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.

IN MEMORANDUM

 Simplicity is key in this current day and age. We live our lives between screens, counting down the seconds to each new console, phone or any of the other numerous distractions we can get our hands on. And why not? We live in a convenience culture, carefully crafted to supplement all the needs of the modern man: why sing when you can be auto-tuned; walk when you can drive; read a book when you can watch a film? But, it’s not our fault, God forbid – this world has just been much too generous for us to refuse. Sadly, that leaves humanity in a bit of a predicament, rotting away mentally while technology continues to grow and flourish.

Although that introduction may seem a little bit dire and exaggerated in comparison to the current state of gaming, it does still hold very true. With every new mainstream release the bar is being lowered and lowered in terms of true involvement from the player, requiring less effort and application on their behalf until all you’re left with is essentially a digital colouring by numbers, £45 RRP. Where has all the challenge and achievement of old gone? Do the new generations of gamer only want quick reward and satisfaction for their virtual actions; a shiny badge for every minute wasted online, smashing pixels together? Having grown up with the emergence of popular consoles and titles, such as Tomb Raider, or Marathon (now continued in the Halo franchise), the thrill of playing lay in the completion of a particularly hard level, or solving that frustrating puzzle that had kept you clueless for days. It is a shame to see now that only the independent developers have risen to defend the intellectual and punishing genres of the past; the Roguelikes, Strategy and Logic titles that essentially created gaming as we know it today.

The problem, I think, lies in the creation of the Casual genre. People just don’t have the time or motivation to really work for success in their virtual fantasies, ironically defeating the point of their own escapism. A good example of this would be in the vast popularity of Rovio Entertainment’s mobile time-waster, Angry Birds, which has been downloaded over a billion times since its initial release in 2009 – a staggeringly high figure for any developer to boast. However, the pulling power of this game does not lie in its complexity, storyline or challenge, but rather its repetition and quick reward system that gives instant gratification with no fault for mistake: just another 3 stars to show off to your friends. Comparing this system to the current setup of modern, ‘advanced’ titles – such as Call Of Duty – the concept of even having difficulty settings anymore is quickly called into question. I don’t mean to condemn Casual games as the instigators of our current situation, but they are very much to blame for the effect it has had across all platforms, mimicking the evolution of our society into the Short and Simple – i.e. far from the Nightmare Mode we used to relish so fervently.

So, can we still restore gaming to its original state and help save ourselves from mental decay? Yes, of course – you just have to make yourself heard and show the support to those who really need it. Portals such as Indievania, or even Steam Greenlight, have all worked hard in bringing the spotlight back to the community and allowing for independent developers to showcase their art to a mainstream audience, gaining the recognition and opportunity that is normally only found in the wallets of established publishers. This is not so much a whimpering cry of ‘support the Indies’, but rather a backlash to what appears to be a massive decline in front line content and production. I may be jaded, but I honestly urge all those who still believe in the integrity of gaming as outlets of logic and true art to please consider these humble words before you purchase that next spin-off sequel the minute it touches the shelves.