“Pre-order” isn’t a dirty word.
It’s been a rough few months – or years, not to drudge up any long forgotten Watch Dogs trauma – for pre-ordering games. In August, Hello Games launched No Man’s Sky, a game announced in 2014 with hype that seemed to increase exponentially as its release date drew ever closer. The game’s lead designer, Sean Murray, headed one of the most popular AMAs in Reddit history only to soon after launch a game players lambasted as a product that didn’t deliver on its many promises; the critical consensus was mixed, and with over 70,000 reviews, No Man’s Sky is currently sitting at a 5/10 on Steam. Fast forward a few months to October when Mafia III launched, the follow-up to 2010’s well-received Mafia II. A triple-A title developed by 2K Games and published by Take-Two Interactive – in 2016 no less – released to widespread criticism because the PC version on launch lacked basic features like the ability to uncap its framerate.
And here we are again, it seems, at the beginning of the hype-train for a huge, triple-A title from a big-name developer. Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 marks their first new title since they launched the beloved Grand Theft Auto V five years ago. Not only are players expecting a worthy follow up to GTA, they’re expecting a worthy sequel to one of the last generation’s crown jewels, Red Dead Redemption. But sometimes games aren’t what they should be, and when that happens, players that pre-order suffer unfairly, or do they? Spoiler alert: they at least don’t have to hurt.
For every No Man’s Sky, every Mafia III, there’s a Naughty Dog pumping out quality titles met with little consumer regret. There’s a CD Projekt RED, there’s a From Software (the original Dark Souls’ PC port not withstanding). The admittedly understandable frustration behind certain releases, though, doesn’t have to turn you away from jumping on Rockstar’s upcoming western, or any game you’re excited for. Though don’t click that add-to-cart button on Amazon with your eyes closed, either.
Trust is only part of the decision. Sure, Rockstar usually hits it out of the park, and really they’ve never known a No Man’s Sky-esque debacle, but they’ve had their serious missteps. Don’t be too quick to forget – or forgive – Grand Theft Auto 4’s PC port. It’s still widely known as one of the worst PC ports of all time. NVIDIA’s latest flagship Pascal cards still grind down to 30 to 40 frames-per-second at max settings on a game that released 8 years ago. Grand Theft Auto 5, known to be one of the most graphically demanding PC games out there, performs better than its aging predecessor. Now if this all sounds suspiciously like an argument against pre-ordering anything, it’s not. It’s an argument for sensible caution, sensible caution that should be earnestly weighed against desire.
Everyone wants to play that game they’ve been eyeing for months – or even years, nowadays – the moment it’s released. Fans willingly play buggy alphas and betas; they’ll even pay to play games while they’re being developed, games the developer readily acknowledges are a work in progress – games that can have crippling, catastrophic errors for players. People love games, and that’s understandable. Surely playing a build of a game not-yet-released has a different set of expectations than one on release does, but we can have incredible tolerance. A new skin, an extra set of weapons, a short bonus mission, or whatever frilly little pre-order bonus a dev is promising might be nice, but the real reason people pre-order games is that they want to play them as soon as they can. And as much as ‘common sense’ may dictate people wait and see, not waiting can be just as valid an option.
All companies and developers make mistakes, and some have better track records than others. If you’re picking up a Bethesda game on day one, you probably know what you’re getting into. It’s going to be a mess; it might run poorer on your beefy PC build than its console counterpart. Your first quest might break. Your game’s going to crash. These are facts of life. In a perfect world, we’d have a beautifully polished Fallout 4 that looks as good as The Witcher 3 and runs as dependably as Minesweeper, but much to Todd Howard’s chagrin, we don’t. These aren’t excuses for poorly coded games or poorly conceived ones either. Certainly not everything can be rationalized away as “Oh well, bugs are to be expected.” But some issues can be forgiven, assuming they’re addressed completely and efficiently, and other ones players really shouldn’t have to deal with, well, you play the odds. And you play them because you want to, while taking into account what might happen.
Personally, I’ll pre-order Red Dead Redemption 2. With no word on a PC port yet, there’s no absolutely wonderful Steam refund policy to fall back on, which for PC players almost entirely removes the ‘risk’ in pre-ordering. If somehow something goes horribly, awfully wrong, there’s no angrily driving down to my local retailer, game in hand, and demanding a refund. At least probably not, with many retailers, like GameStop, only offering refunds on games still in their original packaging. But that’s part of the gamble I’m making. Maybe it’s not a gamble I should have to make, but I know the developer. I trust them to deliver what they’re promising, and I know with console games, though frame drops happen all too often, the chances of my game bricking itself and refusing to allow me to play are minimal. If it does happen, it happens. I’ll pop something else in and hope the issues are resolved in a timely manner, because there’s nothing else I can do, and once in a while, that’s okay.