Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pre-order bonuses - The ugly side of exclusives

Everyone likes bonuses, especially when they are cheap or free. How many times have people bought something just because it said Buy One, Get One free? People are drawn towards the incentive that purchasing something will get them something else. Video games and retailers are no different in this aspect. But while doing this in a Payless shoe store means you get a free extra pair of shoes, gaming purchases usually ends up with a digital skin or weapon.

Retailers are in the business of making money. Getting enough pre-orders for game releases means higher volume of units, leading to a larger profit margin on sales. Stores will use every bit of marketing they can to entice people to pre-order from their company. Whether it means hosting a midnight launch party or providing certain content available only through them. Here's where the problem comes in. Digital freebies.

Game publishers have the privilege in providing Public Relations material. Advertising is one of those responsibilities which can mean the product can be a huge success or a dismal failure. Bonuses, such as character skins for use in a multiplayer game, or a downloadable weapon that will help you through some gritty campaign areas, are in high demand these days. People want new stuff, exclusive stuff, all the time, and everytime. This can put a huge strain on both the publisher and the companies involved and these bonuses are an attempt to create a loyalty between customer and retailer.

But what is the problem with pre-order bonuses? The simple fact of the matter is that they are everywhere and ultimately consist of nothing. Making sure to shell out $60 for a few changes to a players armor? How about adding a stripe to a weapon and calling it an "exclusive" skin? These so-called "bonuses" are merely gimmicks to entice people to spend $60 on a game they know little about. Previews paint a pretty picture, but that's what they are designed to do. Rarely do previews match the game, just like cinematics don't reflect actual gameplay. A broken game with a pink rifle is still a broken game. And getting a refund because you were disappointed only exists in the movies and the dreams of gamers everywhere.

While places like Gamestop are easier than most to cancel pre-orders and get your money back, others, like Steam, are not. With direct downloads, Steam makes it virtually impossible to read a game review before purchasing. Unfortunately that's the truth with just about every gamer. Many blindly grab a copy of whatever is newest regardless of consumer impressions or watching actual in-game footage. Pre-order bonuses enhance this drive to buy the game in full and quickly.

Another large issue is dealing with the split of pre-order bonuses. Different stores bid for different items/characters. One store might have bought a character and a weapon skin. Another could have grabbed two characters instead. For example, the upcoming Gears of War: Judgment has retailers offering choices between 4 character skins. You have to choose who you want, unless you are willing to buy 4 copies of the game. The "timed exclusive" bonuses are a gimmick, plain and simple. People want free stuff so companies will make sure they get free stuff if they buy it from them. What people don't take into consideration is that these store "exclusives" never stay exclusive. 99% of the time, digital content becomes available to the rest of the online population through DLC purchases. Is having polka dots on your shotgun on day one really worth a blind jump into a game?

Delving into the mix, we also encounter physical incentives. This is where things get tricky. Gamers will snap up digital content like hotcakes, but physical items really make it hard to consider not buying it. Posters, cloth maps, statues of characters, even keychains, all try to drive the point of slapping $5 down being a good idea. Another focus is on deleted or locked content. Certain games might add an advance piece of DLC, such as a combat map that was done with Batman: Arkham Asylum or a 3-day advance pass to multiplayer before the game ships, as Gears Judgment is doing. Microsoft has been offering 1600 MSP (a $20 value) for any pre-order content through their online store. These make purchasing games without hesitation a very real reality.

Developers and retailers used to offer significant things in exchange for doing business with them, but overtime they learned that people will do just about anything to get one little item for free, whether it's a gun that is exclusive for a month or an eye patch for a character customization. The unfortunate truth is that as long as gamers continue to go along with these gimmicks, they will never end.

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