Next-gen zombie parkour-‘em-up Dying Light hits shelves in North America Tuesday, and I’m pretty excited – it boasts a weighty free-running system, a large open world, and hordes of shambling undead to introduce to your new friend the Flamethrower Butcher Knife. And there’s more good news: developer Techland announced Friday that the “Be The Zombie” multiplayer mode will be freely available to everyone who purchases the game.
You could be forgiven for being confused on this point – why wouldn’t a multiplayer mode be included with every shipped copy of the game? Well, since its announcement in 2013, Dying Light’s asymmetric multiplayer has been marketed as a pre-order bonus, only available (at least initially) to players who take the risk of paying for the game before anyone’s had a chance to review it. It’s part of an increasingly worrying trend in games marketing today – withholding content from people who wait until a game hits the market to make a purchase decision.
Take Evolve, set to release February 10. It’s a game I’ve been looking forward to, and I even contributed to the hype last month. Based on my experience with the “Big Alpha” and beta tests, it’s going to be a blast. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Evolve is less a game and more a platform on which to sell additional content. Back in July, Turtle Rock co-founder Chris Ashton told OXM that the game has been built “from the ground up” to support DLC. And you’ll have to pony up $60 just for the privilege of having more stuff sold to you.
My favorite game of 2014 was Alien: Isolation, and the biggest mark against it in my book is the way Sega parceled out exclusive content: certain scenes featuring the original cast of Alien were only available to customers who pre-ordered the game specifically from GameStop.
People joked that you needed a spreadsheet to figure out how the exclusive content in Ubisoft’s Watch_Dogs was divvied up. What wasn’t a joke was that in order to gain access to all the pre-order exclusive content they were offering, it would have cost you a cool $1,240.
The model in Dying Light was even more baffling, if that’s possible. Limiting an entire play mode to pre-order customers meant artificially constricting the online player base and thereby making it far more difficult to find a match, particularly if you work odd hours. Presumably this initial plan included selling the Be the Zombie mode as DLC later on down the road (pre-order “exclusive” content eventually, and inevitably, loses any claim to exclusivity), but asking players to pay extra for a multiplayer mode in a premium-priced title smacks highly of unscrupulous money-grubbing, and still has the effect of keeping the multiplayer community small, and it winds up devaluing the very thing they’re trying to market as a pre-order inducement. If Titanfall has taught us anything, it’s that when it’s hard to find matches, your player community dries up but quick.
But the pre-order pox isn’t just about individual games being worse. It’s about creating a market in which publishers apparently feel no compunction whatsoever about selling half-baked, unfinished games. 2014 was the year of the broken game – Halo: The Master Chief Collection was literally unplayable for weeks after its release; DriveClub and Assassin’s Creed Unity both shipped with laundry lists of unfixed, gamebreaking bugs; even Dragon Age: Inquisition had major glitches on release. All of these games lured players into paying ahead, sight unseen, by offering in-game inducements for pre-ordering, or for phony “digital deluxe editions.”
I don’t have any insider knowledge about how this works, but I understand that the incentive to publishers to offer preorders is powerful. First, these purchases aren’t affected by tepid or negative reviews – they’re purely based on PR and hype, both of which are much more controllable than actual press. Second, pre-order sales are without a doubt a strong indicator of how well the title is going to perform once it’s released. This can help publishers make decisions about future projects or how much staff to devote to supporting the upcoming title – never mind the fact that creating this “exclusive content” requires development work-hours that could better be used improving the core experience.
So the onus for stopping this behavior is really on us, the consumers. Publishers shipping broken or unfinished games should be punished, and we lose the ability to do that every time we pre-order. Generally speaking, we’re past the days of scarcity thanks to digital distribution, so there’s rarely ever a need to “reserve your copy today,” even on consoles.
And look, I understand that it’s hard not to become part of the problem. I’ve fallen victim to numerous hype trains myself – I’m ashamed to admit that I broke my cardinal rule and pre-ordered Dying Light (in my defense, this was “for journalism,” and because there was a coupon for 23 percent off – but there’s always a way to rationalize it, isn’t there?). What’s important is that as consumers we try our damnedest to resist the siren song of pre-orders. All they’ve gotten us so far, when it comes down to it, is some pretty weak digital swag and an industry that’s less accountable to its fans.