Would you pay for something you’ve never used?

You know, I’m not sure I would. I didn’t buy my car before taking it out for a test drive, and I didn’t sign the contract on my flat without first taking a look around the place. So why are we now paying for computer games which we’ve not played? Sure you can look at the flashy trailers and advertising, but when you are selling interactive entertainment you’re selling an experience.
Something which has been a gripe of mine recently and also of Alec Meer at RockPaperShotgun.com is the demise of the game demo. What has happened to this tantalising taster of things to come? Where is the rush home to snag the demo on release day to play the next eagerly anticipated title? The answer I think is that there aren’t any. It’s gone. The day of the demo has passed. Granted, I’m exaggerating the issue here slightly for effect, but it’s can’t have escaped peoples notice that there is a distinct lack of game demos around before games are released these days.

So what has lead to this change in the way that computer games are marketed to consumers? Could it be the meteoric rise of the industry from its indie roots in ‘70s to an industry in modern society worth an estimated USD $105 billion worldwide. Personally I think so; being a gamer myself I can only feel that more and more companies want to make sure that they get a finger into that pie before they are left behind. I guess that’s capitalism for you.

The way that these companies are changing their business models means that as a consumer we are being sold on a dream, on a magical trailer, or a snippet of advertising about the game rather than the experience that we need to better judge it. Thus the pre-order was born, the saving golden thread of publishers everywhere, a way for them to generate revenue from the consumer without the consumer ever having played the game. Brilliant. No more agonising management of the backlash against poor marketing or design decisions such as the uproar caused by the Spore DRM, Bioshock DRM, or the catalogue of others.

So this golden bullet to the piracy issue, amongst others – the pre-order – means huge expenditure on marketing. Now all of a sudden consumers have to make a choice about a game based on the marketing, the adverts, the Facebook pages and the blog posts. This has spurred on huge investments in the marketing of computer games and why not with such potentially rich rewards to be had. I recently went to the cinema and was presented with trailers for two computer games alongside the regular movie trailers.
I would assume that most people have heard of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, but would it surprise you to know that these are both owned by the same company, Activision Blizzard, which in Q3 of 2011 has so far reported net revenue of USD $650 million. They have actually axed projects in order to focus on these popular franchises, in order to ensure that there is absolutely no milk left in the udders of that poor cash cow. Electronic Arts are also guilty of this, but I digress into darker waters. This investment in marketing and pre-orders has lead to the huge queues that are now popular at computer game release events. Yes, I just wrote ‘computer game release events’ – fanfares, celebrities, music and interviews with the first customer through the door – all things which are akin to the red carpet. It’s not hard to see how video game stores are eclipsing the movie theatre.

Although there are pitfalls with pre-orders, I recently placed a pre-order with Steam for Dungeon Siege 3, having been a huge fan of the last two instalments. I was excited and eagerly awaiting the release of the game, watching the counter on the Steam store page. Then disaster! Ironically, a demo of the game was released about a week before the official release date, I downloaded it and got playing. Oh dear, words cannot describe the horror. All of the core mechanics were gone, the visuals were dire, and the control method was just wrong. Needless to say the first thing I did was cancel my pre-order and get a refund. Phew! A close shave. Had there been no demo of the game then I would have just lost out on my £30, rather like I lost £18 on Need for Speed Hot Pursuit, which turned out to be diabolical, but I digress, again.

The example that I wanted to highlight was the launch of Aion, an MMORPG released by NCSoft in 2009. This game got a huge number of pre-orders, about 400k to be precise. Then launch day arrived and the game went live and that 400k people logged into the game to what turned out to be a queue, but not a queue like in the pub on a Thursday, but like a Post Office queue on car tax day. Waits of up to 5 hours were reported by gamers before they could even play the game, and that was after having downloaded the latest patch. To summarise, it was a disaster. Someone had completely underestimated the effectiveness of the marketing and sheer volume of players who would login. The result was anger amongst people who had already paid a pre-order for a game they could now no longer play. The game then started shedding players, hundreds and thousands of people left. Even now if you mention Aion to anyone who had a pre-order you’ll see their face drop or they’ll spout derisive comments about the game.

Will this model change any time soon? Personally I don’t think it will. With the current crop of CEO’s of major publishing companies still marketing to demographics which don’t exist with products which are subpar, we’ll be forever be stuck being bombarded with marketing to buy products which we know very little about and haven’t even played. It is my fond hope that companies recognise the USD $2 million made by the Humble Bundle team for their crop of indie games for which you can pay what you want and you then own them. Sounds simple? It is. No licenses, no DRM, install where you want as many times as you want, if it’s meeting customer demands to the tune of $2m then why not?