In the past, I've complained about the current trend in marketing practices leaning toward offering access to beta trials as a selling point for pre-orders, collector's editions and the like. It's a bad idea that sets up strange expectations among even your game's strongest supporters and makes it difficult to have your game judged on its launch merits rather than the "way it was in beta".
So, having time and time again given flack to the developers over that subject, I think that it's high time that we turn our focus back onto ourselves, the players, and talk about a couple of the ways that we are shooting ourselves in the foot when it comes to getting the kinds of quality releases that we're looking for in our MMOs.
The first thing that I want to talk about is pre-ordering. The long and the short of my argument is that no one should do this. Ever. There are only a couple of reasons that I can see to pre-order a game:
Sold Out - You fear that the game will be sold out on launch day and you want to reserve your spot. While I can sympathise with the idea behind this, when is the last time an MMO (outside of WoW and the odd Darkfall release) sold out to the point where you couldn't get a copy either physically or through digital download? In this age of easy distribution, I wouldn't think that this should be much of an incentive.
Cool Stuff - Maybe you pre-ordered because the company offered you some kind of incentive to do so. You want it, so you did it. Problem is, all the trinkets in the world don't make a bad game into a good game.
You Like It - Maybe you're in the beta or even alpha of the game, and you really, honestly enjoy the game and were planning to buy it anyway so why not get it out of the way? Plus, there might be some cool stuff you can get as well. This is a fantastic reason to buy a game, but barring a fear of the game being sold out, I don't know if the rush to pre-order is entirely necessary.
Hype - You're so psyched about this game based on what you've read on this and other gaming sites around the web that you're 100% confident you're going to love this game and want to support it in any way you can. Ok, if you fall into this category, I just don't know what to tell you other than don't come crying to me if the game doesn't meet your expectations. If it does meet your expectations and you love it, great. If it doesn't, you frankly got what you deserve.
It's not that I think all pre-orders are bad. There are legitimate reasons to pre-order a game. That being said, I think that three major problems emerge with the pre-order phenomenon: First, people are often shocked when a game that they pre-ordered doesn't live up to their expectations. Second, companies add more and more incentives (including beta access and other extras) for people to pre-order and finally, it gives less incentive for games to have to offer quality at-launch products. They have their pre-orders already and can always "improve the game post-launch."
In the end, pre-orders seem to cause more headaches for people than they give benefit to and all I have to say is this: If you pre-order a game and then complain that the game wasn't good enough, I have little to no pity for you. No, you don't deserve a refund. You purchased something sight unseen, pre-launch (so you didn't even have any reliable info on it). That's entirely your own fault.
If there's one group of people that I feel less sympathy for when a game doesn't meet their expectations than I do for people who pre-order, it's people who shell out hundreds of dollars for a lifetime subscription to a game they have never played before.
I understand that lifetime subscriptions can be a good deal if it's a game that you enjoy and feel like you're going to play for a few years. I understand that some people just honestly have that kind of money to throw around and that there's a certain appeal to being able to come and go from a game at a moment's notice.
With that being said, I will never understand the people who basically pre-order a lifetime subscription to a game without ever having actually spent any time playing the game. Then, my mind completely boggles when the people who bought these lifetime subscriptions complain that they didn't get the game they thought they were getting.
Here's my opinion: buying a lifetime subscription to a game completely undermines your power as a consumer. MMO development studios don't put time and resources into updating their games as much as they do out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it in order to keep making money. Ultimately, to keep people subscribing to their game. If they already have all of the money they're going to get out of you. Why then, other than out of the goodness of their hearts (or good PR, but we're all too cynical for that), would they care what your opinions are, you've already given them your power.
Anyway guys, just some food for thought on this week's column. Hope it's getting warmer for you wherever you are as we make our way out of this winter and into the sunshine.