I can barely remember a time when anticipating a game's release and then snapping it up on day one hasn't played a part in my enjoyment of games. I know I'm not the only one. We read previews, scramble to catch leaked footage, and sometimes we go so far as to put money down ahead of time. All this is because we love our games and want to celebrate their arrival, but lately it seems the incentive for doing so is becoming less and less rewarding.
I think the first time I actually knew the date a game would come out was back in 1993 when the home release of Mortal Kombat was scheduled for September 13th, or as it was infamously known, "Mortal Monday". For weeks before the game dropped, you couldn't pick up a comic book or gaming magazine without seeing a full-page or even back cover advertisement telling you to "Prepare Yourself" for "Mortal Monday, September 13" over an image of hundreds of amped up fans flooding the street as if they were about to riot.
Up to this point, buying games was a matter of being surprised and delighted when they suddenly turned up on store shelves. There was no social media campaign to keep the game in the headlines every week for months on end. There were no YouTube trailers and there was no bonus content offered if you pre-ordered the game. Hell, I'm not sure pre-orders were even a thing back then. The Friday before Mortal Monday, I called the KB Toys in my local mall to make sure they were getting the game on Monday and my life was thrown into temporary chaos when the clerk told me they had already begun selling the game that day. According to the clerk, somebody in Chicago had been selling the game earlier that week, so all bets were off and everybody was free to start moving copies.
I asked if they would hold a copy until my dad and I would be able to get there in an hour and to my surprise, the clerk agreed. No money down, no credit card needed for the hold, he just simply agreed to do it as a service to me, the customer. I was lucky he was nice enough to do so because when we arrived, the only copy the store had left was the one on hold for me. It would turn out that Mortal Friday was the day I should have prepared myself for. I spent the weekend playing out endless matches on my Genesis, pleased that this amazing arcade game was finally playable in my home.
What a different experience that was from where things are now. I'd never be able to get a store to hold a copy anymore because they'd just ask me if I pre-ordered it and then scold me when I told them I hadn't. Now we have "Day One" DLC where characters, gameplay modes, and other various forms of content are locked behind an extra transaction after you may have already paid what is considered full price for a game. Then there are the retailer exclusive bonuses that leave you either buying more than one copy to get everything, or doing your best educated guess at which item you think you'd want most. Some games even have collector's editions that don't include all the content that the non-collector's editions have, or they'll even exclude the game itself as seen with Wolfenstein and Dragon Age. High profile games like Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Assassin's Creed: Unity, and DriveClub even launched last year with problems that at their worst would render the games unplayable.
If you pre-ordered one of those broken games, your reward was a game that simply didn't deliver what was promised. In the case of Halo, it may still not depending on your reasons for buying the game. 343 Industries recently announced a beta for a patch that would fix Halo, but then canceled it soon after. I have no idea where that leaves Halo players for now, but I would be very disappointed if I were one of them. I would hope that the experience would encourage those players to take their Halo 5 pre-order under consideration and decide if they are okay with running the risk of that kind of disappointment again.
So what the hell is going on here? It seems like the push for making games more profitable is getting out of control. Lofty sales goals from publishers combined with a competitive market have placed studios in a tough spot. Its not enough to sell a million copies of a game anymore, now you need to move ten million and do it every year making a franchise that can be annualized and then figure out a way to drum up some DLC sales. Somebody in management spends a month looking at the game and figuring out a way to sell three different versions containing various trinkets with enough markup to make them super profitable, meanwhile their boss is drafting a speech in the event that the entire team needs to be laid off if it turns out that pre-order numbers are too low nearing release.
In short, things are hard on both sides of the transaction. Consumers are getting half-baked games that need more time in development, while the studios behind them are getting squeezed by unrealistic deadlines and expectations. How do we win here? Personally, I think it has to begin with the consumer. Its up to us to slow down the hype machine and begin to protect ourselves a bit more. In terms of having access to a game without actually buying it, we've never had it so good. Between YouTube and Twitch, it is easier than ever to see what a game looks like as somebody plays it in a natural environment. The PS4 even has "Live From PlayStation" where you can watch the game of your choosing as long as somebody is streaming it. Even Steam recently announced streaming as a standard feature for the entire service. Granted, this doesn't always apply as some games are shrouded in secrecy right up to release, but it is still fair to say we have more access to games than ever before.
I used to buy games blindly, but after getting burned by bugs and content, I'm definitely more cautious about throwing my money behind a title. Take Call of Duty Ghosts as an example. I purchased that game at launch in 2013 specifically for the Extinction mode that had been heavily marketed just before the game's release. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Extinction mode only had one level to play on with just four more planned that would take the next several months to fully materialize and of course, it would require me to spend an extra $60 to get them. This was for the mode that prompted my purchase. I had no idea going in and had to learn this the hard way. Now you could argue that I didn't do my homework and you'd be partly correct. I didn't know Extinction only had one level because none of the trailers or pre-release materials said anything about it. Not only that, but none of the reviews I saw at the time gave the mode more than a passing mention because for some reason everyone just focused on covering the solo campaign and the versus modes. So while that info wasn't readily available, there are still forums where I could have asked about it and found some answers, but truth be told I did not have any reason to suspect it would only have the one level. Had I not been so ready to fork over money on day one, I might have watched some streams and noticed the mode in question seemed to be lacking content.
Another factor I had not considered at the time was that the game would likely go on sale in the near future. Games that release in the Fall and Winter months typically see considerable discounts through various sales and promotions, often in a very short period of time. Last year, The Evil Within had not even been on shelves for a month before it could be purchased for half off. Shadow of Mordor also got the half off treatment, just a little under two months from release.
This brings me to The Order: 1886 which will have released for PlayStation 4 by the time this goes up. I think that game in particular has had an interesting development around it. Late last week, a handful of players uploaded entire playthroughs of the game to YouTube, one of which had a total playtime just under six hours. It is not known how they came to receive their copies of the game, but news of this spread through forums and online communities like wildfire, to a degree where the developers themselves began coming online to comment on it, assuring potential buyers that this particular run was not indicative of the average playthrough and that most people would take somewhere between eight and ten hours to finish the game.
Within my own personal circle of gaming friends, a few of us saw the video in question and decided that the game definitely did not warrant a purchase at launch. I know if I were to spend $60 and complete the game in six hours, I would probably find myself thinking about how I should have waited a few months for it to go on sale. Value in a game is very subjective, but I can say that I no longer jump in for full price as easily as I used to in years past, simply because I know sales will not be far behind in most cases. If it is a game I absolutely want to play right away, I'll still get in on ground level, but otherwise its hard not to think about how $60 can now often buy two games instead of just one.
Part of what kept me in the "Day One Club" in the past has been the feeling of community and shared exploration I get from discussing games around release. Every podcast I listen to focuses on the new games that just came out, the message boards I visit are always full of threads for those games, and my Twitter feed is full of people commenting on their new adventures. However, as I get older I begin to think that this discussion and feeling of inclusion can be a bit overrated at times. Unless it is my circle of friends, my online hangouts are full of what feels like increasing numbers of negative people who just complain about everything. Granted, there are a number of wonderful people out there as well, but sometimes the negativity can be hard to filter out. I don't always care about frames per second or how many P's a game can support. According to some people out there, if its not a rock solid 60 frames running at 1080p, its completely unplayable. Who the hell wants to take those people seriously? Then again, I'm not sure I'd want to filter out the negativity all the time. Sometimes people aren't being negative at all and they're simply holding teams responsible for shoddy work.
Navigating this stuff is like a balancing act. What is truth and what is exaggeration? Earlier this week I bought a copy of Dead or Alive 5: Last Round on PlayStation 4. I decided at the last moment that I was willing to take a chance on it despite all the negative things I had read that morning about crashes and performance issues from people who had purchased it digitally. I hadn't been following the game's pre-release hype very closely, but I knew the game was intended to be the definitive edition and a sort of "greatest hits" with tons of content and some new graphical perks. I decided to take a chance and hope that the technical issues and underwhelming graphics were exaggerated as they sometimes are on internet forums.
Having played several hours of it now, I can say that the majority of the problems I read about were definitely not an issue for me. Graphically it is the upgrade I was hoping for, and while I've experienced a few brief freezes that sorted themselves out after about five seconds, it honestly isn't enough of an annoyance to make me regret my purchase. That's not to say I don't expect Team Ninja to issue a patch though. I certainly want them to do right by the people who are reporting more severe problems with crashes and it would be nice to see them address the one small issue I encountered as well. That said, I think the game looks phenomenal and I have been having an absolute blast playing it. This is one situation where ignoring what I read was the right call.
How will I know next time though? When will ignoring others bite me in the ass and open the door for endless posts of "I told you so"? Well, never if I play my cards right. All I have to do in the future is wait it out and see what friends and trusted online resources have to say. Failing that, there's always Gamefly or Redbox for making my own decision with little investment. I know it is easier said than done because the pull of the hype machine is strong, but in this new age of broken games and rapid sales, don't we owe it to ourselves to be more cautious and responsible?
Back at the start of the year, I set a goal for myself. I vowed that in 2015 I would not spend more than $300 on videogames and related equipment, with the only exceptions being my PlayStation Plus renewal and a possible deal on an Xbox One that is simply too incredible to pass up. The reason I set my limit as $300 is because I feel it will force me to more closely examine several factors leading up to launch. Will the game be likely to go on sale soon? What kind of content can I expect to find? Is the game largely dependent on online services in order to function? If so, how confident am I that there will not be any issues that could make the game unplayable? Is it realistic to expect a full game without purchasing any DLC, or will the DLC be considered "must have"? What is the track record of the development studio looking like these days?
All of these questions are things to be taken under careful consideration now. Not that they never were before, but when I'm treating my $300 limit like a game itself, they are more important than ever. I think the question of online stability is especially relevant as well. I no longer plan to play an online game the night of release because it is such a crap shoot as to whether or not it will be stable that first day. In fact, its pretty common to see an online game experience server issues for the first few days. Most of us have come to just accept this as the law of the land and prepare accordingly. Still though, official twitter accounts and message boards will be inundated with complaints and horror stories because there will always be people who just expected the game they purchased to actually work. Imagine that!
So now I open the floor to the rest of you. Do you find yourself with a tighter hold on your gaming funds now? Does anyone get a free pass, or is no one safe from scrutiny? Do you pre-order games? If so, what is the motivating factor for you? Feel free to comment below and continue the discussion!