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Is There a Point to Digital Preorders Anymore? February 20, 2015

Posted by Maniac in Editorials.
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In 2004, Valve Software capitalized on the success of a digital distribution system that they created called Steam.  At the same time Valve was perfecting the Steam service, Valve was also working on Half-Life 2, a sequel to one of the greatest PC games of all time. When the time came to release the game, Valve decided to give their service the best chance of success, and offered all of its users the chance to preload Half-Life 2 before it was officially released. By choosing to download a game after you preordered it, anyone who purchased the game through Steam would be able to play it the second it was released. For PC users who had become accustomed to lengthy installations and day one patches, having a game ready to play the second it came out was too much of a good idea to pass on, and many people chose to purchase Half-Life 2 online instead of at retail. The Steam service took off.

Ten years later, game consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are now offering online preloading for retail titles that have been digitally purchased. The capabilities of both consoles’ online marketplaces are really going to give traditional retail channels a run for their money.  Or, at least, it sounds like they will on paper. In reality there are three major problems with digitally preordering games and I’m going to talk about each one. Half-Life 2 went on to be considered one of the best games ever made, but there’s no guarantee the next game you’re going to buy is even going to be good, and a lot of games get released before reviews are allowed to be published. The second is that these online services are still in their infancy, and there are still serious technical problems that they need to work out before game publishers widely adopt them. Finally, the biggest issue, is unlike retail preorders, you have to pay them in full up front and can’t cancel them.

Now it seems like digital publishers, especially the ones on the consoles, are using the concept of the preorder to get potential players to buy unreleased games far longer in advance than I would have thought imaginable, and this may turn out to be terrible for consumers.  I don’t think I need to remind anyone of the absolute buggy travesties that were the Triple-A game lineup leading up to Christmas of last year.  Halo: The Master Chief Collection was basically unplayable online for at least a month after it was released, and some people are still having issues getting it to work four months later.  Assassin’s Creed: Unity had major problems, which were mentioned in several reviews of the game, however embargos prevented those reviews from helping anyone who happened to preorder it.  Now, I admit the risk of buying a buggy, rushed title can be a problem with retail preorders just as much as it can be a problem with digital ones, however, depending on the digital service you used to purchase your game, it is a lot more difficult to sell, refund or trade a digital game purchase than if you had purchased a retail game.

So the real incentive to preorder digital content is so you can preload your content before its release and have your game ready to unlock the second it goes on sale. Sony alone has made it clear that they simply cannot do this well. I can think of at least two games on the PlayStation 4 which were only released on the PlayStation Store, Grim Fandango Remastered and inFAMOUS: First Light and in both cases the preorder process was extremely painful. While gamers were able to successfully preload inFAMOUS: First Light and play it at launch without much issue, getting Grim Fandango Remastered to download properly on a PS4 was a nightmare for anyone who had preordered it. Apparently the preloaded version of that game was so broken it would not work even after it unlocked. While you might assume it was a simple case of having to delete and redownload the game to fix the issue, the PS4’s PlayStation Store is so badly designed it could not tell that a purchased game that had been preloaded and deleted from a PS4’s hard drive was in fact deleted and this bad design prevented users who purchased the game from downloading a working version of it. Thankfully many users online found that by they could trick their PS4s into redownloading the game by forcing it to download through the iPhone’s PlayStation App, which was absolutely rediculous. It was without a doubt the most incompetent digital launch I have ever seen in my life.  If you had not preordered Grim Fandango Remastered, you would have been able to play it sooner. To postscript that story, the exclusive digital goodies that were promised to anyone who preordered either game also corrupted and had to be redownloaded or re-verified to run properly.  Given the fact that consoles are targeted hardware and the companies who made them are the ones hosting the online marketplaces that are selling these games, there is no excuse for these kinds of issues to happen. I mean, file corruption on a console is nearly unheard of. I’d have expected these kinds of technical issues on the PC.  On a side note, I don’t want people to assume this article was just a whipping boy for the PS4. There have been plenty of recent games have been released digitally through the PlayStation Store without incident, like the multiplatform adventure game Life is Strange.  It seems like Sony just can’t get their act together for games they are offering for prepurchase.  However, instead of giving these policies a second look, many digital publishers are doubling down on them, even though their services are clearly not ready.

PlayStation 4 games like Uncharted 4 and Until Dawn don’t even have a solid release date and yet you can preorder them right now on the Playstation Store at a full retail price of $59.99 US each. Why? Is there any concern Sony might run out of stock of either of those titles months before they even have a release date? Some of these games have been offered for preorder on the PlayStation Store since last year’s E3. That means anyone who purchased them when they were first offered for preorder may find themselves waiting over a year before their games finally unlock. And on top of that, Sony clearly states on their store that they are not going to issue refunds for digitally preordered content unless they are required to by law. That doesn’t sound very consumer friendly to me. Had you preordered your content at retail you would be eligible for a refund if you don’t pick up your game, or at the very least you would be able to transfer your preorder to buy a different game.

One last postscript to this story. As I was writing this editorial the highly anticipated PS4 title The Order: 1886 was released. Sony delayed the digital release of the game by three hours on the East Coast to launch the game at the same time across the US, 12 Midnight PST. However, retail copies of the game went on sale at 12 Midnight EST (three hours earlier), and they worked just fine. Ladies and gentlemen, that is the first time I can think of in gaming history that a simultaneous digital and retail launch actually ensured that retail customers would play their games first.  I appreciate companies giving consumers a choice in preordering their games digitally, but it has more often then not turned out to be a bad choice.  Hopefully these issues will be worked out over time.  Consumers, myself included, are already wary of the digital marketplace that has kept screwing up.  In the near future I plan to keep spending my money at retail.

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