Video game marketing is often pretty cringe-inducing. So much so that a google search of “worst video game marketing” brings up about two million results…the first few pages of which are packed with countdown and “worst-of” articles. That having been said, most traditional marketing can be ignored by those with a general awareness of the PR process. Much like advertisements for pretty much anything else, those of us who play a variety of games know that video game commercials and ads play to the lowest common denominator, casting a wide net to catch as much attention as possible. For the market savvy who seek out games criticism and watch gameplay clips on YouTube and Twitch, video game marketing is essentially a net neutral.
But what about the part of games marketing that isn’t about widening the appeal of the product? The ugly side of pre-release marketing focused on driving up pre-order numbers at all costs? Sure, pre-order bonuses are annoying, especially when varied by retailer or region, but this ever-growing business practice has a much larger implication than free cosmetic DLC.
While pretty much useless to consumers in a world with on demand digital downloads and widespread availability of most physical games, pre-orders are still incredibly important to companies that sell games. As Luke Plunkett puts it “Retailers like GameStop track [pre-orders] as a measure of success, and you may have noticed between all the free action figures, maps and ageing comic writers being offered, [they] really want you to preorder stuff. Publishers use them to gauge the expected retail success of a game once it actually hits shelves.”
With the increasingly high value put on them by publishers, business decisions are more frequently being made to drive up pre-orders. Sometimes this manifests as frustrating pre-order exclusive weapon. Other times, albeit rarely, retailers will offer a consumer-friendly financial incentive to pre-order. One of the most troubling tendencies in the industry right now though, is the increasing amount of game delays.
You might be thinking, “game delays suck, sure…but what does that have to do with pre-orders?” The problem with game delays and how they relate to pre-orders isn’t really with the actual delays themselves. It’s more about the game announcements. Over the course of this generation, games have been getting announced with release dates that are far too optimistic. Sony and Ubisoft have been the best examples of this problem over the first few years of the current console generation.
For each of the last three years, Sony has shown off a major tent-pole exclusive promised for the following year’s holiday season. The Order: 1886 in 2013. Uncharted 4 in 2014. Horizon: Zero Dawn in 2015. For those three years, each of these titles was the big PlayStation exclusive game at E3 and, as each was announced, Sony proudly touted their release windows. The Order: 1886 would launch Fall 2014. It didn’t. Uncharted 4 would launch Fall 2015. It didn’t. Horizon: Zero Dawn would launch Fall 2016. It won’t.
Ubisoft has run into similar issues this generation, most famously with the announcements of Watch_Dogs in 2012 and The Division in 2013. Each title was the big surprise game at its respective conference and, similar to the above examples, was originally slated to release about 18 months after its announcement. Watch_Dogs in 2013 and The Division in 2014. Both were delayed.
So as more and more games are announced well in advance of their projected release dates and almost formulaically delayed, it begs the question why? To me, the answer can be found in the publishers’ need to get pre-orders open.
As soon as a game is formally announced, pre-orders tend to become available very quickly. Some announcement trailers, like Batman Arkham Knight‘s, even introduce pre-order bonuses at the end while others, like LEGO Star Wars: The Force Awakens, simply ask you to pre-order now. With nothing more than a CG trailer for each game, Warner Bros had no issue asking people to immediately commit their money. It’s almost like that was the sole purpose of the initial trailers…not to tell you about the game and pique your interest, but to let you know that you can pledge your future purchase right away.
From the consumer side of things at least, these hard sells to drive up pre-orders do seem to be backfiring. Last June, MCV published a quote from the boss of GameStop International, Mike Mauler, showing how pre-orders are on the decline.
“Pre-orders might be lower but in the first week instead of selling 120 per cent of pre-orders, you’re selling 150 per cent of pre-orders. The demand is still there, but there’s been a shift in terms of pre-ordering the product…There is more attention paid to the Metacritic score than in the past. Two or three years ago it wasn’t really a topic of conversation, but now the week before release it’s getting a lot of attention.”
The issue with the pre-order marketing strategy is that it puts enormous pressure on development teams to hit promised completion deadlines while still putting out a high quality product. While many of the publishers mentioned in this article have shown a willingness to delay their products, many others have rushed a game to market and left their pre-order customers with a sour taste in their mouths. Games like Battlefield 4, Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Driveclub, and Assassin’s Creed Unity have all become synonymous with broken launches. The thing is, the people hurt most by those mishaps were the customers who pre-ordered the game and weren’t able to play it right away. Patient consumers who waited for reviews and community impressions to get a better idea of the quality level weren’t actually harmed.
So from my perspective, this drive to increase pre-orders is a losing battle. With publishers announcing games as early as possible to start gauging pre-order interest, we tend to see more and more game getting delayed, releasing in a broken state, or both. In any of these cases, the most disappointed people will be those who committed their money early. It builds a certain level of distrust among the consumer base when these things happen and, eventually, consumers will become even more skeptical of buying their games at launch. In that scenario, the very thing marketing departments have been trying to prevent becomes the direct result of a culture they’ve helped to create.
But what’s the harm in asking for $5 a year and a half in advance?