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.