As we head into E3, the biggest video game week of the year, gamers across the world will be barraged with too many new and returning titles to keep track of. With all these new options at our fingertips, you can bet publishers will also be working hard to get your pre-order dollar. An array of superficial goodies will be your temptation, as everyone from Ubisoft to EA will try to make you plunk down a few bucks to ensure you have your copy of whatever game.
Before we all descend into the glorious madness that is the Electronic Entertainment Expo, let's talk pre-orders. Publishers love them, distributors love them, and even some fans love them (because I need that new character skin or the game won't feel right!). On the other side of that coin, though, a groundswell in the community has taken to the virtual streets with an impassioned message to just wait until release day to get your favorite games.
This argument began years ago, and it's persisted ever since. It's still a popular topic of conversation in the gaming community.
Game publishers create pre-orders to gauge the interest in a new title. They then use pre-order figures as part of their pitch to sell those titles to distributors like Gamestop. Judging from the number of pre-orders purchased for a specific title, distributors can subsequently base their own purchases from the publisher on those pre-order numbers. So, publishers and distributors love pre-orders because they help take some of the risk out of planning for the future.
But, are pre-orders poisonous to the industry, or are they simply another sales tactic publishers use to get your money?
The Big, Gaming Lie
People opposed to pre-orders make several arguments against it. First is the claim that pre-orders put more emphasis on a game's marketing campaign than the actual content of the title itself. As a result, pre-orders allow subpar games to generate amazing sales based on what amounts to lies. Take, for instance, this video that highlights some of the differences between the E3 floor demos and the finished products that hit shelves.
Gamers threw down cash for these games based on the E3 demo, but the publisher ultimately failed to deliver on the promise. Though this kind of inadvertent bait and switch is often used in conjunction with pre-orders, they really have little to do with each other. The real culprit here are processors. It's easy to generate sharp graphics and 500 people per square block when you only have one square block to show off. Extend that to an entire city, and things get more difficult, especially when frame rate and textures come into play.
They're Denying Us Content
Some gamers maintain that by having to disperse a bunch of little goodies across a bunch of random retailers, they're actually subtracting content from the game they're working on. What results is a bunch of people getting a partially finished product.
However, the most common pre-order bonuses are in-game currency, exclusive player costumes or skins, or exclusive in-game items. Some games do get another level or two of content (Call of Duty loves doing that), but those are typically on the shorter end of things.
As any gamer knows, rare is the video game that provides a pre-order bonus that is significant or useful after the first few hours of play. Pre-order bonuses are typically some useless cosmetic frill that neither takes up much of the developers time nor impacts the player's choice to pre-order a title. In fact, depending on the pre-order bonuses offered, (it can be quite the opposite).
The Sales Numbers
When it comes right down to it, what's true for the video game industry is true for every industry. Sales are the bottom line. When you take a look at an overall games' sales, pre-orders never account for very much of the overall total. Let's check out Overwatch, which is one of the most popular games in June. Before the game's release, VGChartz.com put Overwatch pre-orders at around 600,000 units sold across all platforms.
A few weeks after release, though, Blizzard says it's got 7 million players online. Even assuming that each one of those units somehow equates to 4 to 6 players per pre-order, that's still only a little over half of the sales of the title.
Okay, but Overwatch is popular, right? What about a total let down of a game?
In honor of its announced sequel, let's focus on Watch Dogs, one of the biggest disappointments in recent gaming memory. While the exact numbers are vague, Ubisoft once happily touted Watch Dogs as the most pre-ordered new IP in company history. Then, the title shipped more than 4 million copies in it's first week. So, let's assume every single one of those 4 million copies was due to pre-orders (which is impossible, but for the sake of argument ...).
Then, after literally two years of hype, the game came out and was given kind of a "meh" response from critics. As Polygon said, "As an open world game, Watch Dogs provides "enough" — enough sidequests, enough space, enough of a playground — to qualify, but it doesn't quite place." Whats more, any gamer who was cognizant during those years is still very well aware of the backlash that resulted from Watch Dogs not completely revolutionizing video gaming as we knew it. (The phrase "huge disappointment" floated around.)
Anyway, in spite of the tepid critical response, Watch Dogs still went on to sell more than 9 million copies in its first six months. So, even after to tepid critical response, Watch Dogs still managed sell 5 million more copies beyond pre-orders, which likely proved to be more influential in its resurrection than any kind of pre-release hype. Point being: Pre-orders don't account for even half of a titles' sales in even the worst case scenario, which means that, while they may be a good sign of a forecast, they likely have little impact on a game's future.
Gamers Decide (Sorry, But You Do)
You know what? In 2014, pre-orders were on a downslide to the extent that CEOs were having to address them in shareholder meetings. Then, last October, pre-order sales were hitting record highs, thanks largely to a vastly improved slate of games.
The rate of pre-orders fluctuates from year to year depending on the release slate so vastly that they're really not reliable income from anyone's perspective. They might help forecast the short term future for publishers and distributors, but they're not exactly time consuming for a developer, and they don't seem to have a huge impact on how a publisher moves forward with a title.