Posted by Josh Townsend on August 21, 2017.
Every year seems to bring a new feature from one or another gaming publication on why pre-orders are a bad concept, urging consumers to reject them after various high-profile games have under-delivered on their promises. Pre-orders certainly have fewer benefits for the consumer when compared to publishers and retailers; a pre-order purchase must be made before most games have reviews published, and will usually have a higher price than buying a game a month or two after launch. An industry increasingly underpinned by digital downloads rarely suffers from scarcity, so a pre-order’s guarantee of being able to obtain a copy of a game is no longer relevant.
Despite this, the growth in revenue from pre-orders is heavily on the rise; Adobe Analytics measured a 33% increase in year-on-year revenue when analysing five high-profile releases in 2015, while the industry as a whole was estimated to have grown 4%. For an industry already so profitable, this is still excellent growth, but pre-orders are growing proportionally faster, becoming an increasingly dominant force within that market.
The growth in pre-orders is undoubtedly being encouraged by publishers. The last few years have seen limited editions and pre-order exclusives increase in both value and frequency and efforts to maximise revenue from pre-order sales have resulted in some questionable marketing strategies. Evolve was available for pre-order almost as soon as it was announced, with no preview footage or details on the gameplay; Watch Dogs had nine different pre-order editions available (not counting the Season Pass, which is effectively a pre-order for DLC). The tipping point for many gamers came with Deus Ex: Mankind Divided’s overcomplicated Augment Your Pre-Order scheme.
It’s common for pre-orders to be rewarded with exclusive or premium in-game content, but Square Enix introduced a program which included an element of collective responsibility. Certain undisclosed thresholds of total pre-order sales were set, promising that customers would collectively ‘unlock’ more rewards and bonuses for the game if enough people pre-ordered. Presumably, if pre-order sales were poor, customers would simply be denied access to certain features. The only way to circumvent the Augment program and receive all pre-order bonuses was to buy a collector’s edition of Mankind Divided for $139.99.
While Square Enix claimed that the idea behind this program was to allow players more choice and rectify problems caused by previous region-specific game content, the act of effectively holding parts of the game to a blind ransom until enough consumers pre-ordered, and even then restricting access to in-game content created enough anger among gamers that the program was soon cancelled, with all offered rewards (including an earlier release date) made available to all pre-orders of the game with no further conditions imposed.
Publishers and retailers have strong motivation to push game sales into the pre-release window. Some factors are relatively benign; pre-order sales are a good general barometer for how well a game is going to perform in post-release sales, and can help to prevent issues of overstocking or scarcity. Most games will also inevitably fall in price, even for new copies, some time after release; pre-orders guarantee full-price sales for a retailer. With this, however, comes a measure of corporate immunity and lack of transparency; all pre-orders are made caveat emptor, with no accountability resting on the game companies as to whether the players eventually receive the game they were expecting.
Pre-release marketing campaigns are often rife with deception, with no way of holding publishers fully accountable for their promises. Ubisoft in particular has gained a negative reputation for showing footage from games which features superior graphics and more content than when the game actually releases, making the best impression possible before a game can be properly critiqued by players and critics in order to increase pre-release sales.
With more and more of a game’s profitability starting to rest on pre-order sales, game publishers have a vested interest in encouraging and cultivating a culture of ‘hype’ – excitement and anticipation for upcoming products – among players. By making calculated moves to play on the hopes, expectations and imaginations of prospective customers, publishers can effectively let the community do the lion’s share of marketing for them.
An example of this in action came in October 2016, when Rockstar Games changed its Twitter banner. The change was minor – just a different colour scheme. It just so happened that the new scheme was recognisable as the colour theming of Red Dead Redemption, a hugely successful 2010 release with many gamers eager to hear news of a sequel. Playing on hype culture in this way ensured that when Rockstar released a new trailer for Red Dead Redemption 2 a couple of days later, the community was paying close attention, sharing and discussing the trailer widely and making sure it received more attention than it may have if it hadn’t been ‘teased’ by the colour change.
While this was harmless and good strategy on Rockstar’s part, hype culture can be a much more harmful force to both consumers and the gaming industry. Perhaps the biggest, most recent and most infamous example is No Man’s Sky; both perpetrator and victim in its own extremely controversial marketing campaign and release. During development, the game was given heavy marketing exposure, with lead developer Sean Murray even appearing on high-profile TV shows like Late Night with Stephen Colbert to promote the game.
Preview footage and Murray’s promises for No Man’s Sky’s features created one of the most extreme examples of hype culture that gamers have seen. On release, the game disappointed many users, with many of the promised features missing and the actual gameplay experience not matching what was shown in the preview footage. The backlash was immense, with recrimination and abuse on all sides; gamers for overreacting, Murray for over-promising and failure to control the hype culture surrounding his game, and gaming publications for feeding into and preying on that hype. Whether the excessive excitement surrounding the game before launch was intentional or not, it’s certainly our best example of the damage hype culture can cause, and that encouraging it is not in the industry’s best interest.
No Man’s Sky’s late review embargo may have been the first warning sign that something was amiss. These embargoes offer another way for publishers to reduce game critics’ influence with an agreement between a publication and the game publisher that, although copies of the software may be provided before release, no reviews will be published until the arranged date and time. This can serve a beneficial purpose by discouraging news outlets from publishing misleading or incomplete information under the incentive of being first to press. While this is seldom a real consideration with books and movies, it’s still a generally benign practice, but becomes pernicious in the context of gaming. Apart from games being a more expensive product than books or movie tickets, the pre-order incentives and limited editions act to entice customers to spend more, and spend it blindly.
This isn’t merely a strategy to sell more limited editions or push more sales into the pre-release window. Not all review embargoes are lifted before, or even to coincide with, the release of the game. Publishers have been known to set the embargo for a while after the game has been on sale. Assassin’s Creed: Unity was infamously buggy and unfinished on release, but the review embargo was not lifted until 12 hours after the game was available for sale. Although this might seem like a short window, even aside from pre-orders the first day of release often accounts for a significant proportion of a game’s revenue, and this embargo forced first-day consumers to decide on their purchase without any impartial information – only marketing and any buzz generated by the publisher or hype culture.
Larger publishers fighting to control criticism of their games is far from a new trend. In 2007, Gamespot review editor Jeff Gerstmann was famously fired from his position after posting a review for Kane & Lynch: Dead Men with a score of 6.0/10 – generally seen as a negative score for big-budget games. Several years after the incident, he elaborated that his firing was probably as a result of “Publisher Push-back”, when Kane & Lynch’s publisher, Eidos, threatened to pull all advertising revenue from Gamespot in response to the review.
Even independent critics are subjected to this if they become influential enough; in 2014, Warner Brothers sent out early review codes for Shadow of Mordor to various high-profile YouTubers. WB included a stipulation, however, that anyone receiving a review code was only permitted to show the game in a positive light, and even specified that a proportion of their videos’ runtime must be spent on showcasing certain aspects of gameplay and promoting sales. Bizarrely, once Shadow of Mordor was opened to legitimate criticism, the game was widely praised by both critics and fans, meaning their manipulative actions created ill-will in the community needlessly.
It’s not big news; publishers want to make sales in the most profitable and reliable way possible. When the strategy is to manipulate hype culture or disempower critics, the marketing begins to overshadow the product – but no matter how well-advertised, an industry with nothing of worth to sell is on borrowed time. Gaming is nowhere near this state for now, but the AAA sector is definitely showing signs of moving in that direction.Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |