Look, you’ve probably heard this before, but it bears repeating now: Don’t pre-order that game. Pre-ordering games is a bad idea. And this week, much like when I talked about the “social” penalty for open PvP, the goal is to actually examine the issue in slightly more depth and understand why you should probably think long and hard before dropping your cash for a pre-order of anything.
First and foremost, let me make it clear that I don’t actually expect anyone to just utterly stop pre-ordering anything whatsoever, especially since it would make me a hypocrite; I sure as hell pre-ordered Final Fantasy XIV: Shadowbringers and will probably pre-order the Warcraft III remake when Blizzard gets around to giving that an actual release date. But then, that also demonstrates the principle at work here; we’re talking about pre-ordering an expansion and not ordering a product until that product actually has a date of arrival. And this is from someone who used to put down pre-orders for anything faintly interesting in the PlayStation era… but then, that’s when it started mattering.
Let’s take a trip to the halcyon days of the mid-’90s, starting back with the 16-bit console era. At the time, game distribution worked fairly simply. The company publishing the game figured out how many copies the game was likely to sell, printed that many copies, and then shipped them out. Said company then destroyed any record of the game existing outside of copies on the shelf, so if you really wanted to play Secret of Evermore but the initial shipment had sold out, you could stare at the setting sun while Careless Whisper played in the background.
I’m kidding, of course. No one wanted to play Secret of Evermore.
Obviously, this wasn’t ideal, but it also sort of worked out because games were… well, a bit more uncommon. I don’t want to say rare, exactly, but they weren’t coming out at the rate of more modern games on consoles. PCs were always a weird niche as well, especially since the standardization of hardware and platforms that makes it fairly straightforward now was a way off.
The point is that at this point, pre-ordering a game actually made sense. Games were, for all intents and purposes, limited goods. There was a finite number of copies of many games available, and if you didn’t buy it, then… you weren’t going to have it. Like, ever. It was a good idea to pre-order, or at least it would have been if anyone actually knew anything about what was going on in the game industry.
A lot changed in the mid-’90s, though. One of the things that changed was the Sony PlayStation and the advent of games on CDs. And while there’s a lot of history to unpack about that era of the game industry in general, we don’t have the space to dissect that here. What matters for our discussion is that while games didn’t stop being limited in quantities, suddenly they stopped being limited in number.
Pre-ordering was still a good idea, but the gaming subculture exploded in this period in a way that’s hard to really articulate to people unfamiliar with it. There was a time when if a store had a “game section,” it was either a smaller part of a larger dedicated electronics store or a very small department in its existing electronics section. More or less overnight, it changed to making stores like Electronics Boutique have an actual business model selling just games, systems, and peripherals. Walk into a store and you’re greeted by nothing but games, rows upon rows of them.
Herein lies the problem with this setup. Suddenly, it becomes really easy to actually lose sight of the games that you want to order, and games are still a limited thing. Plus, you know, pre-ordering is a nice boost for the studio (because that means getting more information about what is definitely going to sell ahead of time) and for the store (because now the management has your money, and when you come back for your order you might spend more money), so let’s convince you that it’s in your best interest to pre-order that shiz.
Two basic approaches can be used to encourage you to pre-order. The first is to order only enough product to fulfill your pre-orders and then only order additional stock if there’s additional demand. This is what’s known as artificial restriction, or if you prefer, being really damn annoying and causing my future wife and I to spend a really long time at the mall looking for a store to sell us two copies of a video game and finally winding up at a Kay-Bee Toy Store that had copies. It’s not ideal.
But if that approach isn’t meshing with you, there’s a different time-honored trick of bribery. Pre-order this game and get a cloth map! Get a special case! Get a poster! It’s that fear of missing out to inspire you to say that hey, I’ll want this when it releases, and now I get something special for buying it. You feel like you’ve gotten extra value for the same money, those suckers.
This approach has stayed consistent up until the modern day, with two exceptions. The first change is that generally these days, what you get for pre-ordering isn’t physical stuff but digital stuff, like early access to a costume or whatever. This means that instead of a studio trading you something with real-world value, the cost of this from the studio side is essentially zero. (Cloth maps need to be manufactured, but optional in-game costumes do not require distribution chains.) And the second exception is that you will never miss out on a game ever.
Yes, that’s hyperbole; there are rare exceptions to this, like the sad story of Red Candle Games and Devotion. But it was a minor miracle when I stumbled on a used copy of Xenogears in what must have been 1998, and when it was loaned to a friend who never returned it that game was just… gone forever. That’s not the case with basically any game made in the past decade. Heck, it’s not even the case with Xenogears any longer, since it was on the PSN store.
Games are no longer a limited medium. But the people hawking games to you would still like you to think that they are and still want to sell you pre-orders to these games. So, for example, MechWarrior Online’s Piranha Games wants to sell you a pre-order for a single-player game, but later the studio can just declare that the game is coming out through a different platform than expected and you don’t get to do anything but whine about it. Because if you can sell a whole lot of copies well before the game is done, then maybe lose 10% of those sales to refunds while getting in on Epic’s aggressive plan to throw money at supplanting Valve, that sounds like a pretty good deal, right?
And this is why it’s probably best to stop pre-ordering games. So long as pre-ordering games remains profitable, you’re going to be roped into pre-ordering as early as possible, often for stuff that… well, doesn’t exist yet in any real capacity, and it may very well wind up coming to you in a format you didn’t actually want. Hence why I’m not actually pre-ordering Warcraft III Reforged at this point; it isn’t an actual game being finished but an idea, and it’s still entirely possible for the project to be canceled and then refunded in the form of Blizzard Store funds instead of, like, money.
Will that happen? Probably not. But the point remains the same. It made sense in 1997, sure, but that was two decades ago. Stop pre-ordering games. We promise, it’ll still be there when it’s actually… well, there.