I really don’t get some aspects of the modern games industry. That’s not to say I don’t understand the, at times, twisted logic behind things like microtransactions. I just don’t see the point in having them. Maybe it’s because most of my fondest gaming memories were from a point in my life when I had a waning internet connection with limited data allowance, an old PS2 and Xbox 360, and no way to purchase anything online. This was a more recent time in my life than I’d like to admit, but the point I’m trying to make is that I guess I just didn’t interact with certain aspects of current gaming culture. So I didn’t adopt them as easily as others, who were introduced to said aspects at their earlier implementations. After all, somehow people are still giving Blizzard excuses for the awful use of microtransactions in their AAA retail priced game that costs up to $99AUD. And yes, I will continue to and always will bitch about how stupid it is until it is fixed.

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I refuse to pay $10AUD for this

But there’s been one aspect of gaming culture that while I don’t completely get, I’ve always seen positives for when presented in certain situations: the idea of pre-ordering games. In a general sense, I do see it as fairly pointless when it comes to the big AAA game series like Pokemon, Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. There doesn’t seem to be a need to call early “dibs” on a game when you know full well that, despite its popularity, stocks of the game aren’t going to run out within the first forty-eight hours after its release.

That being said, there are those previously mentioned positive situations that do give a sense of purpose to pre-ordering. From personal experience, I can tell you that when it comes to good chunk of ATLUS games, like the Shin Megami Tensei series, it is impossible to secure physical copies of them in Australia unless you pre-order them. The only reason I even have a copy of Devil Survivour 2: Record Breaker is because I managed to find the one store in my city that was actually ordering it in on the Australian release date; and even then they planned on just shipping in two copies. It also seems like, in a lot of cases, pre-ordering is usually the only way to grab special editions of games that include awesome tatt like art books, soundtracks and figurines. That is unless you want to wait a month or two for the store to just start selling it normally so they can get rid of that stock as quickly as possible.

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This brings me to a question asked by a good friend of mine while I was using my above reasons to explain why I pre-ordered the suitably-lengthy JRPG-named Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. He’d always had a bit of a sore-spot towards pre-orders for a very different reason to mine, specifically focused around the concept of pre-order bonuses, the game industry’s reward for calling “dibs”. So, for the purposes of this article, I thought I’d try and properly answer the question he posed to me.

“Are Pre-Order bonuses just getting ridiculous now? It just seems like they lock off exclusive content and only give it to people who can afford it. Does that kind of content make or break the experience of a game?”

To address the second part of that question first, not really. In fact, I can only really think of one recent example in which a piece of pre-order bonus content broke the experience of a game: the PS4 Ratchet and Clank reboot’s Bouncer pre-order bonus.

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The Bouncer weapon has been a staple of the Ratchet and Clank series, appearing almost as frequently as the game’s famous RYNO weapon. But in this year’s reboot, the Bouncer was only made available to those who had pre-ordered the game, unable to be unlocked by players who didn’t purchase a pre-order copy. While this was already a significant kick in the teeth to long-time fans who didn’t purchase a pre-order, it was made even worse by the fact that the Bouncer one of the game’s most powerful weapons. The thing was essentially able to take off over half of any boss’ health within mere moments. So not only was a rather large “have and have not” divide created between players as a result, but it also served to lock off a significant amount of power from a significant amount of players.

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It turns the fight with this guy into a complete joke

Yet ironically, those who got the pre-order voiced a common complaint that the Bouncer completely removed any challenge that the game had to offer due to its sheer power, ruining the overall experience they would have had without it. It was practically impossible to ignore using the really powerful weapon whenever any kind of challenge presents itself because it’s given to players so early on and only made to get stronger over the course of the game. Thankfully, this seems to be one of the few rare cases in which a pre-order bonus actually served to break the experience of a game.

For the most part, however, I believe that pre-order bonuses don’t serve to ruin a game’s experience, at least in gameplay. For starters, that kind of pre-order bonus is pretty scarcely seen these days. And in the cases that a pre-order bonus comes with some kind of power boost similar to the Bouncer, whether it is in the form of an exclusive piece of armour or weapon, it is only a temporary one. Their purpose should be to give the pre-order purchasing player a limited assistance to get them started in the game. In most cases, they are designed to be an effective power boost in the early game, but made to be considered moot after a short period of time. This ensures that any significant power boost given to the player by a pre-order bonus does not create a significantly different experience to those who didn’t receive said bonus, like what happened in the case of Ratchet and Clank. And even then, these are also completely optional boosts which can be easily removed by the player if the bonus is taking away the game’s challenge.

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Honestly it seems like most pre-order bonuses these days serve to offer three things in terms of exclusive content: Early access to DLC that will be available for purchase later on, as we’ve seen in the pre-order bonuses for Batman: Arkham Knight; exclusive physical tatt like Persona Q’s tarot cards; and/or cosmetic skins for weapons and characters that don’t have any effect on gameplay whatsoever, as seen in almost every pre-order bonus up to this point. That being said, I will admit that, excluding the physical tatt, this content does create a substantial “have and have not” divide between players, which in turn can make the game appear broken from a completely subjective perspective. A game can easily appear incomplete by some because they don’t have access to the same content that pre-order purchasers receive, even if it made available to them at a later stage.

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But even if pre-order bonuses don’t necessarily break the game in terms of gameplay, that doesn’t mean I don’t think that pre-order bonuses are ridiculous. These days we can end up learning more about pre-order bonuses before we do the actual game they belong to. We’ve seen this in the past with the pre-order information coming out just barely after the release of a few screenshots, like in the case of Evolve. And I think that this ridiculousness is primarily the result of pre-orders and how pre-order culture is used by the industry in the first place.

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In the modern gaming world, I think that pre-orders serve as a way for publishers to easily secure first-week sales from consumers before the game is even released. After all, the first week of a game’s release is the most important sales period for any game as it is when its visibility to the consumer is at its highest and consumers will have less of an idea of how good or bad the game actually is. Not only that, but pre-orders also seem to be viewed as a kind of “magic mirror”, giving publishers an idea of just how much money they’ll be getting back from the game on release.

Thus, pre-order bonuses act as a way for consumers to become more invested in a game before they’ve even gotten their hands on it, incentivising them to grab the pre-order so they can get something more than just the game. As a result, this gives the consumer a reason to not only get more excited for the game’s release, but also defend it from any sort of criticism, despite not actually knowing the game’s quality. Pre-orders and pre-order bonuses essentially work hand in hand to create a near evil-genius trick of psychology performed by the game industry; ensuring that customers have an actual financial stake in the game which, in turn, makes them hype up the game and its pre-order bonuses to other consumers as a result.

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One of the more blatant examples of this business strategy was seen back in August of last year when the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided “Augment Your Pre-Order” campaign was announced. Essentially, this was a campaign designed with the very purpose I mentioned before in mind, not only offering pre-order rewards to consumers, but increasing the amount of bonuses for them to choose from if more pre-orders were purchased. This would not only give consumers their financial stake in the game, but actively coax them to get others to purchase a pre-order so that they could be given extra rewards, with the ultimate reward being a four-day-early release.  Thankfully, however, this campaign was cancelled a few months later due to fan backlash, but the point I’m trying to make with this example is that we’ve reached a point that people in the industry actually thought they could get away with this, and that’s not something we should be encouraging.

Honestly, it seems like the best way to stop another “Augment Your Pre-Order” level of campaign in the future is to completely get rid of the idea of pre-orders from the industry. But, like I said at the start of this article, I do understand that there are definitely positives to pre-ordering games. So perhaps instead we should send a message to the games industry with our wallets, opting to pre-order a game when it is the most practical option for us personally, not because it comes with some kind of prize for doing so. If we don’t pay for the ridiculous aspects of pre-order culture, then perhaps the industry will understand that we don’t need an incentive to purchase a game if we already wanted it in the first place.

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