Grand Theft Auto V became available for Steam pre-order on the 16th of January. Within a day, it was the site’s best-selling game. What makes this even more interesting is that the PC port of the last GTA was widely considered an utter abomination. Yet people still throw money at the mere promise of a game that’s been on other systems for a year.
Some might say the pre-order culture is too strong to bother fighting. Just look at how hard this stuff is pushed by the big publishers, who offer extra content or even free copies of older games as incentive to invest early. And why wouldn’t they? A pre-order sale gives that company money for a product they haven’t even delivered yet. If consumers are eager to sign up for such a thing, can you blame EA or Ubisoft for milking that cash cow so hard its udders get whiplash?
What about the customer, though? What do they get for showing such faith other than a few extra goodies? Well, if the game they pre-ordered was Aliens: Colonial Marines, for instance, what they got was an unfinished mess whose advertising promised much more than was delivered. This is a chain of events that’s become a depressingly regular occurrence in the last few years, to the point where it’s surprising when a hyped-up AAA release doesn’t need weeks of patching to be playable.
Pre-ordering a game means paying almost full price for a product you can’t reliably know the quality of. All those flashy marketing campaigns do nothing but drum up hype and encourage people to buy a game before they have a chance to look it up post-release and see if it was a disaster. Last year, both Watchdogs and Assassin’s Creed: Unity sold tons of pre-orders and launched with massive problems. How many of those early investors would have still parted with their cash had they waited even a few days after release?
Pre-ordering incentives are the natural progression of the already shady phenomenon that is day one DLC, where finished content is sold separately on the same day the core game comes out. There are plenty of people who say that few games are worth £40 or more to begin with, let alone paying that much for a title you can only judge based on the promises of companies who’ve proven themselves untrustworthy. Why should a publisher give their developers the time and freedom to make an interesting game, when they can throw together any old crap and people will buy it based on the marketing? Even the indie scene has been affected by these questionable habits, as evidenced by the plague of dodgy early access games that Steam has been struggling with ever since the model was introduced.
What few defences pre-ordering might have once had are crumbling in this age when digital copies render the old problem of supply and demand obsolete. PC in particular is already dominated by digital, yet Steam has been ground zero for some of the most notorious launch fiascos. If you want gaming to be a creative industry, or if you just want value for your money, then the worst thing you can do pre-order.
Image rights; RockStar