Does pre-ordering make sense in a digital world?

I landed myself in two strange discussions on Twitter recently. One of them concerned pre-orders of games.

I don’t usually pre-order games. I’ve only done it three times in recent memory: Grim Fandango Remastered, Shardlight and Day of the Tentacle Remastered.

Like most people, I imagine, I have no problem waiting for a game to go on sale before I pick it up. It’s not like I have an oceanic amount of free time to play games, anyway. But in the case of the above examples, I was either a) really excited about the game and couldn’t wait to get my hands on it, or b) I wanted to show my support to the developers.

Shardlight had a pretty good pre-order thing where you’d get 10% off the game (and a DRM-free download to boot!) plus a couple of goodies on the side, like the soundtrack. Day of the Tentacle Remastered had 10% off as well, and that was on, so yay for DRM-free download again.

So for a consumer, pre-orders serve two purposes:

  1. They give you extra incentive to shell out for a game that hasn’t been released yet by giving you a discount and perhaps some extra free stuff.
  2. They also let you show the developers that you’re excited about their game; something that may not mean a lot in AAA-title land, but really matters when you’re dealing with smaller developers. You know, the sort of developers who actually care about their audience.
Much like current gamers, these dudes "wanted it all."
Much like current gamers, these dudes “wanted it all.”

Orrrr … As my friend Jason Ferron says, maybe it’s just a cynical marketing ploy and I’m an idiot for falling for it?

Jason not like the pre-order thing

Now, I can certainly see what he’s saying. I mean, I disagree, but I can see what he’s saying.

The more I think about it, it begs the question: What exactly does pre-ordering do for the developers? They put this discount and the free extra stuff online to … what? Boost their own confidence? Gauge the amount of interest in the game? Generate more interest in the game before its official launch date?

I imagine it would be beneficial if you were working for a giant conglomerate of evil like E.A. to be able to show your faceless boss, “Look, we had so-and-so many pre-orders! That means interest in our game is really high! You would be stupid not to let us work on a sequel/give us a raise/rub our genitals at the next Christmas party!”

But to an indie developer answering only to themselves — that would be Wadjet Eye, for instance — do they really have more to gain than lose by offering pre-orders? I mean, they’re taking a 10% hit on the full retail price and they’re throwing in this extra stuff in that you normally have to pay extra for.

Okay, so, there’s also that factor to take into consideration. If there’s one thing gamers don’t like, it’s paying full price for something. A pre-order could be seen as an “excuse” for the publisher to offer a slight discount (emphasis on slight) to encourage more people to buy the game.

So they’re not actually taking a hit; they’re actually boosting sales because more people end up buying the game.

This guy's good, but he still has to be in bed by 11.
This guy’s good, but he still has to be in bed by 11.

So I can certainly agree with Jason that it is a “trick,” but I’m not sure I can fall in line with it being a manipulative trick. It doesn’t feel all that manipulative to me. It actually feels like a good deal between consumer and publisher. And, trust me, if I smell marketing bullshit, I crinkle up like a forgotten wank sock. I’m not getting that smell here.

In fact, the only thing that seems a bit iffy to me is the concept of “pre-order” itself. It does seem a bit archaic. Why not just have a launch sale? Like, first week off, 10% and a bag of goodies? Or first 1.000 customers, 10% and a bag of goodies?

This seems like a left-over from the days of physical store-bought copies where pre-ordering actually had a tangible purpose: To see how many copies the publisher had to ship all over the world in order to not leave people out to dry. At least, that’s the noble, idealistic purpose, as far as I can tell — there may have been more nefarious reasons involving graphs of demographics and calculations of how much of the profit excess could be spent on 8-balls for the marketing department.

One marketing dept. dude did an 8-ball while watching this photo and ended up stabbing himself in the eye with his inhuman erection.
One marketing dept. dude did an 8-ball while watching this photo and ended up stabbing himself in the eye with his inhuman erection.

So, I guess the questions remaining are: Are we just using pre-orders because it’s a term gamers are used to from them olden days? And if you’re an indie developer/publisher with no one to answer to but yourself, who are you trying to impress with record pre-order sales — gamers or yourselves?

No, I’m not (just) being a shit. I’m legitimately asking. I have no idea.

Update: I got some great responses on why pre-order may or may not make sense in the digital world. First off, Dave Gilbert (head honcho of Wadjet Eye Games) chimes in, after briefly explaining that he just does whatever feels right and has no idea what he’s really doing, marketing-wise (I kind of admire that), to say:

Dave Gilbert on pre-orders

And then my good chum (and progenitor of this discussion), mr. Jason “SkyeFyre” Ferron went ahead and did a full 13 minute video on his thoughts:

It was also interesting to hear Francisco Gonzalez’s perspective, seeing as he was the writer and co-designer of Shardlight, which recently had a record-breaking pre-order sale as the next great Wadjet Eye game:

Thank you, all of you, for your insights! Again, let me be clear, I was just asking, and I’m seriously grateful for your insights!

And let me be perfectly frank: I’m not advocating one thing or the other. And, also, I’m not trying to start a mudslinging contest here. I’m trying to learn here, and I respect your opinions, whatever they may be — which is why I want to give equal screentime to both sides of the issue — so please respect the opinions of those that may go against your own! There is no right or wrong answer here. We are having a discussion. Please, let’s keep it that way!


  1. Ori Avtalion says:

    If a game is early in development, then pre-ordering is just like crowd-funding, which you don’t seem to mention and I guess you’re OK with. It’s also safer than crowd-funding since it’s more likely the game is in an advanced stage and actually going to ship.

    If it’s late in development, I’ll let actual publishers chime in with how it helps with the buzz, and where the extra funds go. I don’t feel like anyone is “cheated”, unless the launch discount is larger than the preorder discount (which happened with at least one recent game I know of), and I didn’t feel too bad about it since these are small developers and I don’t mind supporting them.

    1. Troels says:

      You’re right, I didn’t mention pre-ordering as a way to secure development funds for “early stage” games. The examples I’ve mentioned were late-stage games — games that were basically complete and ready to ship.

      I can certainly see the point of early-stage pre-ordering, even though it does carry its own risks. If the devs are strapped for cash, what are our guarantees that the game will actually make it to the stores? And if not, can we get our money back? Presumably they’ll be spent on the game. In that sense, I actually feel more safe with crowdfunding. It’s a bit more regulated.

      1. Ori Avtalion says:

        > I actually feel more safe with crowdfunding. It’s a bit more regulated.

        Really? There have been many failed kickstarters where people didn’t get their money back, and only one or two cases that I know of where “regulators” actually did anything:

        I vaguely remember another case but I can’t recall it at the moment.

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