When customers pre-order an upcoming video game, they take a gamble – but the house always wins

The workers at my favourite video game store are friendly, knowledgeable, and know when to give me room to browse without asking if I need a hand. There’s no pressure, especially when it’s time for money to be exchanged, and I hardly ever hear this: “Would you like to purchase any pre-orders today?”

The answer is always going to be no. I review games, so sometimes I’m certain a copy might turn up on my desk, but it doesn’t always happen. What then? I’ll buy the game if I want, when I want, and how I want. 

I never want to put money down on a game that won’t see the light of day for several months. 

Being my father’s son, I think it’s daft to hand money over in what’s basically a loan scenario. If the transaction isn’t over until the product’s in my hands, wouldn’t it be better if the money was earning interest in my savings account? Probably, right. What’s more important to me though is my refusal to commit money towards a product that’s still in development. There’s a counterpoint to this (it starts with K, rhymes with “wickstarter”) but my real reason is simply this: I don’t trust the hype.

E3, or Electronic Entertainment Expo, returns in June. It’s a three-day video game lollapalooza where developers and publishers from around the world meet in downtown Los Angeles to show off what’s new and what’ll be new in the months or even years to come. 

Retailers love E3 because it’s the hype train’s grand central station. Formerly a pure trade show for the industry, media, and retailers, E3 is now live around the clock via live-streamed press conferences, socially-shared booth tours with sponsored “community personalities”, and the doors are even open to members of the public after years of shutting them out. It’s all there in one big advertisement and, generally speaking, games shown at E3 will be available for pre-order at your local store almost immediately. 

As a past media attendee, I can confirm E3 is a good experience – but it needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt. It needs a whole boulder, for what looks good on the showroom floor isn’t always so flash once it arrives at your place. 

Watch Dogs looked like Grand Theft Auto with a cybersecurity twist, where your protagonist used a smartphone to hack the artificial intelligence controlling everything in an entire city running on what we now call the Internet of Things.

Its introduction at E3 in June 2012 turned heads at whiplash speed. It earned more than 80 media awards and commendations at E3, its booth practically groaning under the weight of these fawning mastheads. In June 2013 Watch Dogs, still in development and 11 months away from release, returned to E3 for another showing. It picked up more than 90 honours.

By this time, Watch Dogs had already been available for pre-order in some markets for over four months. 

Ubisoft, the developers, saw their new baby enjoying unparalleled success. The thrill of two E3 victories and so much breathless media coverage fuelled a two-year marketing campaign. Bonus add-ons for Watch Dogs – exclusive to customers who pre-ordered – helped propel the biggest launch Ubisoft had ever enjoyed when it finally arrived in May 2014. Worldwide, a reported 340,000 copies were sold in the first 24 hours. Within a week, four million copies had been shipped in what was the biggest-ever launch for a new gaming IP. 

Watch Dogs was a commercial hit but it had oversold itself, pushed over the edge by media and marketers alike. 

For those who cared about graphics, Watch Dogs failed by not looking nearly as sharp nor moving nearly as smoothly as it did in its pre-launch demonstrations and marketing. For those who cared about gameplay, the highly-touted hacking feature was an un-innovative hack job. As an open-world adventure, there wasn’t much to distinguish the experience from others in the Ubisoft stable, like Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry.

Watch Dogs wasn’t the messiah. It wasn’t even a very naughty boy. It was just another game, undeserving of its elevated status.

Eurogamer’s Dan Whitehead said it best: “You never actually feel like you’re hacking anything. A lot of the time you’re just pressing a button to make something happen, which at a functional level is no different to any action game.” 

The cycle continues. Some games, like the brilliant Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn deliver on their promises. Still, no amount of success can keep pre-orders from feeling like something between a lottery ticket and an insurance policy. The only thing guaranteed is money spent.

Back to my favourite store. If you’re in their loyalty programme, as I am, you’ll get an email after each purchase. It contains a feedback survey. One of the questions asks customers if they were invited to pre-order any games. Usually my answer is a variation of “no, and I’m grateful for that.”

I wonder how grateful their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss would be. In their 2015 Annual Report, Gamestop (global owner of EB Games) included a section titled “Consistently Achieving High New Release Market Share,” in which it clarified its marketing strategy of driving the sale of new release games in the days and weeks after they hit the market: 

“We focus marketing efforts and store associates on driving the sale of new release video game products [and] to assist our customers in obtaining immediate access to new releases, we offer our customers the opportunity to pre-order products in our stores or through our websites prior to their release.”

This puts pressure on retail staff – sorry, “store associates” – to secure pre-orders at the point of sale, and that’s the plan. More pre-orders means higher launch-day sales figures. A strong launch means greater leverage for a bigger share of stock for the next launch, and an anticipated boost in consumer consideration to go with it.

They’re not doing it for the players, as if the players needed to be told.

So what if the game sucks? That’s not their problem. It’s yours. And no review out there will be able to tell you how to go back in time and find something better to do with that lost money.

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