Here is fair warning: this is a tale of “back in my day.” Back in my day, when you walked to your local EB Games to pre-order a popular game, ensuring you could get it the day it came out, you could walk away with some cool swag. This was before teenagers ruined the word “swag,” of course. Sometimes it was a a small gift, like a keychain with the game’s logo or a pack of stickers. Sometimes it was something a lot better, like the game’s strategy guide.
Here is fair warning: this is also a tale without a happy ending.
Pre-ordering used to be a big deal. Before everything started going digital, before downloadable content even became a possibility, games were very physical. There was something magical about them. Maybe “magical” is too strong a word. But there was something about going to the store and simply being able to show off your receipt for a pre-ordered game and being able to pick it up, even when the store was out of regular copies. Even better was being able to flip through the manual and stare in awe at its beautiful artwork on the drive home.
Going home with a copy of the latest game while the people who didn’t pre-order could only stand there and wish they were you was a great feeling. Even greater was going home, taking the game out to play, and putting its case beside your pre-order gift. Sometimes the gift that sat beside it was attached to your keys or was already used up and stuck to various objects. Sometimes that gift was indispensable, showing you all the game’s secrets or how to beat that impossible third boss.
The days of keychains, stickers, and strategy guides are gone.
They have been replaced with exclusive character skins, exclusive weapons, and exclusive weapon skins. Exclusive this and exclusive that. What does it all amount to? A character that looks slightly different while behaving exactly the same, a weapon that can only be used by those who pre-ordered, or a weapon that has a unique camouflage. In the end, it amounts to a whole lot of nothing.
These kind of bonuses aren’t enticing. They don’t tell consumers to “buy from us!” like the physical bonuses more commonly seen back in my day. There’s no denying some of these bonuses are fun. Sometimes it’s nice to have a different character skin, even nicer when you’re able to use that skin in an online multiplayer match.
But they don’t really enhance the gamer’s experience of purchasing a title from a particular store. There are still people who compare bonuses from one store to another and conduct research into which store will give them the kind of bonus they want. But there’s no heart in it. It devolves into “I want this, so I’ll do whatever it takes to get it.” It works out for that particular store since they gained another customer that one time, but that’s the problem: it’s just for that one time, unless that store happens to offer the best bonus again for another game. That’s rare.
Then there’s the kind of pre-order bonus that can hurt the balance of an online game. Electronic Arts got into a bit of trouble with their pre-order bonus for Battlefield 3, giving players items that regular players couldn’t use. EA covered it up saying the weapon attachments in question, a flash hider for a sniper rifle and high-damage rounds for a shotgun, were balanced accordingly and did not ruin the online experience for others. Whether or not the items are balanced is debatable, but the idea certainly isn’t fair: offering exclusive attachments for use in online play in a game that hinges on weapon and attachment balance.
In this case, aesthetics is the only fair answer for offering exclusive content to be used online, as seen in the Halo 4 picture above. Then a new problem arises: it doesn’t matter and doesn’t enhance the gamer’s experience. Especially in the case of Halo 4, players can’t see their own armour very well due to the game being a first-person shooter. Enemies are really the only people who benefit from it, and they’ll most likely send hate mail upon discovering you pre-ordered the game at [insert store here].
A mix of both physical and digital may be the only way. It may be more costly for the game publisher or the retailer, depending on who really is in charge of pre-order bonuses, but it will certainly entice gamers more than purely digital offerings.
The biggest problem with all these pre-order bonuses is when they consist of things that should have been in the game in the first place. Back in my day, alternate skins and exclusive weapons were included in the game as unlockables that only the most hardcore of players could get. Remembers all those classic cheat codes from Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64? They would be pre-order bonuses today. Want to play the paintball mode? Order from EB Games. Want big heads for all the characters? That’s included in every purchase at Costco.
Even worse is a pre-order bonus that not only should have already been included in the game but is already in the game. The PC version of Metro: Last Light ran into some controversy with its Ranger Mode DLC. Those who pre-ordered the game would get exclusive access to this hardcore mode that removed the Heads Up Display and decreased the number of bullets available in the game world. It was also touted as the “way the game was meant to be played,” despite not being available to all gamers right from the start.
The developers explained it was this way because retailers now demand pre-order bonuses. This makes sense and they almost gain some sympathy. But then PC gamers found out this mode was already in the game. It’s not extra. It’s something that can easily be changed by opening one of the game files.
The idea of a pre-order bonus itself isn’t bad. They’ve been around forever. They’ve just… changed. And not for the better. Games are expensive, but the amount of content on discs these days seems to be decreasing. What once was included in the game can now be purchased for $1.99 as standalone DLC. A cheat, weapon, or character skin that was once a reward for playing well is now a bonus for buying from a specific retailer.
Back in my day, all that stuff was already in the game and we got real rewards: keychains, stickers, or strategy guides.