A few days ago, Eidos Montreal and Square Enix announced their pre-order campaign for the highly anticipated Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, and it was repugnant. It is, perhaps, the most cynical attempt at a cash grab from customers we have seen yet, embracing all the exploitative abuses of the pre-order culture, and structuring the entire campaign similarly to a Kickstarter, with multiple ‘tiers’ of pre-order ‘rewards,’ each locked behind more and more people pre-ordering the game. There was, naturally, outrage at this campaign, with people on enthusiast gaming boards like NeoGAF and Reddit speaking out against the campaign. But I think a lot of this energy is misdirected- while the Deus Ex campaign is terrible, and we should absolutely not stand for it, I also think that it is symptomatic of a larger issue with the games industry, one that we should be aware of and direct our anger at instead. We need to cure the disease, and not the symptom, or nothing will change.
Over the last few years, the AAA gaming industry has seen a marked trend of abusive and exploitative practices towards the consumers, that try to swindle as much money out of the players as possible, and try to be as deceptively underhanded as they can get away with. Publishers are sacrificing long term customer goodwill for short term gains, taking their customers for granted, and they are risking a complete burnout of long term relationships with their customer base- remember, any business is ultimately predicated entirely on its relationship with its customer base, and as long as major gaming publishers continue to sabotage theirs with their customers, we could be heading to a catastrophic collapse of the AAA industry.
"Assassin’s Creed Unity was released in a completely polished and perfectly complete, playable state."
This might sound like hyperbole, or unnecessary doom and gloom, but it is really not- it is something that is immediately apparent when one realizes all the things that they have complained about in the last few years. From a move from all publishers towards a big franchise model, where they only invest in some big name franchises, foregoing smaller IP and innovation, and milk those incessantly with annual releases, to the rise of anti consumer practices such as Season Passes and Resale Passes, to microtransactions in full games, to the launch of buggy games to the point that they are non functional – often with the full knowledge of the publisher – to foregoing actual game patches and updates in favor of DLC, to abusive and splintered pre-order bonuses, to the collapse of the mid tier publisher, to the much smaller number of AAA game releases, to poor treatment of the fanbase after the game has been sold, to paywalls for online play, the list could go on and on: gaming as an industry has become increasingly exploitative and cut throat. Most companies are very happy to risk angering the fanbase off, in favor of short term, immediate profits. After all, they reason, it doesn’t matter how outraged the fans are acting right now, when the new Assassin’s Creed or Batman game is released, they all will buy the title anyway. The sad part is, given the constant sales of those games, we are proving them right.
How did it come to this? There was a time, not so long ago, that when a game shipped to the consumer, it was feature complete and polished, and it functioned like it was expected to. There was a time not so long ago that the idea of paying for additional items in a game we had already purchased would have created an uproar. There was a time when publishers understood that a game sold to the consumer was half the job- they needed to work hard to retain their trust and goodwill. There was a time when pre-order bonuses for customers were meant to be a thank you, a show of appreciation for those customers who were willing to purchase their product even before they had any reason to be confident in it.
How did we come from that time to now, when a customer who pre-orders a Deus Ex game will not even get all the pre-order bonuses on offer, and will instead only get one gift from each ‘tier?’ How did we come to this, where the actual release of the game is being held ransom to there being a certain number of pre-orders? Try and think about this- Deus Ex will be complete before its release days, and ready for release at least four days before it is scheduled to launch- but it won’t, not unless Square Enix gets money from customers beforehand, money for a product that does not yet exist, that may yet be disappointing, money that customers should only spend when they are sure of the product’s quality, and when they want to, not because the actual game is being held ransom.
Think about it, to get everything that Watch Dogs had to offer, you would have had to buy it at least five different times, across at least three different store fronts. To get all of Deus Ex’s pre-order bonuses, you need to pre-order the game multiple times, and pick a different bonus each time. This is absolutely ridiculous.
"Batman: Arkham Knight’s PC port was so bad, they literally had to pull it from sale while they reworked it from the ground up."
The issue today is that as customers, we are now used to being taken advantage of. It’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome of the highest degree- most customers are happy to pre-order a game, to get an extra (purely cosmetic) costume in their game (something that would have been made available for free before, or have been a byline to much more substantial pre-order perks). Customers are happy to pay for the kinds of in game benefits and perks as DLC that earlier would have been free cheatcodes or easter eggs. Customers, in spite of all of their whining and bitching, will purchase the new Call of Duty, new Assassin’s Creed, new Battlefield, new Batman, new Destiny every single year, even though each new game in these series has been disappointing for a while now, and exploitative towards the customer, taking them for granted. They are willing to be taken for granted, and publishers, in all of their corporate greed, are more than willing to oblige.
The sad part is, we all can actually do something about this- consider the Microsoft Xbox One launch controversy, and how Microsoft backtracked on every single one of its policies, once we all made our displeasure with them unknown. We could all vote with our wallets- would it hurt us to not pre-order Deus Ex unless the pre-order program was changed? It’s not like the game will be in short supply at launch, you could just go and pick it up (or download it) when it launched. Would it hurt us to not buy a game until reviews sand impressions were out, and we knew whether it warranted a purchase? These games aren’t going anywhere, especially in the digital age, where they will always be on PSN, Xbox Live, or Steam- why the rush?
There used to be a time when publishers and developers had to earn a player’s trust. They did this by delivering the absolute best product that they could put out, and customers rewarded them by purchasing that product in high quantities. Good games did well, bad games sunk without a trace. That time is long gone now- now they can put out whatever they want, and it will still sell. They don’t need to worry about earning our respect, because they don’t need our respect for their titles to sell.
It’s time we changed that, though. The industry does not have to be this way- we can easily not pre-order. We can easily not purchase a game until we know that it is at least functional on a basic level (and maybe, even until we know it’s a game worth our time!). We can easily not pre-purchase DLC (what sense does that even make?); if you want the DLC in a cheap bundle, why not wait till all of it is out, and you know it’s worth it, and buy it then? And if it turns out that some of it is bad, you can just purchase the DLC that you know is good and also save money along the way.
We can do this- we can make the developers work for our business. We can make them understand that we won’t be taken for a ride. We can try to affect this change together, because if we don’t, then eventually the general public, having been burnt too many times, will just stop buying games, and the AAA industry will contract and maybe collapse.
But more than the fear or threat of that abstract future, if we care about our games right now, if we care about our hobby right now, and if we care about being respected as customers right now, we need to act. It’s time to affect some change- don’t pre-order these games. Don’t buy these games until you know they are worth the investment. Don’t purchase a Season Pass.
Cure the disease, and the symptom will go away by itself.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.