Alphas, Betas and Pre-Orders – The Deeper Problem

I recently watched a Vlog by TotalBiscuit (aka. Cyncial Brit). The Vlog was titled, “Should you pre-order videogames?”. At first I did not know what to expect, as the image of the woman in kitty ears in the Video’s “Title” made me wonder just what was I about to face but what followed was an accurate criticism of pre-orders. The Vlog did not only point out countless flaws in pre-orders, from the point of view of the consumer and developer, but also brought one very important thing to our attention, the marketing practice of the publishers. This is something that TotalBiscuit stressed when giving the example of Aliens: Colonial Marines. I liked some of the Aliens games, but I was by no stretch a fan of the series, not the sort that would pre-order the game. I believe some time last year I watched a trailer and thought, “This is gonna be awesome.” but I was never even close to buying the game without seeing a review first. Up to the very point of the release it seemed that this would be the next big Aliens game. It was one of the best selling games on Steam, thanks to its marketing and the fan base that was anxious to get it. All of this through pre-orders. The opposite happened. I waited for a review by Angry Joe and when it came it was brutal. Throughout the board critiques pointed out the overwhelming number of flaws in the game, and I imagine the hearts of countless fans were broken when they got to play their preordered game.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

On the left, you. On the right, the Developer/Publisher.

Aliens was just one example. Something that is hard for myself to admit was that WarZ did the exact same thing, to countless people and myself. I bought WarZ as I did not want to buy Arma 2, which I should had done instead of investing in WarZ. I was blinded by that game, and in retrospect I do not know why. Was it because it had potential when it was released in its “Beta/Alpha” State? Was it because I got used to some games being developed even after I bought them, with incredible potential that is still growing (looking at Project Zomboid here)? WarZ became my personal Rickroll. I defended that game as much as Angry Joe would had defended Aliens: Colonial Marines if it was any good. I did a mistake, although that small hope that WarZ might eventually turn around is planted somewhere deep inside my head. If I had waited patiently for the infamous WarZ Steam release, and discovered just how much it was called a scam, would I had still bought it? I presume not, but the topic of WarZ and DayZ is for another time and day.

TotalBiscuit points out a very serious problem on the Review side of these types of “Hyped” games. The Review Embargoes. This happened in the case of Aliens: Colonial Marines. It was a game that I imagine countless reviewers found crap the moment they got their hands on it but they could not say a word about it. They could only watch how people bought the game and upon release made the dark discovery. Aliens: Colonial Marines did a few things well in luring in a huge group of buyers. The Media Demo being the big one. It showed people an Aliens game that everybody wanted. This got shown to the public and the hype grew. If you see a Demo that is awesome what reasons do you have to believe that the end-result will be bad? Nothing points to that, nothing. Then you end up with the Aliens: Colonial Marines case, and you just see how everybody was Rickrolled by well planned marketing and Review Embargoes. If the journalists could signal to the public how bad this game was at the pre-order stage it would never receive the hype it generated. Why can’t this be broken? Because a lot of Journalists are still constrained to receiving promotional content and preview and review copies of games from the publishers. You do not want to break a Review Embargo because nobody will want to speak with you. It puts a Journalist in a bad position. If you know that a game is crap prior to its release you cannot tell it to the public, but then you are working against your own Ethical Code.

 This raises a question of Beta and Alpha funding, in my eyes. There are countless Indie games out there that try Kickstarter or Desura to gain their necessary funding. How do you know that a game is or will be any good? How can you invest money into something that could be, in essence, a well marketed promotional campaign? You can’t, unless you get to play the Demo, or the Developers are somebody you trust. For example, Prison Architect. That is a game I am interested in buying, because I see people posting videos of it, I will be able to play it straight away, and it comes from a Developer who has created many great games. I trust such a Developer. What of people you never heard about? As a rule, and this will sound a lot to what Total Biscuit said in his Vlog, be patient. Do not pre-order or pay for something until you have a real chance of playing it or watching actual gameplay footage, prior to release. That is why game developers release Demos. You have a chance to play the game and then decide whether it is worth your time and money. Can you imagine what would happen if the Aliens: Colonial Marines had a Demo released? Exactly.

So, now that we discussed this topic a bit, let’s create a checklist. A list of things that a good developer will do to help you decide whether buying a game, funding it or even pre-ordering it, is worth your investment:

  • Are there any actual gameplay videos or images? While I know that some early game concepts on Kickstarter might not have these it should be considered, at least in part, a warning sign. How can you tell if a game will be any good if you cannot see any proof of it?
  • Is there a Demo? Not all games have Demos, that much is obvious. However if there is a Demo available, or an Open Beta or Alpha you can sign up for, take the chance. You will not pay anything and you will get a rough idea of how good or bad the game is. It will not be the complete experience but if you like it you will buy it.
  • Who is the Developer? Now, nothing against new Indie Developers, but you should trust Developers who have not failed your expectations before than somebody who creates a huge hype that turns into disappointed (I am looking at you, WarZ).
  • Is there fan created footage? Important. If a Developer releases a Screenshot or movie clip, it will be clean and beautiful. If a player creates it the truth will be shown in its true light. Trust less what a Developer or Publisher feeds you and instead trust your fellow players.

I might update this list in the future, as I give it more though, but these are more or less the important points I could conclude.

I did not focus much on the Pre-Order bonuses, because TotalBiscuit explains them much better than I myself could. They are a trap/incentive, and I recall that some games had a ridiculous disparity between bonus pre-order content, depending on where you bought it from. It’s a headache. It should not be done. As TotalBiscuit said, you cannot enjoy the full game, because you would have to pre-order it from every single store that offers different pre-order bonuses! What’s the point?!

If you skipped to the end and did not bother reading this entire Opinion Piece, watch Total Biscuit’s Vlog and that will be the core of this discussion. If you want to read a bit from myself, read from the beginning.

Alex “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of AlterGamer.com he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

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