If you pre-order Assassin’s Creed: Unity from Gamestop, you will unlock exclusive in-game pants that increase your speed. It’s tempting to make a joke about it, and yet, at the same time, impossible. It has accepted its own absurdity and is at peace with it. It is above my jokes. Buy this game at a particular place and it will give you special imaginary speedy pants.
We have once again arrived at the fall release season, and that means that retailers and publishers are busy marketing and exclusive-offering in any way that they can to juice those pre-order numbers. Pre-orders mean big launches, big launches mean news coverage, coverage means a few extra cubic inches of the money pool (we all know it’s more or less smoke and mirrors, but try our best to ignore the man behind the curtain). We’ve become accustomed to pre-order bonuses for a while now, and I will confess to being among the many that have considered snapping up an early buy just because I’m worried those glorious pants will elude me for the rest of time. But it’s important to remember that we’re getting these bonuses for one reason and one reason only: there is no earthly other reason to pre-order a game.
I remember, in my youth, a time when games were hard to get. I called the local Wal-Mart multiple times a day looking for Star Wars: Shadows of The Empire on N64, and I forced my parents to drive me down the moment they finally had a copy in stock. Those days, however, are long gone. Retailers know to get plenty of stock for launch, and odds are you’ll find a physical copy of a game the moment you decide you want it. Add to that day-one digital distribution, and the chances that you will be unable to acquire a game the second it’s released drop to zero.
So why the speedy pants? The prevalence of modern pre-order culture allow publishers to pull of a special alchemy that would have marketers and hucksters throughout history nodding in approval: they allow them to sell a game without anyone having any idea whether or not it’s any good. All anyone has ever seen of this game before they buy it comes via tightly controlled media events and trailers. Slap a review embargo that doesn’t lift until the day of release and you’ve pretty much guaranteed that nobody is capable of making an informed decision.
The entertainment industry thrives on the quality of its products, every time, but that can be volatile. A publicly-traded publisher has to find a way to excise that difficult-to-control variable any way it can, and pre-orders are the best anyone has come up with.
Forum users and bloggers alike bemoan the sometime comical lack of attention paid to the quality of some AAA games at release: servers end up broken for weeks, critical glitches render games unplayable, and others — here’s looking at you, SimCity and Diablo 3 ‚— are just bad, waiting months upon months for post-release patches that return some semblance of the pre-order promise to the final product. And yet games like SimCity, Diablo 3, Battlefield 4 and myriad others have been able to boast impressive sales because so many people bought the game without knowing that it would barely function for weeks.
Two major releases for Xbox One and PS4 this year claimed the title of most ever pre-orders for a new franchise: Watch Dogs and Destiny. Both came with a tidal wave of hype, both promised unparalleled and stunning new experiences, both enjoyed exclusive coverage in an otherwise sort of dead release season, and most agree that neither delivered what they promised. But it didn’t really matter, because they had already sold all they needed to.
Consider the benefits of just waiting a few weeks to play any given game: you’ll almost certainly get a patch or two tightening up launch glitches, you’ll get the opportunity to wait for servers to stabilize, and, most importantly, you get to wait for the opinion of friends, critics and strangers alike to actually inform your purchase. Wait longer and you get a price-drop. So you get a better product for less money and avoid the possibility of getting a lemon. The only problem is that you don’t get to ride the hype train with all your friends.
Gaming isn’t the only industry that uses pre-orders — book publishing does it as well. But the combination of bonuses, review embargoes and what seems like a now-accepted principle that games might not work at launch have turned the pre-order into a powerful corporate tool.. It gives everything to the publisher and nothing to the consumer, encouraging a market based on publicity rather than quality or even functionality. But if there is no other way to get those pants, then I’ll be damned if I won’t get those pants.
David Thier is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The New Republic, IGN.com, Wired and more. Follow him on Twitter.