January 28, 2015 | Written By: Alex Schwartz
Flash back to the end of the 20th century when gaming was just beginning to break ground of what has defined modern gaming. There were no console wars, no online-only games and no abusive DRM, back to a time when the focus was on entertainment first, a lost premise in today’s world. While the advancement of the internet has made a lot of things possible it has also oversaturated the gaming market with advertisements, reviews, and enough hype to fuel a train for years. With the advancing time comes new methods of selling video games and consoles; however, with a multi-billion dollar industry, the gaming market has given birth to some of the world’s most deceptive marketing tactics that threaten the integrity of the industry as a whole. Guard that wallet as we explore the deceptive marketing of pre-orders, promotions, betas and deceptive hype in this month’s Wonderful World of Gaming.
Power of Pre-Orders
Pre-ordering something popular isn’t exactly a new premise as many different industries utilize it – from a consumer perspective, the idea is to ensure they are able to obtain the product upon release instead of it selling out. In the realm of finite quantity items like concert or sporting event tickets, this is a useful and worthwhile practice as it also benefits the seller with promised sales at a much earlier date. However, when it comes to the world of gaming, pre-orders have an entirely different purpose of pushing sales early, before feedback or reviews can hit the main waves. While this may not seem entirely deceptive, combined with a few other standards that have taken rise lately, it works to a singular goal: screw over the consumer.
One of the facets of most gaming media groups is the process of reviewing games for the consumer. What use to be consumer fueled has turned into a very different fight, with big companies getting early access to games but often at a price. It’s not exactly a secret that game developers would want positive reviews, therefore giving preference to groups that have shown them favor in the past – with the massive market that exists around game review content, it’s hard to trust what is put out by big name media groups knowing that their access to early copies of the game (thereby being able to hit the market first) may be threatened if they don’t put out a positive review. Again, this isn’t exactly “news” in the gaming world today as it has been seen (and admitted to) by numerous writers and groups.
If you go to purchase something tangible like a chair or desk and the quality is not what one expected, the standard approach is to return it for a refund. However, with the advent of the digital age came along pirating, illegal copying, and the provision of refused returns on most digital and electronic equipment due to the immediate loss of value. From the seller’s perspective, the loss of value is too high to warrant allowing returns – the same premise applies to video games. Obviously a player could purchase the game, beat it quickly, and return it, creating a zero-cost venture. Even more, they could copy the game, produce video content and more, all of which could make money and thereby providing a free source of income for specifically talented individuals. Understandable stance but it does mean one simple thing: when it comes to a video game, if the quality is unacceptable, there is no standard recourse, except for resale (which we’ll talk about in a second).
Going a step further is the pushing of digital content, which removes many of the production costs associated with releasing a game and allows a bit more direct sales, which can save money for the original seller. This has brought some positives however, allowing Indie developers to not require a publisher to release a game due to services like Steam assisting in the venture but it also eliminates a basic realm of consumer relations – the ability to purchase and sell used video games. If a digital product is purchased it is owned permanently, meaning there is no resale, no loss of potential income to the publisher. This becomes all the more important when realizing that pre-order benefits have been combined with digital product sales more than any other in recent years with an estimated 33% of games released in 2014 having some sort of pre-sale benefit for pre-loading the game.
Bringing It Together
While each component on its own doesn’t seem all that bad the combined effect is strong enough to push suspicion towards a targeted strike. Providing a system that offers benefits to pre-orders a game, restricting review copies of their game to industries that will help promote the game (or restricting early reviews completely, a practice Ubisoft has made their official motto lately) and working in a consumer relation that essentially pushes the idea that it doesn’t matter how good a game is as long as the hype is powerful enough to sell it. Take a look at recent titles, the issues they had and how angry people were, yet in all major situations (Assassin’s Creed: Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Destiny) that contained game-breaking glitches or problems at release, the company covered development costs, with a large percentage of their sales coming from pre-orders. Destiny alone provides a striking example, containing a record-setting 2.2 million pre-orders across all platforms and given their $500 million net on day 1, an estimated 2.5 million additional copies were sold bringing the initial totals to around 4.7 million, more than half of the total 6 million copies sold in the US alone. All of the games above sold more than half of their copies in pre-orders or in the first 24 hours of release. Compare this to other games that didn’t have a lot of hype yet did surprisingly well, like Shadow of Mordor, which had around 100 thousand pre-orders and sold a total of 1.75 million in the US alone!
What does this mean for the consumer? Simply put, pre-orders are built to screw over the consumer, bring in the cash for the developer and publishers regardless of the quality of the product. This mentality is why they have been successful in pushing day-one DLC, major patches to fix issues that should never have made it to release, server instability and gross negligence in testing. By pre-ordering the game, we the consumer put more emphasis on marketing and hype than quality.
Alpha/Beta Tests – The Modern Free Demo
Going back to the older days of gaming, a common practice was to offer a small free demo of a game, often given out through magazines, stores, or events intended to encourage and entice players to purchase the game. This was a tactical choice, often showing just enough to make the player want to learn more or highlighting a middle portion of the game that showed off the best assets of the game. Today, companies have abandoned the demo process and instead replaced it with the early access Alpha/Beta events seen recently with major titles such as Destiny, Call of Duty, and Evolve. While similar in premise, they have a massively distinct difference that is all a part of the marketing – when given a demo, the game has already been released and invested in, meaning it has to be a finished product. A demo contains a snippet of a full product so if the quality of the demo is poor, logic follows that the game would be too. With a Beta, companies, publishers, and the great media outlets advertise it as “just a Beta”, a sneaky marketing practice that helps cover up glaring issues and errors with the fact that it isn’t a finished product.
Anyone of the 4 million players that were a part of the Destiny Beta at some point saw and gave feedback on an assortment of issues that ranged from being able to trade items to the loot system making little sense to overall repetitive gameplay. All these items became common topics in what many described as a lackluster performance, yet the game sold enough copies to cover the full cost of development before noon on the day of release! Even more, the same issues everyone claimed (and Bungie said they would fix) were still there at release – in fact, one of the most glaring oversights existed in their own loot system, with legendary engrams being identified as rare and common items, a mistake that required a huge patch to change. What was the point of the Beta if no testing actually occurred?
Betas Are The New Demos
The problem today is that everyone wants access to a game as soon as possible. With rushed development timelines, tons of media presence, hyped events like E3 and PAX, there is a lot of pressure on developers to show their best assets. Unfortunately, this has led publishers to care more about making the outside pretty than the quality content of the game itself – this has been seen more times than one can count recently with bugged releases, server shutdowns, and some pretty horrible games that took months of patching to fix or a piece of DLC to fix. Why does this work? Consumers in general are getting lied to because we allow them to do it.
Think back to what I said about the Destiny beta – when the issues were showcased, it was pushed aside because of it being a Beta – it’ll get fixed before release. Then, when it wasn’t fixed at release and more issues arose, people pushed it aside with patch fixes and DLC. Well, the first DLC for Destiny has come out and not only does it add virtually nothing not the overall story, it was one of the single most pathetic DLC content pieces ever seen for a paid DLC, providing less than an hour of content for those in single player and resetting numerous elements of the game without giving useful information to everyone. Now imagine instead you played a demo of Destiny and saw many of the issues showcased. To help sell the game they would probably introduce you to legendaries to help entice one, perhaps by giving you a free legendary engram. Then when you took it to the cryptarch and got crap in response, you’d decide it was completely flawed as a game! Instead, we all talked it off as a Beta, or patchable, or fixed with DLC.
Consumers Are The Problem
Deceptive marketing tactics are not a new element to any industry in the world – just take a look at politics, they are essentially built on marketing. However, in many other realms of the world, a bad product has recourse – it can be returned, fixed, or threaten future sales. When it comes to the world of gaming, we refused to learn from previous mistakes despite knowing that giving them the power to pull these things is unacceptable. Take Ubisoft as an example – the issues from Unity were so bad they decided to give away a free copy of a game to those that pre-ordered the Season Pass and a free DLC to everyone – that free DLC was more glitchy than the game upon release. Quality is not what they aim for, instead, it’s sales, marketing, and money.
As a consumer, we have to be informed as much as possible but sometimes we can’t get the information in time. That being said, you wouldn’t pre-order a motor vehicle without testing it out first, reading some market research, and more right? Therefore, stop pre-order video games, stop giving that money away early and instead wait to see what reviews are saying before wasting money. Force companies to put a larger effort on the quality of the game instead of how much hype they can throw into an advertisement on media websites.
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