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Pre-order sales are tanking, but there’s a way to make them appealing again

This week, Activision CEO Eric Hirshberg told investors to "reset expectations as it relates to pre-orders overall," and not just for his company. "You guys can see the same thing we see industry-wide, which is that there's been sort of a secular downturn [in] pre-orders." That might seem like an odd thing to say given the numbers Destiny's supposedly pulling, but in the long-run, Hirschberg appears to be right: if these estimations from 2010 versus 2014 are even slightly accurate, pre-orders aren't what they used to be. Thing is though, many players are excited about just that.

Scroll to the comments section on any article about Hirshberg's remarks (if you dare), and you will find a sea of people who are happy to hear that the pre-order system may fall apart. Their reasons are numerous and capslocked, but scour through them and you'll start to see an interesting pattern emerge. Yes, many gamers are glad that pre-order numbers are shrinking so they can see the whole thing fail. Why? Because they want revenge.

It's no secret that there’s a strong sense of dissatisfaction with pre-orders among the gaming crowd, which boils down to players feeling duped or patronized. These days, many pre-order incentives involve downloadable content, like an in-game outfit or an extra mission--none of which you'll care about after five minutes of playing. Somehow, a "special" gun that barely changes your overall experience seems like a pitiful reward for pledging $60 and good faith.

This is usually forgivable when the game is good; you're getting to play an awesome title on day one, so any extra goodies are just a bonus. But when the game's mediocre or outright bad? That's not blood coursing through your veins, it's condensed rage. Retailers can add insult to injury through chain-exclusive content, letting each claim that their offer is superior to the other guy's without actually giving buyers a better deal. Throw in other problems like day-one patches, launch DLC, and the fact that it'll all probably be bundled in a Complete Edition mere months after release? At that point you're not sure which burned you worse: your fury or the game company.

All of that bad blood culminates in a lot of anger among gamers, but quietly saving your money for the bargain bin doesn't feel like enough. Publishers stand to gain a lot from pre-orders, because it's not only money in the bank--it's free market research into the profitability of a potential sequel and merchandising. Gamers expect something equally valuable in return--not just for our money, but for our trust.

So when a company puts out a shoddy product, reneging on their end of the deal and running away with your hard-earned cash, it’s hard to just shrug and move on. No--you feel cheated and duped, and you want to see that company fail. And what better way than for the system to crumble beneath them? If game companies want to keep this lucrative ship afloat, they'll need to present something better than what's on offer.

Luckily, that may not be so difficult. The main issue is that digital bells and whistles are a poor pay-off to justify a pre-order, leaving consumers feeling played and unwilling to buy. But they are willing to flash their wallets for special editions. For example, the Destiny Ghost Edition has sold so well that retailers haven't been able to meet demand, and sets are going for up to seven times their original value on eBay. Even at prices that more than double the cost of the base game, collector's editions still sell, thanks entirely to the associated swag. Learning from that example could do a lot to fix the pre-order problem.

While no one wants pre-orders to jump to $150 so they can include a sick Evolve monster statue (well, maybe not no one), adding physical tokens at no extra cost could do a lot to revitalize the system. I’m talking things like Dishonored's tarot deck or Skyrim's very classy world map. They aren’t super expensive to produce, and often give consumers the nudge they need to part with their cash, so it works out for all parties. While such trinkets won't make up for a crappy game, they're much more interesting than lackluster in-game costumes or starter items. Plus, they're more likely to keep consumers happy, which is really the end goal.

The pre-order system can be a win-win setup when used correctly. Right now it’s structured to give publishers and retailers maximum payout for minimal effort, and bad blood keeps players' purse-strings pulled tight. There will always be hurt feelings when a pre-ordered game turns out to be shlock, but the entire notion of pre-ordering doesn't have to suffer for it. Take away the nickel-and-diming digital content, stop pushing forgettable bonuses, and give players something tangible for their trouble. If publishers do that, they could go a long way towards saving a business practice that dramatically benefits them. It's all about respecting your customers: give them what they want, and they'll do the same for you. Back scratching, and all that.

25 comments

  • J-Fid - August 9, 2014 8:32 p.m.

    The last game I ever pre-ordered was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and I'm glad I did since when I got to the store on launch day, it was packed all the way outside of the building. I've been thinking about doing so for the new Smash Bros. games, mainly based off of my last experience. Other than that, I doubt I will ever pre-order another game, even ones that I get on launch day.
  • mothbanquet - August 9, 2014 2:13 a.m.

    I swore off pre-orders when I did so with Rome II. I should've learned my lesson with Dragon Age 2, but I didn't. I paid full price for a buggy, unsatisfactory mess. The sad fact is, gamers are simply losing trust in devs and publishers to deliver a polished product on day one. Most feel these companies should be paying THEM for treating them like quality testers. And when trust is lost, it's not easily regained. There is only one game I'll be paying full price for in the conceivable future and that's Arkham Knight, with the simple reason being that Rocksteady have yet to put a foot wrong in my opinion. Yet that can change, and if they don't perform to their usual high standards then I'll change my tune. It happened with BioWare, and now with Creative Assembly. While gamers feel there is risk, they won't shell out their hard-earned cash. To summarise, pre-orders have become a colossal gamble on the part of consumers and in most cases, the stakes have become far, far too high.
  • GamesRadarCollanderCooper - August 8, 2014 2:15 p.m.

    Wow. What woefully faulty analysis. The reason preorders are down is because there's about 15 million current gen game consoles out there today (20 million if you count Wii U), as opposed to more 250 million in 2010. As for complaining about "Complete" Editions, there is an implicit understanding among people with a brain that buying a game at full price on day one is the premium you pay for playing it first. This is true for almost every product except houses. If you buy a new movie when it's first released at $20 it'll probably be in the $5 bin in less than a year's time. If you buy a Mercedes-Benz for $50,000 today, it'll probably be worth $40,000 as soon as you drive it off the lot. And LOL at collector's editions saving the preorder model. The strong sales of Destiny's Ghost Edition is an aberration, and you know it. Gamestops are full of surplus collector's editions that they can't even give away(I'm looking at you, Black Ops 2 Care Package Edition). I agree that preorder DLC is almost always worthless, but if you're given the best gun in the game for preordering then you'd be writing an article about how unfair it is that you can only get the best gun in games by preordering them. But as far as I'm concerned, if I'm preordering your game then I SHOULD get unfair perks. I'm giving you money for nothing, just in the hopes of you producing something great, all the while taking the risk that your game might get cancelled or your studio folds
  • GR_AshleyReed - August 9, 2014 12:12 p.m.

    I would note that, as games are still being made for those 250 million last-gen units, the market for pre-orders hasn't shrunk much. Minus the broken or out of commission systems, there's now 250 million + 15 million units to sell for. (Though I am genuinely interested in the source of your data; the numbers I've found suggest there have been 160 million 360/PS3 units sold as of 2013, but if that contradicts something else I'd love to have the up-to-date info.)
  • GamesRadarCollanderCooper - August 9, 2014 2:20 p.m.

    I was also including the 100 million units that the Wii has sold. It was the dominant console last gen so it would be hard to ignore it
  • _--_ - August 9, 2014 2:54 p.m.

    --nobody ever 'played' wii --and --they sure as hell werent playing it in 2010
  • Balaska - August 10, 2014 10:33 p.m.

    I did play my Wii, I was playing my Wii in 2010 and I play my Wii U now, along with my PC and my Xbox One.
  • _--_ - August 11, 2014 4:36 a.m.

    --yeah --but comparing 'ACTUAL gaming time' on 360 and PS3 vs wii ?? --it pretty much cancels out wii's existence --and remember --im a MUCH larger nintendork than you
  • Balaska - August 11, 2014 10:06 a.m.

    That's an impressively bold statement considering you know exactly zero about me. Which I intend to keep that way.
  • _--_ - August 11, 2014 9:13 p.m.

    --are you saying youre not a nintendork? --or --that you are a bigger nintendork than me --because --trust me --i buy so much nintendo crap --i sometimes literally worry they know who i am(ESPECIALLY in wiiU's early days)
  • FoxdenRacing - August 8, 2014 12:35 p.m.

    Sounds like they've run out of ways to spin the lated CoD as the 'biggest launch ever' (having already gone from NA retail to worldwide wholesale, and IIRC launch day to launch week), and want the investors to blame the customers when the time comes. I don't know how much more can be said on this one...you've more or less covered it all. My big problem with pre-orders is that the give and take has gone from "you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" to "you scratch my back, I'll get my back scratched". I don't know if special editions can save it, though. Even those have turned painfully "shameless cash grab" in recent years...like the mess that was Watch Dogs, where you needed a spreadsheet to work out what you got for buying any given version from any given store, and good luck getting the real physical things if you weren't in Europe. We are not consumers. We do not mindlessly consume. We will not open our wallets simply because something has been put in front of our faces with a price tag on it. We are customers. We give custom to products which interest us, and which strike us as a good value for the money. Take us for granted at your own peril.
  • GenderBender_9000 - August 8, 2014 9:52 a.m.

    The ONLY game I ever had a hard time finding on launch day was Way Of The Samurai 3. So I just played a couple of games from my backlog until I was able to find a copy.
  • Cruddi - August 8, 2014 7:32 a.m.

    I'm glad, I feel that day one DLC can kill a game because you don't play the game the way it is meant to be played because of an extra skill you've got, early access to an ability that breaks the game or a big pot of cash/XP which instantly grants you a better starting position. Don't get me wrong I like the idea but I only preorder at 2 places depending on my shifts that week.
  • pl4y4h - August 8, 2014 7:18 a.m.

    I have two rules when buying games: Never Pre & Never Launch
  • daniel-scott - August 8, 2014 12:26 p.m.

    I agree. I did get the south park collectors as a pre, but that is because the cartman figure and I loved south park already so even if the game was no good (which it was awesome) I would still be happy. But given the sad state of product refinement, I wont get a lauch game anymore after Diablo 3. I feel like the first few months of a game release is actually a secret way of free game testing with patches.
  • Pruman - August 8, 2014 5:34 a.m.

    Maybe people hate pre-orders because they make no sense in the modern gaming era. The whole point of a pre-order is to guarantee that you get a given game on the day that it comes out. Since A) games are on discs now, B) discs are really easy to make compared to cartridges, and C) manufacturing runs are a lot bigger due to a much larger population of gamers, it takes more effort to find a store sold out of a new game than one with plentiful stock these days. The last game I pre-ordered was Metroid Prime back in 2002, and since then, I've never once had a problem finding a new game on release day if I wanted it. Even if the game is so popular that it's sold out everywhere, digital downloads are an option if you absolutely must have it. The only time it makes sense to pre-order is when a new hardware generation is imminent and the supply of new consoles is going to be constrained.
  • GOD - August 7, 2014 8:08 p.m.

    Bobbles are a nice preorder incentive for something that is based in a universe I already like, but in general, pre-orders (especially digital, non-refundable, pre-orders) should come with a discount off of the purchase price. Give people $5 bucks off for pre-ordering and they'll be content. Make a digital pre-order $10 and you can get tons of guaranteed, non-refundable sales before the game has even released, and although the company may seem to be taking a loss by the dip in price, they'll actually be doing themselves a favor by maximizing their pre-order sales as well as skewing the spread of copies of their game sold towards digital meaning lowing potential losses from used games (which regardless of how much that hurts them, they believe it hurts them a lot.) Beta access from physical pre-order is also a great way to convince people to pre-order and then as long as you deliver on the actual content in the beta they'll be content to not cancel the pre-order. The one thing to avoid though is having the pre-order beta only a few days and then opening it to everyone anyways for just as long because then pre-order people will feel burnt. Not to say that it has to stay closed, but pre-order people should get considerably more time since they actually gave their money as a show of faith in the game.
  • hester2 - August 7, 2014 6:54 p.m.

    Using the one example of Destiny doesn't make for a very convincing argument. Destiny, being Bungie's first game since Reach and first non-Halo game in the memories of most Bungie fans is a very special case. Other games shouldn't expect to replicate that set's success by including collectibles. Collectibles are generally only appreciated by the most hard of hardcore fans. The real issue is that the drop in pre-orders isn't an issue at all. There's absolutely no reason to pre-order games any more. We used to do it to guarantee a copy, but outside of niche games, when was the last time anyone ever had trouble finding a copy of a game? You can simply wait for reviews, even if they're embargoed until release day, and still find the game on the shelves of the first store you go to. That's a good thing for the industry. It means that games are finally being taken seriously. You never have to pre-order movies, right? That's because stores order a ton of copies knowing consumers will pick them up. The same logic applies to games. The demand is there, so stores make sure the supply is there. With that being the case, pre-orders are no longer necessary.
  • meg127 - August 7, 2014 4:18 p.m.

    When it comes down to it, there isn't much benefit to the consumer to preorder. Most games can be found easily on day one. The only games that someone would *need* to preorder are niche titles that will become increasingly hard to find once it comes out. And that's assuming you're buying a physical copy. There is go good reason to preorder a digital copy of a game, and yet people do. You can still buy a game on day one without preordering it first. However, it's a lot smarter to not buy a game at all until you are certain you're going to like it. Games like CoD and AC are basically the same thing each year, so there's low risk in going to buy those games right away. But games like Watch Dogs? Different story.
  • GR_AshleyReed - August 7, 2014 5:16 p.m.

    I actually pre-ordered Dishonored when there was still very little known about it. It was a gamble, but it turned out very well. The downside is it left me feeling open to pre-ordering more new/rebooted IPs, and after Thief AND Murdered: Soul Suspect, well...

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