Like many gamers, I am a sucker for pre-orders. My habits are costly but not unusual; I read a preview or see a trailer for a game which takes my fancy, and promptly pop along to make a pre-order for it - which I usually then forget to cancel should later information begin to find that the game actually isn't much good. Pre-orders are the heart of the games retail experience for the dedicated gamer, not to mention a boon for publishers and developers who can measure their pre-order volumes and get some early estimate of success.
This week, however, my pre-ordering behaviour hit a brick wall. Recently returned to the UK from living abroad, I wanted to get pre-orders set up for all the major titles coming out in the next few months - with Batman: Arkham City being the top of my list. Twenty minutes after opening my browser, I shut it in disgust. I haven't pre-ordered Arkham City, and I won't be doing so. Despite Arkham Asylum being one of my favourite games of recent years, Warner Bros won't be getting a day-one sale from me.
Why? Because like so many other publishers of AAA console games, Warner Bros in their infinite wisdom have decided to create a confusing, frustrating and outright consumer-hostile system of pre-order "bonuses". Rather than rewarding consumers for making a commitment to buy, this new and increasingly common style of pre-order promotion feels exploitative and unpleasant - enough so to drain my interest in making pre-orders in future.
In the menage-a-trois between publisher, retailer and consumer, there are really only two people that matter - and one of them isn't the consumer
In the case of Arkham City, Warner Bros has tapped developers Rocksteady to make a total of six extra versions of Batman for the game, as well as various bits and pieces of additional game content, which it has then split up across different retailers. Buy the game from Gamestation, and you can play its challenge phases as Robin. Buy from Tesco, and you get four hours of extra content in the form of a "Joker's Carnival" challenge map. And so on, and so forth.
To the consumer, what this means is straightforward - if you pre-order, you have to make a largely uninformed guess as to which of the items of content is more valuable to you or most worthwhile within the game, because you only get one item. There's no way to get a master set that includes all of the content, and no guarantee that all of it will ever appear as DLC.
Arkham City is hardly the most notorious offender in this regard, but for me personally, it was the straw that broke the camel's back. We're all aware, of course, of the tight relationship which game publishers retain with retailers - even in the face of the declining importance of high street retail as a game distribution channel. That doesn't make it okay for publishers to so consciously and deliberately thumb their noses at their own consumers, effectively declaring that in the menage-a-trois between publisher, retailer and consumer, there are really only two people that matter - and one of them isn't the consumer.
At this point, I expect, many of you will roll your eyes at the idea of people throwing their toys out of the pram over a few bits of extra digital content - but bear in mind that the games you're selling are, themselves, just bits of digital content. Your entire business model is founded on the idea that consumers love, and are willing to pay a lot of money for, digital content. To then dismiss out of hand concerns over a policy which arbitrarily and unfairly excludes your most devoted fans and consumers from accessing all of the content in one of your games is both illogical and hypocritical. Besides, nobody is throwing toys out of the pram - merely not pre-ordering your game, which is actually a bit more worrying than a bit of harmless toy-chucking.
So why do publishers do this? There are two core reasons. Firstly, they do it because retailers want it. There was a point when pre-order bonuses were relatively rare, and would generally be arranged as a special deal between the publisher and one preferred retailers. This has now mutated into a situation where pre-order bonuses are the norm, and are usually offered in Arkham City's model - with a different bonus at each retailer. The demand for this has come largely from the retailers themselves, who view it as an opportunity for high-level promotion (every games publication in the country runs a "go to Gamestation if you want the Robin character!" story, after all) and a chance to entice loyal customers away from their rivals, lured not by old-fashioned things like competitive prices or good customer service, but by a negotiated content exclusive.
A system designed to boost the price for games will instead feed into a fall in first-day sales, and lead yet more consumers into buying second-hand stock
Secondly, publishers themselves see a side-benefit to these pre-order bonuses - in that they help to stave off the price war which continues to push retail prices for videogames lower in most markets around the world. The theory is simple - if you've got exclusive game content at each retailer, a large body of players will start to shop around retailers based on the content on offer, rather than the price. If you distract players from treating price as the main distinguishing factor between retailers, maybe you can keep prices artificially high for a little longer - on paper, at least.
The reality may work out a little differently. Venting my frustration about the pre-order situation this week, I was surprised to be met with a chorus of agreement, and not a single voice raised in support of the system - even from those within the industry, whom I would have expected to be at least cautiously in support of the practice. I claim no empirical data here, but if this approach really is turning consumers off pre-orders - which isn't much of a stretch of the imagination - then the consequences are obvious. A system designed to boost the price paid for games will instead feed into a fall in first-day sales, and lead yet more consumers into buying second-hand or discounted stock.
Above all else, this kind of pre-order system manages to completely ignore the most important lesson of running a publishing business in the modern, connected world. Traditionally, consumers have not been the customers of publishers - consumers are the customers of retailers, and retailers in turn are the customers of publishers. Now, that middle-man role has been vastly diminished. The relationship chain has tightened up remarkably, and even a consumer who buys a product from a bricks and mortar retailer needs to be considered as a direct customer of the game's publisher in most regards.
With this in mind, the pre-order system changes from being a legitimate response to the customer's demands (the customer here being the retailer) to being a blank refusal to acknowledge what the customer actually wants (the real customer being the consumer). Publishers would do well to think about who actually feeds their value chain. We consumers love the games you're releasing, and we're willing to pay for them - but yank the chain too hard, and even the most loyal consumer will remember that there are plenty of alternatives to pre-ordering and paying the full retail price.