The thing about Pre-Orders and the Early Access Program

Rise and shine, my little dudes. Rise and shine.

Today I want to write a little about two things in the game industry that have been bugging me lately. More like making me angry, pretty darn mad actually. For the last years, two things have been increasingly affecting how games are being developed and marketed to gamers, who have no idea how bad this actually is for them. And doesn't matter how you look at it, at the end of the day, the consumer is the one getting fucked, and we are just allowing it. I am talking of course about Pre-Orders and Early Access Games. Let me get into more detail on their bullshit practices...


Pre-order ˈpriːɔːdə/  noun.:  The todays cancer to the gaming industry.

Some of you reading this are probably old enough to remember what a "Pre-order" was back in the good ol' days. The days where digital copies and steam activation codes weren't a thing yet. You visited your regular video games or electronics store and bought your games there. As gaming got more and more popular you noticed that on the release date of a game, since the retailer only had a limited amount of copies in stock, sooner or later it would be sold out. This is why these retailers started to give you the possibility to order (or reserve) a game in advance, in order to have your copy ready for pickup on release date. For example, after the huge success of Halo, when Halo 2 got released back in 2004 it was completely sold out in a matter of hours, so pre-ordering it was a pretty safe and logical strategy.

As time passed, marketers began to recognize the value of pre-order sales, since having paid for part or all of the purchase when placing the order, these consumers would usually complete the transaction shortly after the product's release, often on its first day in stores. This is why they, in collaboration with the publishers, started to make pre-orders more appealing by giving you some little extras. A good example for this is the GTA IV release back in 2008. Amazon offered a GTA IV license plate (a real one, not in-game) and a download code for artwork pictures. Best Buy gave you a 10$ gift card when buying either the standard or the collectors edition. Wal-Mart gave you a GTA IV T-Shirt and Newegg sold preorders 10% cheaper. That's not shabby at all.

In this state is where this practice should have stayed. From a marketing viewpoint this is very profitable, and the consumer not only has the guarantee of getting a copy on the date of the release, but gets a little goodie as well. So now everyone is happy right? Well, not anymore...

In the last six years or so, game retailers have been heavily pushing consumers to pre-order products. The retailers mentioned above even offer custom content to consumers who pre-order certain topics. This content ranges from unique custom wearable in games, to exclusive missions and multiplayer maps made available only if you pre-ordered the game from a specific retailer. With in-game extras is where we encounter some of the first problems this practices cause:

  • Questionable value of pre-order extras, i.e. player skins or artwork
  • Valuable extras make you feel like you need to pro-order to get the full experience
  • Custom and exclusive additional content made for every retailer waste development resources
  • To get 100% of the content available for a game you'd have to buy the game from every retailer offering exclusive content (for example Dishonored)

Alien Colonial Marines and Duke Nukem Forever are two very good examples of what happens if you apply everything that is happening around pre-orders to a game. I will be going into every point that made them fail miserably, but still managed to amass a fortune out of them, which nowadays applies to most, if not every AAA title (except the failing part). So yeah, they both made it to the top of the top selling games on steam, even before they even came out, that meaning they achieved that only with pre-orders.

The announcement of Aliens Colonial Marines (ACM) dropped like a bomb. I think this was mostly due to the fact that no pure Aliens game got released in the years prior to ACM. We had a few Alien vs. Predator games that, despite mixed reviews, got above average feedback from the Aliens fan base, mostly thanks to the amazing atmosphere. So everybody was stoked about the news of a new Aliens game, a pure Aliens shooter in a hunter vs. prey format sounded amazing.

Look at how awesome this looks, don't you want to play it? Most of the time, the screenshots are legit, captured in-engine or directly from the game with a perspective tweak or two. Other times, slight lighting changes try to make something great look even better. From time to time, though, audiences unsuspectingly get mislead by some pre rendered artificial bollocks. The trouble with these false screens is that nobody can know whether what they're seeing is the real deal until some gameplay is shown. The time came and in one of those "let's hype everything" game expos the press got to see a behind closed doors demo of ACM.

Randy Pitchfork: "You're gonna see what the game actually looks like ... not just screenshots.[...]"

Mr. Pitchfork here, founder and CEO of Gearbox Software, just flat out lied to all the journalists present for the demo, and thus, to all the consumers. Yeah, those consumers that, through the reporting of these journalists will decide whether or not to buy (or in this case pre-order) ACM. I say lie because as it turned out, that demo was made exclusively to show the game off with flawless animations, graphics and Hollywood style action at that conference. The mission shown wasn't even in the final release of the game (!!!), so much for the trickery.

All this time after the release we already know the game is so bad and broken, it's not even worth it for a hardcore Aliens fans. Taking this in consideration, the developers must have known how bad the game was, as did the publisher SEGA, so now it's time to pour a little more sugar over the rotten potato and try to sell as many copies as they can before it's released. Here come the pre-order bonuses; Ripley's Flamethrower for single player (not unlockable without pre-order), movie character NPC skins also for SP, and a multiplayer character skin. All of them very appealing right? That's the strategy. At this point you are throwing 50-60 bucks at a title you think you know everything about, but actually just got tricked with carefully crafted marketing material. The game rocketed all the way to the top of the top selling games of steam, and then got released.

"Both functionally broken and creatively bankrupt, Aliens: Colonial Marines is an extinction-level disaster." Giant Bomb

"As clear a warning as there has ever been about the risks inherent to pre-ordering games." IncGamers

"Aliens: Colonial Marines is more than a disappointment. It's downright depressing." Destructoid

"Following Duke Nuken: Forever, Gearbox needed a hit to show that they could do more than Borderlands well." Hooked Gamers

Yeah, Gearbox Software, makers of the amazing Borderlands series, did this twice, TWICE! There's no need to go into much detail with Duke Nukem Forever because, even before ACM, it followed the exact same scheme in 2011. Cool screenshots, awesome trailers, a lot of hype and the fact that the Duke Nukem fans had to wait 14 years for a sequel, since it was already announced in 1997 by 3D Realms. It also came with a bunch of useless pre-order bonuses like early demo access like, is that even a thing?, six skins for Duke (that's useful in a single player FPS), an in-game ego boost and a "cheat" that lets you see the NPCs with big heads. What. The. Fuck. But hey, why should they care? They again, made it to the top of the top selling games on steam. Lets see what was said about the game after release:

"Not only fails to live up to the legacy of Duke Nukem, it even fails to be a decent shooter. Don't ruin your precious memories." PC PowerPlay

"While much of Duke Nukem Forever is embarrassingly bad--the kind of game you point and laugh at--its biggest problem is that it's so tedious." GameSpot

"If you're not willing to play a sloppy, cobbled together first-person shooter just because it has some kind of weird historical meaning, though, just forget this ever happened and move on." Giant Bomb

"It's just a mess. It pains me to say it, but it's absolutely true." Cheat Code Central

I wanted to show two examples of games that the general community completely fell for and at the end, were nothing more than a conversation topic for a month or two, and then got forgotten. And for that you paid 60 bucks. For a game that was probably never intended to work, was sugar coated with lies and false promises, and its marketing strategies only rested on how easy it is to manipulate its key demographic, the gamers.

Publishers even get a step further, by imposing review embargoes to the media. This means they are not allowed to release an early review shortly after a games release. If the media/press reviews a game before the embargo is lifted, the publishers just wont make contact with them anymore and the media outlet loses the ability to gather information or get early demos from that publisher. As you can see, that's a huge problem. Ubisoft did this with Assassin's Creed Unity for example. The game was available to purchase for as long as a dozen hours before anyone could read whether it was good or bad, or if it suffers from technical problems. The game got an average score of 6.5, and the PC version had mad frame drops and countless bugs.

Embargoes, on the whole, are a good thing. They help the press get coverage of games without rushing through after release otherwise the quality of criticism would drop significantly. Yet this is still very convenient for the publisher. During the time of an embargo they still can test the game live, bring out day-one patches and all while the sales keep rising and rising. What if the game is rubbish? Well, it's not that much of a deal if you already made over 50% of the budgeted sales with pre-orders, plus all the sales from the first day after release.

In the short term, pre-orders may be good for developers, they can show preorder sales to investors and work with a guaranteed income or sales numbers. But as you see that merely scratches the surface. They just make awesome trailers, gather as many E3 awards as possible to increase the hype (note that these awards are given to trailers of unfinished games, an then they make trailers about how many E3 awards they've gotten to further increase the hype), create amazing artwork and market all the aspects of the game as so perfect, only to try and sell the maximum amount of pre-orders. Even if at the end the game sucks and ends up not being even close to all those E3 trailers and demos, they will do it again. It will get hyped again, and we will pre-order again because we now want that game so badly that it only needs some stupid bonus skin for us to throw 60 bucks at the screen because we already think we will buy it anyways. That's the excuse we always have, "I would have bought it anyways". Yeah, you would have, but only because since its announcement you have been lied to, nothing you see these days is actually representative of the final product. Can't you wait a day or two for actual reviews to come out after release? Do you do this shit with everything else in your life? Wouldn't you think about throwing your money away twice if you knew you were probably being screwed over?

The developers ain't going to change anything, nor will the publishers, and the so called "gaming journalists" will still give "Best E3 Game" awards to pre-rendered trailers. It's you, the consumer, that has an impact on these practices. Pre-ordering, in the days of unlimited digital copies, has no benefit at all and it only damages the gamers, the gaming industry and encourages all those terrible business practices. IT'S IN OUR HANDS, HAVE PATIENCE, DON'T PRE-ORDER.

Only we can stop this bullshit. Do you want to solve this problem? Or do you want to keep being part of the problem?

What is an early access game? It's an unfinished game, period. There's not much more to it.

Before we begin arguing about this topic, here's the definition of early access game on Steam:

Get immediate access to games that are being developed with the community's involvement. These are games that evolve as you play them, as you give feedback, and as the developers update and add content.

We like to think of games and game development as services that grow and evolve with the involvement of customers and the community. There have been a number of prominent titles that have embraced this model of development recently and found a lot of value in the process. We like to support and encourage developers who want to ship early, involve customers, and build lasting relationships that help everyone make better games.

This is the way games should be made.

When will these games release? Its up to the developer to determine when they are ready to 'release'. Some developers have a concrete deadline in mind, while others will get a better sense as the development of the game progresses. You should be aware that some teams will be unable to 'finish' their game.

These days we have to pay, sometimes even the full future retail price of the game, to gain the privilege to alpha test a game. At the beginning these games weren't called "early access games", they weren't called anything at all. You usually had your beta (or even alpha) tests where you could play and test the current state of a game for free, and then give feedback to the developers through in-game forms or forums. Now you have to buy it, paying in advance even if you end up not liking in which direction the game is going.

There's is a law that stipulates "a sold good must be fit for purpose" and if it isn't you are entitled for a refund, that doesn't work on Steam though, mainly because they handle with digital copies and not a physical disc in this case, and the law only applies to a finished product. What if you go and buy a bicycle and the seller tells you well, the wheels and handlebar are missing but you can already try the seat and see if you are happy with it, yet he demands the full price for the bicycle. Well, there it gets a little more difficult because you actually knew beforehand that you were getting an unfinished product. They protect themselves behind the "you knew it was incomplete" wall, but more to that later.

Another problem is when you don't get directly called on the fact that the title is unfinished. Now you would think that you'd have to be an idiot not to understand what "early access" means, and you are wrong. It literally means that you can play it before it is released, but it very often gets forgotten to tell the consumer that what you are buying here is, in its current state, an unfinished buggy mess. The only game I know that clearly states this is DayZ, kudos to them, for telling you the following:

“DayZ Early Access is your chance to experience DayZ as it evolves throughout its development process. Be aware that our Early Access offer is a representation of our core pillars, and the framework we have created around them. It is a work in progress and therefore contains a variety of bugs. We strongly advise you not to buy and play the game at this stage unless you clearly understand what Early Access means and are interested in participating in the ongoing development cycle.”

Lets say, after all this you are still interested in the game and you want to know more about it, in which state is the development in or how the gameplay is. You could try to get your information through different websites or videos that "review" that game you are interested in, yet how can you review a title that is getting updates at least weekly? How can you tell somebody that this is good and this is bad and that other thing is completely buggy when a week after the review even the whole gameplay could have gotten changed? Then you think okay lets check the Developers log and see what's on there, and you encounter and infinite list of patch notes (if the devs are even trying to finish the game). Now this only helps if you already own the game, because otherwise what you read is completely out of context, you just don't know if certain fixes got rid of something game breaking, or if they improve the game at all. And then you have a little description that is worth literally nothing, like for example on the Steam page of Rust that, for the last two years, has been stating:

“We are in very early development. Some things work, some things don't. We haven't totally decided where the game is headed - so things will change. Things will change a lot. We might even make changes that you think are wrong. But we have a plan. It's in our interest to make the game awesome - so please trust us.”

Trust you? Why? In this case I have to think of a bakery. You know they make cakes, right? And you may even have bought one already from that bakery, so you decide to order their newest cake you tried at a friends house. On the phone you ask when the cake will be delivered, the baker says to you:

"It is still pretty early in the morning, some cakes come out good, others don't. We haven't totally decided if we want to bake a cake though, so maybe it could end up being bread. We might even make meatloaf instead of a cake. But we have a plan. It's in our interest to make the cake awesome - so please trust us."

You would probably think about it twice before paying for the cake without actually knowing how it will come out at the end, since you now know that you can't even trust the picture of the cake you saw in the description. So why would you do it with a game?

Now, what on earth is the incentive to even finish the game? Yes, you buying the game in early access finances the development of it and you support a dev team that may have a great idea in mind but neither the financial resources nor a publisher to get that idea into making. The traditional model of development is: you finish a game in order to be able to sell it and thus make money. This is no longer the case. If we take Battlefield 4 as an example, the game was "finished" by the time it released, meaning it was feature complete, yet it was mostly broken and nearly unplayable for the first months. It has taken them nearly a year and a half to fix bugs and problems that shouldn't have been there in the first place. But here's the thing, they have to do it, otherwise they lose revenue and the trust of the community which will also have a huge impact on the sales of oncoming games. Early access games however, can shield themselves behind that big blue Early Access banner on their Steam page, saying that all the current bugs or missing content are justified for it being in alpha state. This can go on for years to the point where the game doesn't even get finished, they have the cash already, why bother? Statistically not even 30% of the games available in the Early Access Program get released.

Source: Gamesindustry

Getting involved in Alphas always has been an amazing opportunity to witness the development of a game and taking part in the creation of all the features that the community expects from the title you are testing. Amazingly we have now a platform like Steam that gives the smaller dev teams the possibility to bring their game ideas to a wider audience, tailoring the game to the expectations of the community, the customer itself, and getting financed in the process. But it has so many possibilities of exploitation, and here is where i go back to my first topic: The average gamer shouldn't indulge in, they should just be buying games that are finished, leave it to the enthusiasts to go after the early access titles.

At the end of the day though, we can talk about who's at fault here, we can talk about Steam, we can talk about the developers themselves. We can talk about coverage sites for not giving you enough informational, presenting it in an incorrect way and all that stuff. But it actually, at the end of the day, it comes down to you. If you buy early access games there's really not a lot that anyone else can actually do about that. If you keep buying them, Steam will keep selling them on their platform. Keep in mind that companies are being rewarded for releasing unfinished games on the early access program and you, to this day as the customer, have no idea what you are throwing your money at.

So in the end, think on what you are spending your money, there are thousands of games on Steam that are actually finished and for which there's accurate information out there about how good or bad they are. Think with your wallet, and about the future of gaming industry. Thats all for today.




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