BUYING INTO THE CONCEPT

Pre-ordering is a fairly regular practice these days, but that doesn’t disguise its shady nature. Or, at least that’s what a good number of consumers discovered last month with the release of Aliens: Colonial Marines, which bombed harder than a 90’s Manc at a warehouse rave (International readers click here). Reviewers were quick to assault the title with scathing criticism but, alas, it was too late – enough wallets had already been squeezed dry with little promise of refund, leaving many sad, angry and even embarrassed to have been conned into such an abysmal purchase. The trick of the pre-order is that it confirms a sale before release, no matter the quality of content and, very gleefully, playing on the commitment of the fans to their chosen franchise.

There are a few different paths our favourite developers like to take when releasing AAA titles, the most infamous being that of Collector’s Editions. Often promising a lavish array of soundtracks, art books or plastic sculptures, these are probably the most ‘fair’ of the group and can genuinely provide the odd fan with a good bit of extra enjoyment, if only to litter their shelves with a few more video relics. What is not so generous, however, is the popular trend of ‘in-game content’ that has begun to spread across the genres like a digital plague. Obscure perks, such as alternate character costumes and weapons (looking at you, Dead Space 3), are not exactly what I’d consider worth the extra cost, especially since they are being purposefully withheld from the community to earn a few extra coins. Exclusive DLC is certainly a target in this, revealing that more content had actually been created before release, but only for those willing to invest. To put that into layman’s terms, imagine buying a BLT, except you can only redeem the bacon at an additional cost.

Aliens: Colonial Marines – a sandwich without a filling…

Crystal Dynamics’ recent, gritty reboot of Tomb Raider managed to push the pre-ordering boat out into a new area of uncharted waters with uncertain consequence. Implementing a Kickstarter-esque reward system usually reserved for ‘we will produce what we can create’ situations, fans were coerced into investing early to unlock additional perks, which included digital artwork, copies of older games and the aforementioned horror of horrors, exclusive DLC. The question these kinds of systems are beginning to raise is how much content will developers be willing to withhold in future if it guarantees definitive sales? Not only is this bad practice, but our continued flocking to pre-order regardless of this fact only promotes its existence and influence on a title’s marketing – which allows me to segue rather shakily into the discussion of digital benefits and their real worth.

Receiving concept art, or the forever-popular map, is always a welcome treat in the box, but it doesn’t really hold as strong or exciting in .pdf format. In fact, I’d go as far as saying they are ultimately pointless and provide absolutely no incentive to the purchase as far as your printer ink is concerned. I readily challenge any buyer to prove me wrong in the value of this content, because it currently holds as much use as buying your cat decorative headwear (which is a very real thing indeed). But, I cannot be completely negative – sketches and early imaginings of our beloved characters and worlds can be very interesting and a nice addition to any collection, the issue lies more in whether they can be considered justifiable for the extra cost – despite the lack of a physical copy.

Finally, I shall end this rant on the biggest influence of all for digital pre-purchasing: the occasional, enticing offer of a discounted price. In contrast to their partners in crime, recent releases have allowed the consumer to save 10% off the final cost – a practice that has been strongly inspired by Valve’s effective use of Steam sales. “What is wrong with saving some money on a game I would’ve bought anyway?” I hear you cry, brandishing your credit card with experienced ease. Well, let me point you back up to the top of this article and the debacle that was the latest Aliens game. Pre-ordering a title is a huge risk for the consumer with only the shaky promise that it might be a successful purchase in hand, and this should certainly be kept in mind whatever the studio or franchise. Continued conformity to this trend only promotes and fuels the format, as much as we’d like to be the first to get our hands on that next big release. So, please keep in mind that every time you rush online to click that big, green pre-order button, you have logged yourself as yet another statistic in favour of these enticing, yet incredibly devious marketing tactics.

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THE AGONY AND ECSTASY OF MINECRAFT

For the past couple of months, Minecraft has very slowly crept up on me. Favourite Internet communities were doing hilarious Let’s Play videos, new memes were born, and everyone was fascinated by this unlimited virtual Lego set. The limit was your imagination, and having to contend with deadly enemies determined to not only kill you but destroy your creations like a jealous younger sibling brought that extra tension that was irresistible to gamers. And the best thing is – in multiplayer you can still go smash your elder brother’s perfect castle into bits, it just takes a bit longer.

When I went to my local geek con in mid-June, one of the most popular pieces of merchandise was the square cardboard Creeper head, the swirl of greens and faint grin easily seen across the crowded convention centre. Minecraft had arrived, and it was making pixels cool again.

My husband caved first. I would sit at my desk in our shared office, while I heard the sounds of him picking at dirt blocks, the sickening crack of falling too far, the popping of lava, blobbing in water, and a few quiet shrieks and profanities as a Creeper lolloped dangerously close. He showed me videos of people’s amazing creations: the 1:1 scale model of the Enterprise D; a relatively-dimensional TARDIS; TNT explosions so huge the game can’t render them; huge troll faces on grass plains; and buildings literally touching the top of the world. I resisted for a while. But, eventually, it got me.

I played my husband’s copy of the game while he was at work. In hindsight, it’s a good idea that I don’t have my own copy. I was immediately sucked in. Armed with a cup of tea, and the Minecraft wiki in the background, I set to work.

I really wanted to build my base in a snowy tundra, and I spawned on a beach. I wandered for an in-game time of three days, until I finally found the perfect spot. I had water, lava, a view of the sunrise, and plenty of sheep. I built an awesome log cabin out of spruce, with a bed, coloured wool rugs, paintings, bookshelves, and a sign. (It’s very telling that even though I had nothing else in the house, I had three bookshelves.) I had a natural mine nearby, in which I got ridiculously lost a couple of times. I planted flowers outside, and watched the snow falling on the roof. It was awesome.

The one thing I didn’t realise was that to spawn in your bed, you had to sleep in it. Whoops.

I proceeded to die in the most spectacularly faily way – I found a hole in the ground, and went to see how deep it was and went too far. Seriously.

I respawned on the beach where I started, to my surprise. I tried desperately to remember which way I walked, by the landscapes I went through. I wandered around for days, following the sun in every direction. I was going in circles. I discovered a closer and bigger snowy tundra to my spawn point, which was annoying fact number 1. Eventually, I accepted annoying fact number 2: I was hopelessly lost, and there was no way I could find my house again. Annoying fact number 3: I’m usually a pretty good navigator, but I’d done the stereotypical female thing of having a terrible sense of direction in a pixellated world. My husband delighted in making gentle fun of me, even when I distinctly remember him effing and blinding because he once got stupidly lost in his own mine.

I exited to the title screen, and restarted the game. With a heavy and shamed heart, I proceeded to delete my game and start over again.

I found another tundra. I rebuilt my cabin, bigger and better with my increased knowledge. I found a much better mine with more minerals, including my much-wanted and elusive lapis (which I used to make a blue rug under my bed). I had more sugar cane, which satisfied my insatiable need for paper. I had all the sheep I could shear. I built a boat and went across the ocean looking for squid. I slept in my bed. This game was ten times better than my previous attempt, but the magic was gone.

My house is built. I have my sign, my paintings, my books, my brightly coloured floor. I’m coming up against the same problem that I had with Lego when I was a child – there’s so much to build, so much I could do, that I don’t know what to do next.

So, I’m interested in what you guys have gotten up to in Minecraft and maybe get some inspiration for things to build. What cool stuff have you made? Have you lost your house like I did? Have you used a pressure plate in devious ways? Have you toiled away for hours only to have a Creeper explode in the middle of your work? Let us know!

Minecraft is available for PC, Mac, Xbox 360 (through Xbox Live Arcade), Android, and iOS. You can buy it here.