There was a time when pre-ordering video games made sense. Back in the day, when video games were genuinely rare products, people would flock to local toy stores by the dozens for the newest games like Super Mario Bros 2 or Zelda II. Getting popular video games on launch day was a massive hassle, so as the video game industry evolved, the idea of “pre-ordering” started to pop up. Instead of waiting for hours and hours outside of Toys-R-Us for Super Mario 64 or Metal Gear Solid, people just had to purchase a pre-order slip a couple weeks before-hand. It was a huge time-saver, and lead to a decrease in Black Friday-style fights.
Pre-ordering was a heck of a lot more practical than hopping from store to store, hoping against hope that the retailer had a particular game. But beyond the practicality of it, pre-ordering spawned an entire culture around itself – at least, in-store pickup pre-ordering did.
Creating a Culture
For some, there was a sense of community in game launches. Going to the physical store and waiting for hours on end waiting for the latest release did use to be a hassle, but it also brought people together. Like-minded gamers lining up and geeking out over the same game together is something that rarely happens in a local environment these days.
In a way, pre-ordering a game hearkens back to the days of arcades. In the late 70s and early 80s, video gaming was an incredibly social activity. Sure, there were TV boxes like the Atari 2600 and later the NES, but the most impressive hardware and graphics were always outside your own home. I mean, which would you rather play: Pac-Man for NES or Arcade? It’s not even a question – the arcade version is objectively better! So you would be forced out of your house and into society to play arcade games with other people. And like a midnight pre-order, every kid would line up and talk about the game they were about to play. As arcades passed into the night, that sense of community passed with it.
So unexpectedly, pre-order culture rose to the forefront of the video game community. You didn’t just go to a pre-order night for the practicality of it – you went for the community, the socialness, and the hype. But inevitably, all good things must come to an end.
Ending a Culture
Time passed. Developers got smart and started releasing their games in much larger quantities. There was no longer a reason to pre-order games since there would rarely be a shortage of discs on release day – it had become a non-issue. “Why would I need to pre-order Halo 2 when there would already be plenty of copies available on launch day?” The answer is that you didn’t.
So stores like GameStop and GameCrazy, eager to drive customers back to their stores for pre-orders, combated the declining need to buy a game ahead of time with incentives. Pre-order bonuses, as they became known, were the only practical reason to continuing pre-ordering games anymore. But it was a shallow incentive – bonuses were rarely worthwhile, varying from cheap posters to button-pins. With little reason to continue ordering ahead of time, pre-order sales continued to sink.
The Digital Menace
It’s safe to assume that the final nail in the pre-ordered coffin was digital media. As the influence of online digital stores like Steam rose, pre-orders, and physical media as a whole, continued to sink. “Why on earth would I need to pre-order Destiny or Portal 2 when I could just easily download it on my system on launch day?” The answer, once again, is that you didn’t. It wasn’t necessary to flock to the local GameStop on launch day anymore – that’s what your wireless router was for!
And just when it seemed as if pre-ordering wasn’t dead enough already, pre-loading came along. If you haven’t taken advantage of it yet, pre-loading is absolutely amazing. You get to download all the files of a game to your console or PC weeks before it comes out, so when release night comes, all you have to do is open the application and play! No hassle, no waiting in lines, no server issues – it’s just there at midnight, ready for you to marathon it. This feature has been readily available on Steam for well over a decade, and it’s been coming to consoles over the last five years. It has completely decimated what little shreds of pre-order culture was left.
Like it or not, people don’t pre-order games anymore. The days of waiting outside GameStops and Walmarts, eagerly anticipating the newest game with like-minded fans are over. The way things are going, we might not even have physical games at all in a decade. It’s sad to see an entire pre-order-driven era fade into the past like the Virtual Boy or Sega’s console market share, but alas, progress makes it inevitable. Au revoir pre-ordering, you wonderful wacky culture – we’ll miss and try to forget you forever.