This post is in response to an opinion piece that Ben Kuchera editor of Polygon posted recently, he used Alien Isolation as an example (and for search traffic no doubt), but was talking about the industry in general, this post will do the same, so forgive me if there isn't much Alien Isolation in it. His argument was essentially "pre-ordering a game doesn't help the consumer. It helps everyone else." He then goes onto explain pre-order numbers are good for publishers and retailers. Of course they're good for publishers and retailers.
But maybe they're good for consumers too? Ben, a smart bloke as he is, seems to be under the impression that for consumers to win, publishers and retailers have to lose. Or if publishers and retailers win, consumers lose. Is there no win-win situation here?
For gamers to win, publishers and developers need to make money. Else they won't make any new games. PC gamers felt this especially so a few years ago many fantastic franchises weren't getting new games, no new Age of Empires, no new Homeworld, no new Flight Simulator, no new Rise of Nations, no new MechWarrior. It was a grim time. Studios closing left and right. The games PC gamers did get were generally designed for consoles - hurting sales even more as we refused to buy them with their wonky menu systems that didn't make sense with a mouse. Today the PC is in much better shape, we'll see a similar transition in consoles in time, fewer AAA titles more indie stuff, more digital and less retail.
But console gamers are still all about big budget games and retail, Alien Isolation is just such a game. We see games being released and their studios going bust, games coming out and their publishers cancelling plans for a sequel. Retailers shutting down almost daily.
But despite all that they're all making money right? Wrong.
The only people who make any money are Activision-Blizzard and Electronic Arts, and at a push maybe Ubisoft, all propped up by a handful of popular core titles that sell fairly predictably every year. Everyone else is fighting over the crumbs.
Specialist game retailers aren't making any money either, certainly not on new software releases. If they're not making money out of new games, they won't bother buying the stock off the publisher, retailers are more conservative than ever when it comes to getting stock, they just don't have the money to risk.
Pre-orders are vitally important as long as we have a large percentage of sales happening in retail. Have you tried to walk into a shop to buy a copy of Wolfenstein, Sniper Elite 3 or Pokémon Art Academy lately? I have, and left empty handed, they all came out just weeks ago, no where to be found. Apart from maybe pre-owned if you're lucky, and then you've just denied the publisher and development any return on their investment.
In that situation the retailer is barely effected, they sold all their stock, OK maybe they lost a few quid from not having enough copies, but better lose a few quid than blow loads on unsold inventory. The effect on the publisher however is huge, the longer it takes that gamer to find that game the more likely it is they'll lose interest and close their wallet.
Retailers won't buy the stock in unless they're sure people are going to buy it. Margins are too thin for them to gamble.
Part of the problem is games are too cheap. 14 years ago the price of a typical new release, say FIFA 2001 was £44.99. Today, FIFA 15 can be pre-purchased for £52.99. An increase of 17% you say? Inflation over the same period in the UK is 46%, so in actual fact, games are about 20% cheaper than they used to be, despite costing many times more to produce nowadays.
Normally you would make that up in volume, but the console market has barely grown. What growth there was with the last-generation was almost entirely down to the Wii, a console that sold extremely well, but had very low attach rates, the casual gamers it introduced to gaming just didn't buy any games. Today those same people have all moved onto smartphones, Facebook or tablets.
If you don't put money behind games you want, you won't get them.
Sega two days ago announced their pre-order DLC, this isn't something new, almost every big game has had pre-order DLC for several years now. Now normally I'm generally opposed to "stuff that should have been on the disc", like the Oblivion horse armour and don't buy it, I don't generally miss it. But this DLC doesn't belong on the disc, why? Because it's totally unrelated to the main game, its missions set 20 odd years prior on-board the Nostromo. If that was randomly included with the main game it would stick out like a sore thumb, and reviewing it I would certainly ask what the hell is it doing here? But it makes the perfect pre-order DLC, something every Alien fan would go, oh wow, cool.
He goes on to say "there is no reason in the modern market to pay for a game before it comes out, and everyone involved in the business knows it."
What a joke, everyone knows that business model is at risk, has this guy not heard of Early Access on Steam? Full of amazing little gems under development like DayZ, Rust, and of course Space Engineers. They've sold over a half a million copies of a game very early in development, its playable, but with a tiny fraction of the features it will eventually have. Because of those early backers Keen Software House are now able to invest in the talent to create a Space Engineers far grander than anything they could have thought possible a year ago. It will make it a far better game as a result and as a gamer I want better games, and I'm willing to risk £15 to get it - plus have something to play now.
Also look at Kickstarter, everyone at Gamercast has backed games on Kickstarter. Spending up to £150 on some games like Elite Dangerous and Broken Sword, because we want them. Years before any release, with no guarantee they'll be any good. Because we want them, and often its the only way for us to get them.
This is all relatively normal stuff for PC gamers nowadays, because its a better business model than risking £10 million developing some block-buster AAA game that might not sell quite well enough. Sure, I might potentially stand to lose a few quid, but I'll risk a few quid backing something early in development to get a game I want that otherwise wouldn't get.
Think consoles are immune? They're not. Games are too expensive to make, and there aren't enough gamers to fund the ever-growing more expensive games and the risk it carries. Gamers need to help out if they want new exciting AAA games, or aside from a small set of yearly franchises they'll die out. Consoles will move the same direction as the PC, cut out retailers, cut out pre-owned, and eventually give gamers the option of buying games early in development like on the PC nowadays.
Ben tries to draw comparisons with Aliens: Colonial Marines, and fails. Everyone knew Colonial Marines was going to be rubbish months before release, it had the writing on the wall. Heck just look at it. Unlike ACM, everyone knows Alien: Isolation has the potential to be amazing. If you like survival-horror-stealth games, pre-order it, get some extra juicy missions for your trouble. If the reviews come out and you don't like the look of it, cancel your pre-order, it's not as difficult as Ben makes it out, maybe he just needs to do his shopping in a different store.
If we all had Ben's attitude the gaming landscape would be a bland affair, with hundreds of bankrupt studios left fallen, no real innovation happening with Call of Duty and FIFA the only titles that make any money. If that's what you called gaming, I'll pass.
Ben calls it "consumer hostility". I call it "I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine".
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