From DLC to free-to-play: a brief history of everything you love to hate

By Brenna Hillier
19 March 2015 08:40 GMT

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Pre-orders

For the most part, gaming pre-orders are a relic of a bygone age. There was a time when games were significantly less commercially successful than (the one percent) are today, and publishers produced significantly less stock. Shops would only order in a small number of these until they were certain a game was going to be a hit, and so, on launch day, you might toddle down to your local bricks and mortar only to find that there were no Mega Drive copies of Mortal Kombat left.

In those days, pre-orders partially existed to serve the consumer. You, the hardcore gamer, ensured you got a copy on release day – and your less forward-thinking friends got more of a chance of getting one, too, because the retailer might make a larger order. All the way up the supply chain, people had the chance to make more money by meeting demand.

Nowadays, pre-orders are very good for publishers – and retailers and distributors. It’s money up front, and something to wave at investors. It still helps manage demand. But the thing is: there’s no supply issue any more. When was the last time a shop sold out of a standard edition of a game? And if it did, would you not just get on the internet and find a copy somewhere else nearby?

In the digital distribution age, there’s no consumer benefit to pre-orders, especially if a game doesn’t allow pre-loading. The benefits of pre-ordering a physical copy pretty much boil down to “may or may not arrive on or before release day”.

In the digital distribution age, there’s no consumer benefit to pre-orders, especially if a game doesn’t allow pre-loading. The benefits of pre-ordering a physical copy pretty much boil down to “may or may not arrive on or before release day thanks to the unreliability of the mail”.

Nowadays, except in a small number of cases like limited-run localisations (think Yakuza 4, or NIS America and Atlus games, for example) catering to niche genres, they’re almost entirely about everyone but the consumer. I suppose you could argue that anything that’s good for the industry benefits us in the end, but to rebut this point I submit the following: Aliens: Colonial Marines.

Actually, Aliens: Colonial Marines has probably turned out to be a good thing for all of us. Consumers and press alike are far more wary of misleading demos and marketing materials. Now that Sega is forking out 1.25 million to make a false advertising case go away, publishers are likely to be less complicit in deceiving consumers.

Despite this little obstacle in the path of promotional bullshit, there’s a strong argument to be made that pre-orders are quite bad for games – whereby games we mean the works of art and craft you play – not the money making machine. When games are primarily sold on marketing hype and pre-release expectations rather than critical response and word of mouth, there’s always the chance the end product will be a bit balls. The publisher has reason to spend more on marketing than on making sure the product lives up to it.

Since they’re not especially good for us, and they’re definitely good for the business side, pre-orders are, naturally, held in disdain and suspicion by some gamers. Here’s Jim Sterling, eloquently waxing lyrical on the subject of why modern pre-orders are so unpopular:

If you’ve made up your mind that pre-orders are bad, then pre-order incentives go hand-in-hand with them, skipping merrily down the highway of horrors. It’s hard not to pick on Sega when it made what sounded like one of the very best parts of Alien: Isolation a pre-order incentive, so here’s Jim Sterling again. He really doesn’t like pre-orders.

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