The concept of the preorder is as simple as it is popular. Excited about an upcoming game or product? Put some money down and get it the same time it hits store shelves. It was a perfect way for consumers to both express excitement about a release and ensure their place as an early-adopter. There was always an inherent risk to preordering, but recent years have seen the practice becoming increasingly distorted and toxic. From limited supplies to vigilant scalpers, preordering has gone from an insurance policy to a necessity – forcing interested customers to act or be left behind. And that’s just hardware; software preorders continue to lure in potential buyers with exclusive bonuses and heavily doctored trailers. Long story short, preorders are out of control.
This reality has been on full display in the last year, with Nintendo posturing itself as the poster-boy of preorders via frenzied windows for the NES and SNES Classic systems, as well as the Nintendo Switch. Not to be left out, Microsoft took to gamescom to announce the Xbox One X Project Scorpio Edition, harkening back to the original Xbox console. Each has incredibly appealing features and is being marketed to a demographic buzzing at the chance to pick up the latest tech or relive nostalgic experiences. In a perfect world, the passionate fans itching to get their hands on new hardware would have ample opportunity to do so, but the current state of preorders has muddled that proposition.
As anyone who has waded into a hardware-related preorder scrum can attest, the practice has become an all-out frenzy. Customers set bookmarks to the requisite Amazon, Best Buy and Target product pages while eagerly awaiting the rumblings of live action. Companies take two tactics; announce the date orders will go live or sneak them onto the internet with little fanfare. Regardless of approach, the resulting showdown inevitably ends with the victors breathing a sigh of relief while the defeated wallow in their disappointment. After feelings and F5 keys are repaired, the dejected move down their list, hoping to find success on the next front.
While not nearly as dramatic, software preorders are similarly broken. Retailers entice the masses toward the most anticipated titles with a mix of bonus content, early access and discounts, courting players to choose them for their purchasing needs. While these features are, admittedly, player-friendly, it doesn’t change the skeevy nature of the macro practice; forcing player to place bets on the final quality of the game in question. It is easy to dismiss it all when you hit blackjack with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Horizon: Zero Dawn, but reality hits hard when you put your gaming budget into Mass Effect Andromeda or No Man’s Sky.
Regardless of what is being preordered, it is clear the practice is in serious need of an overhaul.
It is important to note preorders make for incredible business. Publishers can use them to gauge interest in a title of piece of hardware while enabling customers to make a promise of purchase months before release. That alone is a monumental benefit, but today’s fast-moving news cycle and the race that accompanies preorders means that their status is always newsworthy. Nintendo, for example, can dominate a cycle with the general announcement of SNES Classic preorders, exact preorder timing, live sales and, finally, when people are disappointed they were left out. Free press and the promise of customer cash? Jackpot.
Another benefit for businesses speaks to the toxicity of the practice itself; influence. Live preorders have become such an event they are impossible to ignore, and items, like Nintendo’s consoles and amiibo, are known to be so rare that securing a preorder is the best chance to secure the item itself. And so, people who had no intention of purchasing something become influenced to join the race.
I noticed this phenomenon firsthand when SNES Classic preorders went live. As someone lucky enough to be logged onto social media upon their initial availability, I was nearly convinced to grab one solely out of the product’s rarity. I wasn’t sure about buying one, but knew a preorder was my best chance at the opportunity. Only after my credit card info was entered was I able to stop myself. That’s when I knew there was a problem.
Preorders have become a sort of metagame to gaming culture. We wear receipts as badges of honor; proof we care about something enough to blindly throw our money at it. Fans on message boards brag about their long list of preorders after influxes of announcements, like E3. We feel an obsession with being “part of the conversation,” thus we become obsessed with playing something first. All the while we feed into a system blatantly manipulating us. While the extracurriculars can be fun, it ultimately leads to disappointment.
Preorders are too good for business to cease, and they provide gamers with helpful benefits toward the games they play. They aren’t inherently bad, and it is ultimately up to the gamer to decide how they spend their limited funds. But there are ways to clean up the process to ensure fans, not scalpers, have the best chance to buy a product and nullify the risk in case a preordered game goes south.
For hardware, I think a system similar to the lotteries utilized in Japan would be beneficial. Rather than immediately securing a preorder, you receive a number. If your number is drawn, your order goes through. This would prevent scalpers from having guaranteed access to valuable orders while simultaneously giving customers more of a chance to throw their name in. While it is possible you could be first to draw a number and not get an order, it allows a larger number of excited customers to have a crack. The system could also put greater emphasis on earlier-drawn numbers, or keep your number saved in the system should more allotment become available.
The software system is much simpler; allow customers to switch a preorder until release. GameStop does allow last minute switching, but digital stores have made this process unintuitive. An elegant solution would be to purchase a general preorder, not toward a particular game. Customers could put that order toward any game they wanted, and cash it in upon shipment or pickup of the game. They could then buy another preorder to apply to another game. This would allow the last minute switch from a game that turns out to be a dud, and could be an added bonus of services like PS Plus, Amazon Prime or My Best Buy Gamers Club. It is paramount that gamers should have a way out of their purchase.
Preorders give gamers great benefits, but their implementation has been corrupted in the ever-evolving quest for press and payment. In cases where orders become necessary to even secure a coveted item at all, the brokenness of the system rings true (see NES Classic). If publishers want to continue the practice (which they do), then steps need to be taken to ensure a positive fan experience. There’s no reason why you should be forced to stay up all night to secure a SNES Classic, damnit!
Brett Williams is an Associate Editor for MONG who doesn’t like to preorder things…unless he really wants them. You can follow his nonexistent ramblings on twitter.