To preface this discussion the inspiration came from a recent forum post in which a user complained about the refund policy or lack-there-of for a digital storefront on pre-orders. Many critics have rightfully lambasted pre-orders for games, the idea of throwing down money sight unseen for a product. Some outright calling the pre-order bonuses anti-consumer, the carving up of content that should be in the game to get people to pre-order. The reality is that pre-orders are a bit of a dinosaur, a holdover from an age where games were only available via physical distribution and a pre-order guaranteed that you could walk into the store and walk out with a game. Digital distribution at this point has overtaken physical sales, which means that barring server issues there is a zero percent chance that on the launch day the game will not be available for purchase or play. That being said, as a bit of a mental exercise let’s break down the cases for or against pre-ordering games.
First, let’s look at distribution methods and consider that in an FCC study released in 2016 10% of Americans have no access to broadband internet(source). Given that 323 million people live in the US that breaks down to 32.3 million people with no access to broadband internet. Many of these people live in rural areas where reaching a retailer can often require traveling long distances. It is also common for retailers in such areas to receive lower quantities of consumer goods, which means in this case pre-ordering might be the better option. Better to pre-order than drive to the closest retailer only to leave empty-handed.
Next, let’s look at the practices of the developer and the publisher. Does the developer have a history of releasing buggy, unfinished games that frequently get fixed by the community? Wait for reviews, better to be sure the game will be stable than deal with the frustration of crashes, loss of progress and instability due to poor optimization. Conversely, does the developer have a history of solid games and continuing support through regular patches and updates? Then here pre-ordering is probably a safer bet, though discretion is still highly recommended. Which bring us to the publisher, if this game is from the big names: EA, Ubisoft or Activision then expect DRM that probably breaks the game, expect loot boxes, expect to be treated like a walking wallet, and not a gamer deserving of respect and good games. Avoid pre-ordering anything from these publishers under any circumstances.
Which brings us to the retailer/storefront. Before pre-ordering look at the retailer, research their policies for canceling a pre-order or refunding a game in case down the line you decide you no longer have interest in the pre-order itself. Consider that if the game came with content or bonuses that become unlocked to you immediately that there may be no recourse for a direct refund. Realize that in these circumstances any other actions taken to get your money back may put your account in jeopardy for suspension or termination if dealing with Steam, Blizzard or Origin. Pay close attention to the bundles and tiers that they offer, better that you sleep on it and make the correct decision than to be stuck with something you don’t want.
Finally, we come to the reason of this discussion, the game itself. In most cases, pre-release information for a game shouldn’t be entirely taken at face value. There have been too many instances of tightly scripted demos, vertical slices that don’t represent the final game and bullshot trailers. Simply look at the E3 demos that happen year after year with cringeworthy canned dialogue and gameplay scripting so tight that you would think it was on rails and no one was actually playing. If the game offers a trial or open beta events then take advantage of them, play the game. Though before pulling the trigger also consider that these beta events, that the free trial you just played may have been the developer or publisher frontloading the good content. Which has happened in recent years with SimCity and Total War Rome II where the game breaking issues happened so late in the game that many reviews never saw them.
Each consumer has the power to vote with their wallets and buy or not buy whatever they want. Above all, I urge everyone to be rational and patient, don’t buy into the hype and consumerism that the industry tries to foster. Waiting for reviews, waiting for unedited, unscripted gameplay won’t kill you. It is ultimately better to wait and be happy with your purchase than to pre-order and get burned.