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Buying Early Access to Games Has Got to Stop

The trend of letting fans purchase early access to a game is setting a dangerous precedent for the industry.

Amongst all the buzz and hype surrounding pre-order culture—trivial bonuses offered by different retailers, unique game editions, limited quantity formats, and day-one specially packaged titles—comes a relatively new marketing scheme, one that crumbles the very foundation of what it means to own a game early, a bullish effort to squeeze even more cash out of the supposedly most dedicated fans: early access games. 

The pre-order cacophony began as a method to quantify the popularity of an upcoming video game, and bonuses of varying qualities were created to intensify that desire in gamers to put cash down on a title before its release. Unfortunately, the act that once secured you a copy of a game which may have sold out instantly at your local retailer, has now spiraled out of control. Today we don’t pre-order games to guarantee us a copy of a highly sought after game.

In fact, the hype involved in franchise follow-ups is at such a frenzy that retailers now beg for pre-orders based on titles that have but a simple teaser trailer. It’s impossible to miss the “Pre-Order Now” marketing banners that pop up after the showing of a game at E3 or some type of enthusiast expo.

Source: Gamespot

And if you thought the incessant pre-order propaganda had already reached a boiling point, it seems that publishers have come up with a new attempt at getting our pre-order dollars. This new way to lure us into securing purchases ahead of release also incites us to spend well beyond the asking price of a typical video game for access to its contents ahead of the scheduled release.

The Culprit

If you haven’t yet encountered these titles that are offered early to those who pay, as of late, Microsoft has been the worst offender. Games like Gears of War 4 and Forza Horizon 3 are prime examples of titles that were given this treatment. Gamers who pre-ordered the more expensive editions of the game were given access to them a full four days ahead of their official release.

In a similar manner, though based on different business models, EA Access subscribers also get portions of select games early. This kind of limited offering staves off some of my later arguments, but the crux of the issue remains.

Spending extra cash on a game to get a soundtrack and a decorative statue is a nice way to collect and show your passion for a particular series. Having access to games early simply because you have more disposable income than another fan is piggish capitalism.

Now don’t get me wrong -- video games are goods, and as such the bottom line is critical to their success and to the success of future games. But that cold, profit-driven model must have a marked line of unacceptability. Additions to games as bonuses are one thing, but asking for money up front and a greater sum of it for the product’s base contents is something else entirely.

As a gamer and a consumer, I’d be remiss not to speak up about this kind of overt greed that has the potential to grow worse.

Source: Gears of War

A Healthy, Wealthy Industry

How did we get here? Simply put, the games industry has grown a great deal over the years, and with that growth came a profit-hungry beast with many hands seeking clever ways to pull an extra few bucks from our back pockets. 

Though developers may be artistic visionaries who simply want their games to be enjoyed with a certain mark of success, the publishers and other involved stakeholders on the business side of things most definitely pursue monetary success --and clearly they go to great lengths to achieve it. But jeopardizing the meaning of a release date is no friendly way to engender a culture of fandom; it only serves to split gamers apart.

Yes, gaming is not the cheapest of hobbies. And yes, no one is forcing you to buy games on their release date. It is most certainly true that those without the money to afford games do sometimes get left behind. But, as if the barrier of entry wasn’t already high enough, another invisible barrier had to be added to make it that much harder to cross. It’s a needless imposition, a fabricated disparity between a gamer who is a fan of a series to a gamer who is part of some kind of exclusive, ultimate fan club. And’s it’s all done in a seedy way to influence you to spend more money.

The Wallet Has the Rights

The sad part of the matter is that purchasing options like this one create business models that are vetoed or accepted based on our money as the stand-in voters, and there is no way around that.

Let me elaborate with the following scenario: I want to purchase Gears of War 4: Ultimate Edition -- the one that was playable earlier than fans who purchased the base game. But I make my decision to spend the additional money based on the value of the physical/digital  goods that come with product. By completing the purchase, I’ve also, in essence, made a contract with the executives involved in the sales of the product.

I’ve said that I accept the business model adopted by the particular edition of the game and see nothing wrong with me having access to it before any other fans, even if it's an entire weekend. Though I don’t want to give the message that this is okay—I simply want the game with the additional goods—I’ve opened the door for more games to be sold based on this model, or invited the animation of some other ridiculous marketing effort in the future.

There is no way to differentiate that I purchased the product for its additional contents and not for the affordance it gives me to enjoy the game early. Or maybe I simply don’t care about the repercussion this will have on what the industry as a whole considers an acceptable practice.

Maybe I just want the more fully featured version of the game and am attracted to the fact that I get to play a game that I’ve been excited about for months four days early. It becomes a slippery slope of having dedicated fans who are robbed of the enthusiasm of owning a gaming upon release, while gamers with more money than the asking price get to enjoy benefits that are consequential.

Source: Gamespot

Where is the Value?

I think it’s the fact that selling games early really has no quantifiable value that upsets me the most. When the super amazing edition, or whatever they decide to call it, is ready to be sold, the base game is obviously also ready to be purchased by fans.

That’s what’s most irksome: additional game content like DLC and the like comes at a price because production costs are involved (though this is debatable). But offering a game early to fans is something that can be done across the board without driving the costs up. Selling a game early is just an arbitrary throw-in for fans wielding fuller wallets.

The Early Bird...

Moving away from the precedent established because of early access, we need to think about the game-related effects that spawn out of selling video games early. On a day-to-day basis, the internet is crawling with information about video games, or gaming debates, or game news. It’s hard not to scroll through my Facebook page or Reddit and not see comments based on a new release.

Just imagine how much more difficult it is to be a fan of an upcoming game when normal people (those outside of games media) are posting spoilers and the like because they have early access. Simply because certain fans are in possession of more green and are willing to purchase a different edition of the game you planned on getting on day one, you will have to dodge social media just that much more to prevent spoilers.

And it’s not because you aren’t getting the game when it launches, it’s because of a new business model that preys on our anticipation for a game.

Source: Microsoft

Games have become increasingly complex visual and interactive narratives with beloved characters and exciting plot twists. And while some gameplay-intensive experiences, like Forza Horizon 3, don’t suffer from this issue of spoiler fodder, certain games do. 

More than that, I repeat that the more that consumers purchase games offered like this, the more the model will be adopted until it perhaps permeates all big-budget franchises. I don’t think you’d like to see the next Halo or a sequel to The Last of Us spoiled because an increasingly vocal group has access to games more readily than you do, would you?

Even if you spend your game time playing multiplayer experiences, there is something to be said about having the ability to play early. I often find that jumping into a game after release is daunting when it comes to playing competitively online. All the other players have already leveled up their characters, equipped themselves with customized weapons, and acclimated their style of play to particular maps and the gameplay style at large.

Vocal Dissatisfaction

With the player base being segmented by those who purchase the base-model game at launch versus those who purchase the more expensive editions pre-launch, the community quickly becomes uneven. This is all because some gamers have the funds to buy the edition that offers the game at an earlier time. 

Aesthetic additions to weapons and such don’t harm the experience, but getting to grind through several hours, evenings, or even days of play before the main install base even gets a chance to pick up the controller just screams purposeful inequity.

Ultimately it’s our money that speaks, and at the end of the day the stakeholders who uphold the industry probably don’t care much that they set invisible barriers so long as they churn greater profits. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t be vocal about issues of consequence like these -- issues that have the potential to grow and do already impede on certain standards that shouldn’t be trampled on.

We should argue for better treatment. We're the market for these games, and they won't survive without us. I’d just hate to see something like the games industry continue to grow so unbearably money-driven as publishers and their partners proceed to act promiscuously with their sales efforts. Video games are a form contemporary art -- a statement for the kinds of entertainment we enjoy today -- and one that could be crippled by tactless businesspeople and poor taste.

Published Nov. 2nd 2016

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