Timing your purchase
Video games are the only product I can think of that make when you buy as important as how you buy. Sometimes even massively so.
In the earliest days, of course, there was no difference whatsoever. You bought the game when it was on the shelves, just like other stuff. Considering the time, you were walking over to the shelves across a field of shag carpeting while proclaiming loudly to everyone in earshot that your current fashion statement wouldn’t make you look like an argument against the concept of clothes in thirty years, but it was 1978. You could hardly be held responsible for that.
Eventually, some bright spark had an idea. I’m going to assume it was a lady named Judy Gamespot. She figured there was no reason not to just sell the games before they came out if you already knew they were coming out. Other industries had been doing it, it was no great stunt to say that you wanted to buy the next issue of X-Men before it was actually out. Why not let consumers do the same with games if you already know they’re coming out?
Well, there was one problem – there’s no way to know when a game is actually coming out, sometimes. A big deal was made of the guy who managed to pre-order Duke Nukem Forever in 2001, when it was entirely believable that the game was actually going to come out within the near future. The game was originally supposed to be released in 1998, and it finally came out in 2011. An extreme case, yes, but that’s because most games of that nature would just be cancelled. If you’re lucky, a store will refund your purchase of a cancelled game, but sometimes you’re straight up the creek.
But this wasn’t really Judy Gamespot’s fault. The problem is that pre-orders started stretching further and further out from the game’s actual release date. It’s one thing to pre-order a game with copies on the trucks to the stores, quite another to pre-order one that’s barely halfway through production. The former seems almost unthinkable… except for the fact that pre-orders start to become more and more integral to the whole process.
Square-Enix has had a longstanding habit of producing about ten copies of games and shipping them off to a store once, then forgetting the game exists at all. Want to play Nier? For a long time I would have wished you luck, because the game just did not exist at retail anywhere. Copies seem to be turning up now, so that’s a good thing. I spent years trying to hunt down a copy of Final Fantasy VI for my SNES because it was nearly impossible to do – the copies that people had which still worked weren’t being sold. And yet you can’t really blame them for these things, since producing physical copies of a game costs money. You don’t want to make a million copies of a game that’s only going to sell through half of that.
One of the strangest and yet most ironclad truths of the industry is that most of a game’s sales happen within the first month after release. That just seems weird. But it makes sense, too – do you remember what the big games were that released five months ago but you didn’t buy? Do you think anyone else does? Pre-orders offer a metric about how many people are interested enough in this game to buy it ahead of time, meaning you’ve got at least that many sales. It’s an advantage.
So you want pre-orders. And that leads to the pre-order bonus, which is where things start getting dicey.
I pre-ordered a copy of Final Fantasy VIII because, well, I still woke up in cold sweats about the whole Final Fantasy VI thing. That was when I got my first taste of pre-order bonuses, in the form of a little cloth map of the world. I later scrawled hateful invective on it for representing such an awful game, but that’s not the point here. It was just a thing, hardly necessary to play.
Life got worse when developers realized that they could also give away free DLC as a pre-order bonus. Have an extra sword or a new character outfit. That’s not a problem, is it? Unless, of course, you didn’t pre-order, in which case some little widget is lost forever. It’s horrible, it’s unpleasant, it’s biting, and it’s also a charmingly effective encouragement for people to pre-order now. Even if you know you can buy it later, you could buy the game now and not have to buy it later!
But maybe you could buy it later and get it again anyway, as the years have proven how much developers love re-releasing games. Don’t buy the old version of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, buy the ultimate version and get all these new characters and stuff that had been in the DLC! (Edit: I’ve been informed that most of the stuff in the ultimate version is not actually DLC, but is in fact completely added wholesale, which makes the situation even worse.) It’s like all the game you wanted but didn’t pre-order in the first place! Which sets up an odd dichotomy wherein you want to either buy before the game is out or long after it first came out, anything but in the middle.
Yes, I totally get why companies will do this, too. Remember how I mentioned that most sales are within the first month? Well, if you can have multiple first months you can keep raking in those sale bonuses. By releasing the game again, only more, you can pick up a new set of sales. And, I imagine, eventually some company will realize they can even include something exclusive with that release, thereby spurring players who already did buy the game to maybe buy it again when it happens…
But all of that’s assuming that it sells well enough to merit a re-release. Because if not enough people order it the game might quickly just fade into the background, and the next thing you know it might as well not exist in the collective memories of retailers anywhere.
It’s even funnier when you realize that digital distribution throws another big wrench into the process. The Sims 4 was delivered to my computer far in advance of its official launch date, but I still had to wait to play it until the “official” release, even though that official release is entirely a construct meant to improve the relationship between publishers and hard-copy retailers. Theoretically, I could have been playing the game at the tail end of August. The whole idea of early access plays with the notion that there’s nothing stopping you from buying the game now and playing it as it develops… but then, sometimes you’ve already made the money you’re going to make off of the game months before it launches. Why bother launching?
I can understand wanting to go back to the days when you just bought a game when it was on the shelves. I don’t think that’s going to happen, though – there’s too much tied into pre-orders, late re-releases, and so forth. At best, we can demand more digital releases and launch availability. It won’t fix everything, but it will at least mean that we don’t have to leave our houses to buy the half-finished games.