Posted on December 15, 2022 in Technology

Pre-Ordering: Mostly Disappointment

You’ve likely seen it hit the news: a game available for pre-order has disappointed it’s fans. “CyberPunk 2077 was a disappointment”. “No Man’s Sky fails to deliver” (they fixed that, BTW). Why do fans keep pre-buying video games if all evidence points to them sucking at first release? More importantly, why do studios keep falling into the trap?

Hedging Bets

Even good studios can put out bad games, and it usually comes from rushing. Game studios are hedging their bets when they release pre-orders for a game, and hoping they’ll be able to finish it in time for the release date they’ve set. Frequently, they cannot. Cyberpunk was delayed three separate times, and each time they still weren’t ready. Even the final release wasn’t ready, and a big first day patch came through just so they could deliver something on the day they promised. Even that wasn’t enough – the game simply wasn’t ready, and glitches were everywhere.

Investors in a game will push, and push, and push to get the game out as soon as possible. Delays are only allowed to be a few months long, and if they work their engineers to death to get the game out? So be it. It’s a deeply unpleasant situation to be caught in for the studio: they have to listen to investors, and they have to listen to fans, but the game’s a buggy mess and trying to fix it is only creating more bugs. The devs are exhausted; they’re working 80-120 hr workweeks to get all the promised features out. There’s no way that keeps code bug-free, but pre-ordering is another way of putting stress on the studio to get the game out ‘on time’. “These fans will be disappointed, and it’ll be your fault”.

Preorders ensure someone’s getting the money on time, even if the product isn’t ready to sell. Fans have been burnt by this so many times that a growing movement to stop preordering completely is beginning to appear on forums like Reddit.

How is it getting so out of hand?

Over-Reliance on First Day Patches

First day patches are useful for a lot of things, but they’re primarily for small bugs and glitches that didn’t appear in the test environment. Try as you might, you’ll never cover every possible set-up for a game. It’s not meant to be a real solution to rushed play-testing, and the latest Pokemon game is great proof of that – numerous bugs that could have been discovered had the studio been given more time are instead being discovered and shared all over the internet.

Pre-ordering is supposed to build hype. It’s supposed to give the game studio an accurate look at their playerbase’s numbers, and sometimes stats on what kind of devices are going to be playing it. It is not extended development time, but game producers are increasingly treating the first round of players as beta testers for the game instead of people who ordered it early. This is not a good approach for many reasons. Obviously, the fans will be disappointed… but so will the critics, who have also preordered because they want to write articles and reviews about the game. The critics aren’t going to wait for that patch because they themselves don’t have time to wait. Not when every other critic is also playing the game to review it. Giving the reviewers a half-finished game means getting graded on a project that wasn’t complete.

Controlling the Hype Train

Hype Trains exist everywhere, so this isn’t just for pre-ordered games. Essentially, a hype train is what happens when fans talk to each other on forums and get excited about a product. This is a good thing! When fan expectations are met or exceeded, they’ll have a good time, they’ll feel good that they spent money on the product, and they leave with positive things to tell others who haven’t bought the product yet. Hype trains have a positive synergy with advertising.

When fan expectations are subverted, they can still have a lot of fun on the journey, and this can also build the hype train. The advertising should still contain the whole essence of the final product, though. For example, 1917 subverted the expectations I’d built based on the trailers, but I still knew it was a war movie. Finding good features, segments, or characters not advertised in the game build can have this effect. Users tell others there’s twists and turns, and that creates hype.

Trying to use a hype train without decent grounds to back it up is a recipe for disaster. How many times have you heard the saying ‘if a comedy movie has to tell you it’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s probably not that funny’? The advertisers are trying to build some misleading hype for a product that they can tell isn’t that good. This works less and less the more advertising uses it. Fans become jaded over time, and less inclined to believe statements made in the advertising of other products from the studio. The same goes for games!

Loss of Steering

Even worse, failure to control the hype train can make even good games feel like trash in comparison to what was actually advertised, and the fans do it to themselves because the studio either A) doesn’t provide enough material, or B) promises too much in early development. Some of the things that disappointed fans about Cyberpunk were things the fans made up! While the flying cars were shown in the trailer, there wasn’t any promise that you’d get to actually drive them.

The trailers were released way too far away from the actual release, so fans had nothing to do but sit and discuss, and – in typical forum fashion – they begin overanalyzing material while they waited for more. The hype train was already out of control by the time CD Projekt Red realized they weren’t going to be releasing on time. Getting Keanu Reeves in on it only made the problem worse: Keanu is near-universally loved for his acting. Surely, a beloved action star wouldn’t sign on to a bad game?

Hype train.

Damage Control is a Bitterant

A hypothetical: It’s annoying to have an event delayed due to weather. It’s more annoying when you’ve invested yourself in going to this event, and you’ve pre-paid for your tickets, and the event managers really don’t want to give you your money back.

Even worse, the event finally happens, and the main event isn’t “Pop Team”, it’s “Pop Teag”, and it’s one guy with an accordion instead of the girl group you thought you’d bought tickets for. You look at the stub, and it definitely says, “Pop Team”, but the doorman insists that it was always going to be Mr. Pop Teag on stage, even though the advertising in front of the building also says “Featuring Pop Team.”

At this point, even if Pop Teag is good, you’re pretty freaking annoyed. You came for Electro-pop, and instead the managers are offering Appalachian accordion music.

You’re angry, your friends are disappointed. You vow never to come back to the place that hosted Pop Teag under false pretenses. no matter how many good shows you’ve gone to in the past there.

This is what game studios keep doing to themselves. They promise features that aren’t there, they end up delaying pre-paid tickets and holding the money hostage, and then when push comes to shove, they try to lean on the optimists saying “oh, accordion’s not that bad, I’m still having a good time!” Yeah, the accordion’s fine. But it’s not what they printed on the ticket, it’s not what the posters advertised, and it’s not what players were expecting when they paid for the tickets. Studios can’t be relying on their old fans to make up for the experience new fans are getting. Eventually, they’ll burn through their fans’ goodwill and patience.

Stop pre-ordering games, but also: stop releasing incomplete games!