It’s been two months since E3, the week long hype-stravaganza where game publishers and indie makers compete in a cage fight arena for your attention and money. Mostly your money. Some of the games will be released soon and others far into the yet to be determined future, assuming they release at all. Either way, nearly all of the upcoming games have one thing in common. You can pre-order them right now. Just what exactly are you buying when you pre-order, especially in today’s digital distribution age?
In the dark times, when modems used phone jacks and some of you had graduated to eating glue in preschool, pre-ordering games served a useful purpose. Since all video games were released on physical media, if you didn’t pre-order there was a real chance you’d be out of luck especially if the game turned out to be a hit. There’s only so many copies of the game and once they’re gone, you have to hope they decide to make more. For example, the very first game I pre-ordered was Star Wars: Dark Forces and yes, I still have the poster that came with it.
The pre-order then ensured you would be able to go back to the store on release day and a copy of the game would be waiting for you, with your name on it. You also got to avoid the pandemonium in said store once they ran out. This was before you could record the pandemonium on your smartphone. Without pre-ordering, I would have been just like my older brother on release day, watching someone else play the game. The law of supply and demand could be harsh back then, especially for those without drivers licenses or glue.
Fast forward to today where DSL modems still use phone jacks (I know right) and some of you now have glue-eating kids. Just what purpose does pre-ordering serve today when a majority of games are delivered digitally? Not only that, even if you’re one of the happy few who prefers the smell of pressed DVD plastic, odds are there will be one available upon its release as the game distributors have gotten much better at predicting demand. Once you have your physical copy, most of today’s games also come with sizeable day one patches to be downloaded to play the game (or at least a somewhat stable version of the game). Even digital downloads have to deal with patches. So how does a pre-order today for tomorrow’s game benefit you? The laws of supply and demand don’t completely apply.
But what about consoles you say? Pre-ordering the actual hardware that runs the games makes sense. It’s an actual physical product and demand can often outstrip supply or the suppliers ability to make more. I had no intention of pre-ordering the Nintendo Wii when it was announced for release in November 2006. Why? I wasn’t all that impressed with the Gamecube and the idea of motion controllers seemed more like a gimmick to compensate for selling essentially an overclocked Gamecube. To make a long story short, our family wasn’t able to purchase a Wii until August of 2007, from a Shop-Ko forty miles away, and even then it was a lucky break. If you were able to pre-order, then you were guaranteed an opportunity to bypass the crowds, be cheered on when you emerged with your console, and finally sell it for a hefty profit on eBay just before Christmas. Things have changed a bit from the wild west days of the two thousand aughts. When the Playstation 4 was released in 2013, I was able to casually to go my local Wal-Mart on a brisk November morning and walk out with a new PS4 (minus a few hundred dollars). No pre-order necessary. Yet I still don’t have a/an NES classic. The point is with consoles and other hardware, you can never be sure if there will be enough when you are able and willing to buy.
Let’s focus on games though. They’re not always physical things. It isn’t like a truckload of digital copies is going to spill all over the road and be lost forever if said truck is involved in an accident, unlike a truck carrying pizza, gasoline, or glue (think of all the sad glue deprived children). Your pre-ordering isn’t a guarantee of a limited supply. I submit that game pre-orders have evolved from supply assurance to more of an investment in the game itself. As the amount of time between the game’s announcement and release date increase, the pre-order takes on more of a Kickstarter role and game buyers transform in to game backers instead. This is especially true when the game is taking pre-orders even though it hasn’t even reached an Alpha release. As a pre-order buyer, you aren’t even ordering a complete product anymore. You’re pre-ordering your idea of what the game is and should be like based solely on marketing hype. Once you’ve reached that stage your pre-order becomes an intense emotional investment and the pre-order predicament begins.
Being emotionally invested in an idea can often lead normal, rational, people to do very irrational things. There’s a host of examples for this and anyone who’s attended a college football rivalry game has seen it (or caused it — you know who you are) firsthand. Unfortunately, the emotionally invested pre-order backer doesn’t have the same outlet for irrationality that college football fans enjoy. No, the emotionally invested backer spreads his or her irrationality all over the Internet. This is because the emotionally invested backer mistakenly believes that their pre-order entitles them to a say in the game’s development and requires them to defend the game from all criticisms both foreign and domestic. You can see the irrationality leak out as the emotionally invested backer lashes out at innocent bystanders, the naysayers, the critics, the fence sitters, and of course, your mom.
Once the game is released things can get even worse if the game fails to deliver on each and every one of its promises that the backer imagined it would. All that angst originally hurled at the pre-order naysayers now turns inward to the game, the developers, the publishers, and again, innocent bystanders and your mom. Mountains of salt have been dumped on Reddit and countless Discord servers by those whose only real issue was they pre-ordered the game and didn’t like it.
Let’s turn to a couple of real world examples of this phenomenon. First we have to go all the way back to 2016. The hype was very real for a game that supposedly had 16 quintillion reasons to play. Pre-orders flowed in for months prior to its release. Then there was about a two month delay and some people lost their minds. Not everyone mind you, but the irrationality reached peak stupid with a very fragile few who sent death threats to the developer and even those who reported on the delay. I’m of course talking about No Man’s Sky. It’s hard to describe the wave of hype if you weren’t interested in the game. It was very unusual for a game developer to appear on talk shows to demo their upcoming game, but Sean Murray did just that. Full disclosure, I pre-ordered the game the day before it was released because I wanted the cool pre-order ship (the game breaking bug that came with it was an undisclosed pre-order bonus).
Then No Man’s Sky was released to the public and peak stupid gave way to peak insane. It was clear that many gamers were too emotionally invested in their dream of the game rather than the game itself. The salt tsunami of those who backed the game originally and then turned on it was epic. To paraphrase, there were those who argued that they were defrauded and even forced Steam to issue refunds, that Hello Games and Sony had perpetrated the greatest bait and switch in the history of gaming, and that No Man’s Sky would forever be held up as an example of over promising and under delivering. Some asked how could this have happened? Some argued that Hello Games had completely shut down and was no more. To be fair, the game was rushed and clearly not as complete at the time and some of the criticism was warranted. Releasing unfinished games in 2016 was not uncommon but the reaction surrounding No Man’s Sky certainly was.
Next on the list but with way fewer death threats is the current game everyone loves to hate, Destiny 2. When Bungie first announced a “proper sequel” to Destiny, they set the emotional wheels in motion for a salt avalanche when the game was released in September of last year. Like No Man’s Sky, the game felt incomplete and didn’t quite live up to some of its promises. Not only was that not uncommon, but Bungie had also faced the same complaints with Destiny three years earlier. With Destiny 2, Bungie faced complaints from new players as well as amplified complaints from those who felt it did not measure up to the original. As the DLC turned out to be lackluster to okay, there were quite a few who argued that Bungie should not charge for its Forsaken update, coming out next month.
I have to admit that even I fell into this category when Forsaken was first announced and was a bit vocal about it. I’ve reflected on why I was so intense about what Bungie should or should not do and I think I became one of the emotionally invested pre-order backers instead of a customer. I succumbed to that sense of entitlement I felt I was rightly owed as a customer who not only pre-ordered Destiny 2, but the original Destiny before that. My Destiny pre-order qualified me to play the Alpha release (see how special I was). Naturally that meant I should get my way on all future Bungie products and if not, saying “if you don’t like it don’t buy it” was like pouring emotional gasoline on my already burning rage fire. I hope writing about my irrationality will help others avoid the pre-order predicament.
The whole point of this is if you’re going to pre-order a game early in its development cycle (I’m looking at you Anthem), be wise and look at it as an actual investment. Your investment could be successful and you’ll see a return (i.e. an enjoyable game) or you could lose it all. If you’re willing to accept the risk that you’re pre-ordering something that could turn out to be terrible rather than blindly riding the hype train with the other glue eating pre-order junkies, then you should be okay. It’s very easy to invest with your heart and that will usually lead you on the path to peak stupid when that investment doesn’t pan out. Be wise and pre-order responsibly.