro-consumer groups exist to make profits, just one group is lazy and has no pride beyond making profit.

  • That’s what I’ve been doing. I laughed at those I know who bought Skyrim at launch and then bought the DLC as it came out, ultimately paying about $100, and I picked it up about 13 months later with all DLC for $49.99.