November 2014. A little late to the party I had just about finished up with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Following the disjointed bore fest that was Assassin’s Creed III, this was an excellent action-adventure game. It had a refreshingly unique sailing mechanic that breathed life into what had become a stale franchise. Hungry for more of the same I remembered Assassin’s Creed: Unity was nearly out. I managed to get myself caught in the hype of this release. The idea of free running across 18th century France stabbing villainous Templars during the French revolution with my buddies was a tantalising offer. Unfortunately for me, I was weighed down with a heavy workload near its release date and forgot to pre-order it as I usually do with AAA games.
Except, I was not unfortunate at all. Anyone who has heard about this game has more than likely heard the controversy surrounding it. It is plagued by countless, bizarre glitches and microtransactions that are not so micro. A seemingly shady review embargo was put in place meaning no review could be published until it lifted twelve hours after launch.
“Having the online elements available and having populated worlds is essential to creating a representative and complete experience for reviewers”, a representative from French publisher Ubisoft told the BBC. Despite this claim many people believe this was nothing more than a deliberate decision that ensured those who had pre-ordered the game would have surrendered their money before any reports of broken gameplay could surface. Unproven, but this is definitely a possibility.
After a lot of public backlash it was announced the first piece of post-launch content would be available for free. The problem here was as an apology this did not go down well with those who had purchased the season pass (a pre-purchase for all post-launch content) because the pass had been devalued.
Consumers of the season pass were offered a choice from six games as another apology. Within the small print of this deal, consumers unknowingly agreed to a deal with Ubisoft whereby they could not sue them. Not exactly a great finale to an already shaky year for this publisher.
This whole situation is one big unavoidable mess. Every cloud has a silver lining though. One positive aspect of this story is that it highlights one of the larger problems found in the gaming industry; pre-order culture.
One argument used in favour of pre-ordering is the guarantee of having access to the product on day one. However, this seems to be holding less and less merit as digital distribution increases in its efficiency. For most titles, and to anyone with a secure internet connection, there really is not much weight to this claim when consumers can purchase from what is essentially an infinite supply.
The aforementioned Assassin’s Creed: Unity perfectly illustrates why pre-ordering has become a disease in need of curing. Lifting the review embargo a few days before launch, as is the norm with video games, would have permitted consumers to make an informed decision to cancel the pre-order and wait for patches to increase stability. For all intents and purposes consumers are handing over money to developers and publishers for a product that is not guaranteed to even function. In this case that was clearly a mistake.
It is on us, as consumers, to tackle pre-order culture because the only thing AAA video game publishers are ever going to really listen to is their investors and profit margins. I’m not trying to implicitly suggest that everyone working for big name video game companies are evil, money grabbing whores, nor do I assume the political standing of a hippy who “hates the corporations, man” because they are in the business of making money. Of course they are. They are businesses with enormous teams. They need money just to stay afloat. Also, were it not for franchises such as Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft Montreal may not have been able to create smaller, more personal titles such as Child of Light and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Nevertheless, it sure would be swell if they could stop with the absolute bullshit pre-order incentives. Restricting content from the main game just to sell it back to us is something we should not stand for. More than five months before the release of Battlefield 4, EA declared that a free map pack would be available to those who pre-order the game. If the announcement was ready to be made then why was it not shipped with the game? This is a blatant restriction of content and only exists to gain pre-order guarantees.
It is not just publishers who pull these stunts. Retailers also encourage this behaviour to try to cash in on pre-order culture. Mass Effect 2 contained a variety of promotional content that was obtainable via pre-ordering through certain retailers. Admittedly, the content was of no major significance. Exclusive weaponry and pieces of armour were on offer. This, however, does not excuse the blatant cash grab of retailers. I do not want to support an industry that allows distributors to gain exclusivity to content that should be shipped with the game originally.
If pre-order culture plagues the gaming industry then it is up to us as consumers to cure it because the whole notion is inherently anti-consumer. Who benefits from restricting content only to sell it to us on top a £40-£50 price tag? Well, everyone involved bar consumers. So stop pre-ordering video games! It’s only going to get worse the more we succumb to this toxic corporate greed. While we’re at it we should stop buying season passes before all content is out too. If giving money for a product that is not guaranteed to work is bizarre then why on earth do we give money for content that does not even exist yet?