Pre-Order Culture And Game Development

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It seems the “downgrade” controversy surrounding The Witcher 3 has heated up even more now that the game is out and CDProjekt RED has given Eurogamer a detailed explanation. It’s also gotten people talking about the general problem of games looking different between initial reveals and release and why people have gotten so up in arms about it recently. Kotaku has blamed pre-order culture and how bloated it’s become, encouraging developers and publishers to oversell their games two years before launch.

For the record, as you can read in my previous post about the game, I still believe almost all the complaining about how Witcher 3’s graphics turned out is gross hyperbole. But enough about that. Last July I went over how I see pre-orders these days and my position hasn’t changed much except for one big realization: I’ve become almost completely disconnected from the latest game releases, which has put me off pre-orders even more.

I have to admit a lot of it is due to financial restrictions. I feel like if I had a lot more money I’d have pre-ordered Witcher 3 as well as the PC version of Grand Theft Auto V. I haven’t bought either game yet however and I don’t think I will get around to it for weeks.

It doesn’t end there though. I think I might pick up Far Cry 4 or Dragon Age: Inquisition someday. I didn’t buy Wolfenstein: The New Order until months after its release and don’t know when I’ll get around to The Old Blood despite how much I loved the former. I only recently got copies of The Evil Within and Alien: Isolation that now languish on my shelf and Steam library respectively. I have no idea when I’ll find the time or money for Mortal Kombat X despite my life-long enjoyment of the franchise. 15 years ago this would leave me starving for games, but today there’s actually too much interesting but cheap indie content for me to fully keep up with, and my massive backlog ensures there’s always something I own but haven’t started yet. For someone constantly plugged into gaming news I’m very much out of step with the actual consumption of games.

As you may have guessed, I’ve pretty much stopped pre-ordering games. In my post from last year I already described how scarcity of new releases is no longer a factor and how publishers have drummed up artificial incentives to pre-order. The most insidious part in my opinion is how pre-order numbers can actually affect a game mid-development which probably leads to all kinds of problems. The whole industry is built around it from the publishers all the way down to the retailers using pre-orders to gauge how much inventory to stock and the GameStop employees whose jobs depend on getting pre-orders. Even when I do pre-order a game these days it’s usually about a week before launch just so I can set aside the money for the game. I feel like that’s the last real practical reason to pre-order a game nowadays outside pre-loading a digital game. What’s really funny is on many occasions have I bought a game months after launch and found pre-order DLC codes still in the box. Even special pre-order content doesn’t sell out.

I agree with the Kotaku story that pre-release hype has reached ridiculous levels. E3 is only a few weeks away and we’ll probably be getting freaking beautiful press conference demos of games that are six-to-24 months away, and publishers will ask us to pre-order a lot of them right away. For starters I’ve never believed those demos were running on retail consoles. If they aren’t target renders they’re usually being played on $2,000 gaming PCs.

The biggest problem in my opinion is games simply being shown too early. I’m still going to buy and play the heck out of Witcher 3, but maybe CDPR shouldn’t have shown a trailer with an egregious sharpening filter almost two years before the release of the game (or 18 months before its original release date).

Maybe overblown pre-release hype for video games is the ultimate example of business butting heads with the changing and increasingly chaotic nature of software development. CDP explained to Eurogamer that it released the initial Witcher 3 trailers before it realized it had to switch to another renderer mid-way into development. Crap like that happens. On the flipside Microsoft didn’t start showing us Windows 10 until last year, and even then it was clearly understood we were looking at a work in progress that wasn’t completely stable and could change drastically between then and its intended launch later this year. Maybe the difference is because most software doesn’t have the same media blitz and enthusiasm behind it video games do.

I guess I would just ask publishers to compress the hype machines a bit like how Capcom didn’t unveil Resident Evil 6 until basically six months before it came out, but I don’t think publishers are going to change their ways anytime soon. Some people are mad, but generally speaking people are still pre-ordering and buying these games. They’re still eating up the hype. Before things really change some high-profile hype machine would have to flop tremendously, and I’m actually not sure if or when that will happen. Meanwhile, I’m just gonna sit here and continue buying these big games several months after the hype has already died down.

BULLETS:

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