Preorders are crap and you’re part of the problem

Josh really wants you to stop preordering games so people take the hint.

Back in the day, video game preorders were hugely beneficial. We didn’t have digital distribution – at least not on the scale we’ve come to love and hate. A preorder meant you went to your local EB Games, Gamestop, Future Shop or $preferred_local_retailer, they’d reserve a copy of the physical copy of the game for you so you’d be guaranteed to play it as soon as possible.

I have fond memories of going to the mall at midnight to pick up highly anticipated titles like Halo 3 and then skipping class the next day because I stayed up all night playing (yeah, I was that kind of student). I’d get to meet all kinds of fans and members of the local gaming community while waiting in line, and in some ways it validated my decision: I wasn’t the only one crazy enough to do something like that. Event organizers would hand out flyers to their upcoming tournaments and gatherings, and everyone was nice and chummy. Ah, nostalgia.

Since then, we’ve gotten our hands on better internet connections and more reliable digital distribution mediums like Steam, Origin, Battle.net, gog.com and plenty more. Along with this convenience came the advent of day-one patches, locked DLC being included in the main game’s files and all forms of DRM butchery consumers despise.

This really started to ramp up around 2008-2009. Right around the same time, game developers saw the console market start to explode thanks to smash hit titles like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the aforementioned Halo 3, Gears of War, Assassin’s Creed and a wide variety of other franchises that pushed out yearly installments.

PC gamers repeatedly got the short end of the stick. On the few-and-far-between occasions that a developer chose to publish their game for the PC, it was often a broken, barely-playable console port that required patches. To the consumer, it really felt like PC gaming was an afterthought – why not slap your game up on Steam to make some extra cash, performance and expectations be damned?

A very fun and well-designed game otherwise ruined by console port problems (30fps lock, peer-to-peer multiplayer)

A very fun and well-designed game otherwise ruined by console port problems (30fps lock, peer-to-peer multiplayer)

Fast forward to today – broken console ports still haven’t gone the way of the dinosaur, but they’re becoming less frequent. Developers and publishers have acknowledged the massive buying power of the PC gaming market. This is partly due to the monumental and explosive popularity of games like League of Legends, and also to a market of gamers who’ve begun to vote with their wallets. Studios who take the time to properly optimize their game for the PC are kept in high regard – for example, CD Projekt Red’s award-winning The Witcher 3 (game of the year 2015), or Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto V (game of the year 2013) – which took an extra two years of added development to ensure their PC release was as smooth as possible. That gambit has paid off nicely, as Grand Theft Auto V has earned Rockstar upwards of a billion dollars. These games are the gold standard – they’ve set the bar for what you should expect for your $60-$70, console or PC.

However, quality doesn’t necessarily generate dollars and publishers understand this. They are businesses after all, and their number one goal is profit. Activision and EA are both notorious for creating yearly sequels to their biggest franchises, forcing developers to adhere to strict deadlines to drive sales. This has often resulted in the delivery of an unfinished product: Bugs haven’t been squashed, performance hasn’t been optimized, infrastructure isn’t ready or tested, but it as long as the game meets its sales targets these are just bumps on the road. To help ensure games met these sales targets, they’d entice you with preorders and preorder bonuses.

Want to play the game a week early? Preorder now! Want access to some additional cosmetics or exclusive content? Preorder now! Want to pre-load the game onto your device so you can play as soon as the game launches? Preorder now!

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Preorders aren’t all bad. There’s certainly some benefits – especially today, where games can eat up 50GB or more and take days to download on slower connections – the ability to preload means you aren’t stuck waiting during your entire weekend off for the game to finish downloading. Where things get twisted is when developers and publishers take advantage of preorders, either intentionally or unintentionally. To be perfectly clear: You’re giving someone money for a product or service you have yet to receive. There’s inherent risk in that notion, and you’re effectively saying “I don’t care if the product works as expected or not when I get it. Take my money anyway.”

I don’t mean to demonize developers and publishers across the board with that statement. It’s only an exceptionally small fraction of the developers and business-types behind publishers that don’t care about the quality of their games. Most understand that games are for fun and they want you to enjoy them, and for many, it’s why they create the games in the first place. It’s their pride and passion.

There are plenty of stories where disagreements between publisher and developer have caused a rift – one of the most famous is Vince Zampella and Jason West (two of the many brains behind the critically acclaimed Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the Titanfall franchise) getting fired from Infinity Ward followed by a $100 million lawsuit over lost revenues for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 while founding their own studio, Respawn Entertainment (partnered with EA). In my opinion, the Call of Duty franchise has never recovered from losing them.

codtitles

Only one of these titles remains installed on my system.

Since their departure, I’ve still preordered almost every yearly installment of Call of Duty – partly because up until these last few years there had been nothing new to play in the FPS space on PC, and partly because I love the franchise. However, I can’t think of a single release that went smoothly. I’d often get crappy framerates and have to resort to tweaking my config (which got harder and harder as they locked down more and more options and started encrypting the config files), have connection issues, and even not be able to play the game until a few days after release. I’ve since wised up and learned my lesson: Don’t pre-order games. Period. Wait until reviews are up and the broader gaming community has vetted the title for performance and playability, wait for patches… Just wait.

Mafia 3 barely avoided the doom No Man's Sky received with an early patch to remove its 30fps lock

Mafia 3 barely avoided No Man’s Sky’s fate with an early patch to remove its 30fps lock and other bugs and performance issues

It’s a shame in a lot of ways that some bad apples have ruined it for everything else, but the reality is as long as we continue to give our money away for products we don’t have in our hands, we’ll always have these problems – at least until proper legislation exists to increase the consequences for failing to deliver. There’s no guarantee that’ll ever happen; many governments in the free world are big believers in the free market, leaving the consumer to take matters into their own hands.

About Josh Folland

Josh Folland is a technologist and marketing professional with a strong interest in video games and video game culture. His talents as a systems administrator are complimented by audio and video skills. He can strafe jump with the best of them and when he clicks on you, you’re done for.

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