In the days before every console was connected to the internet, games needed to be polished and ready to play at launch. There were no patches, no DLC—the game was what it was until a sequel or expansion came out. This meant developers had to take their time ensuring the game ran as smoothly as possible, no matter what weird things players did over the course of the game.
Now things are a little different. Game glitches can be addressed in patches and DLC can expand the story without requiring another full-price purchase. An increased demand for open-world gameplay and realistic graphics means there are limitless opportunities for things to go wrong, and some big-name distributors want games delivered on a yearly basis to keep both profits and gamer interest up.
Unfortunately, what distributors want and what developers can deliver aren't always in line. We're seeing increasing numbers of delayed games, but that's not the real problem—we're also seeing disastrous game launches rife with glitches, review embargoes, and complete inaccessibility. These disappointing launches leave gamers wondering whether pre-ordering games is really worth it anymore, and what they can do to change things.
How Pre-order Games Have Changed the Industry
Pre-order games used to be a safeguard against going to pick up a game on release day and finding stores out of stock—with the prevalence of digital distribution, this is less of a concern. Nowadays, pre-order games are primarily for bonuses—buying a game before release is now a matter of weighing whether GameStop or Steam is offering the best incentive to buy. For many distributors, pre-order games are less about gauging the interest in a particular title and more about ensuring they've hooked gamers before a game's actual release.
And with releases like we've been seeing recently, that's not much of a surprise. Assassin's Creed Unity attracted major attention for a glitch-filled release that had the game's protagonist falling through the streets of revolution-era Paris and coming up against characters without facial textures, leading to some truly terrifying cutscenes.
Worse, review copies were under embargo, meaning reviewers were asked not to publish reviews until noon on launch day. According to a BBC article, the embargo was due to the game's multiplayer content, which would require a populated world for reviews to be accurate. Intended or no, this meant that many gamers picked up copies before reviews pointed out the game's technical problems and other downsides. Given Ubisoft's desire to release one Assassin's Creed game per year, it's no surprise that many gamers concluded that the game was released before developers could polish it to an acceptable standard. In response to criticisms, Ubisoft offered players a free game from their catalog, provided the player agreed to terms of service that included an agreement not to sue the company for any claims against Assassin's Creed Unity.
Are Pre-Order Games Dying Out?
When the Nintendo 64's release was delayed, Shigeru Miyamoto was famed for saying, "A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad." Though he said this before the prevalence of patches and DLC, a rushed game still tarnishes a reputation. Pre-orders are down across the industry as a whole, likely due in part to the less than ideal launches of highly anticipated titles like SimCity, Destiny, and the Halo Master Chief Collection. That might mean decreased profits for distributors as gamers wait for bundles or sales, but what does it mean for gamers?
Pre-ordering used to be important for ensuring you'd get a copy of a game, but that's not the case anymore. Refusing to pre-order games is one method gamers can use to make their disappointment with practices like glitchy releases and server access queues known. Unfortunately, the current state of the pre-order system takes advantage of consumer loyalty. Loyalty is be fine, but the price of that is seeing so many game launches fraught with bugs that make them nearly unplayable.
How Do Glitchy Releases Impact Developers?
Are all developers and distributors taking advantage of fan loyalty to release broken games? Absolutely not. Releasing a broken game does nothing for developers other than tarnish their reputations, and it's more likely that this keeps happening because of tight production schedules, expensive budgets, and the anticipation of profit. It's a system that does little to help anybody, as gamers struggle with buggy releases and distributors deal with the aftermath of failed launches.
Something about the pre-order system needs to change. Gamers can refuse to purchase games before release en masse, but it's also important that distributors realize gamers are willing to wait for a well-crafted game. Despite several delays, Bioshock Infinite was one of the most celebrated games of 2013, leaving many to reflect on how the delays added to the polish of the finished product.
With digital distribution growing and physical sales down, we're already in the midst of a sea change for video game sales. As time goes on, we can only hope that the failures will be addressed and that more distributors will recognize that most gamers prefer polished, fun games later—rather than the frustration of a glitchy and unplayable mess right away.