The Unnecessary Complexities of Video Game Pre-order Bonuses

In recent years, game companies have started offering incentives for pre-ordering their games. If the game is sold in a physical package, these incentives might include something tangible, like a cloth map or figurine.

Digitally downloaded games generally see bonuses of a similarly digital nature. You might get an exclusive in-game weapon that’s unavailable through any other means. If the game is sold through Steam you might get one of the infamous Team Fortress 2 hats.

Recently, we’ve started to see a trend towards more complex pre-order bonuses. For instance, it is common to receive different bonuses depending on where you pre-order the game. Pre-ordering a game from one retailer might net you a completely different exclusive weapon than if you pre-order from a different retailer. This complexity has reached a critical point with the hotly anticipated upcoming shooter Battlefield 3.

Last week, EA Games, the publisher of Battlefield 3, made a blog post detailing the game’s many pre-order bonuses. Battlefield 3 has seven different pre-order bonuses, all with different sets of stipulations on availability and exclusivity.

Here is just a taste of the complexity:

Everyone who pre-orders the game, regardless of retailer, will get the Back to Karkand expansion pack for free. This expansion won’t be available on the game’s launch date, and everyone who didn’t pre-order the game will be able to buy it for $15 when it launches to the public.

If you order the game at specific unnamed retailers you’ll get the Physical Warfare Pack, consisting of early access to three in-game items and a weapon. Those who don’t pre-order will get access at a later date.

Pre-ordering the game through EA’s own digital distribution service Origin, or if you bought specific versions of one of EA’s previous Medal of Honor titles, grants you early access to the game’s open beta. Four other bonuses are also available by pre-ordering through more unnamed retailers, and these bonuses don’t appear to be obtainable in any other way.

If you have specific pre-order bonuses in mind that you’d like to get, buying the game turns into a combinatorial problem. Can you match the bonuses you want to one specific retailer? If you can’t, which bonuses are you willing to give up? Does ordering from one retailer net you more bonuses than ordering from a different retailer?

Sure, there are plenty of people who will look at the bonuses, say, “Screw it,” and just order the game from whoever they’re most comfortable with. For everyone else, EA is expecting an awful lot from us just to get the privilege to give them money.

The upcoming game Batman: Arkham City suffers from similarly complex pre-order bonuses. It too has a pre-order guide that can be found on the game’s forums, and the guide’s author even acknowledges how complex the bonuses are in the very first line.

I’m not saying that pre-order bonuses are inherently bad. By pre-ordering a game a consumer shows that they believe the developer will produce a game worth paying full price for. It’s nice to get a bonus for that sign of faith. By mucking up the pre-order system, publishers are making it more complicated for gamers to give them money, which seems counter intuitive. Shouldn’t the buying process be as simple as possible? I shouldn’t have to spend half an hour doing research just to decide which version of the game I want to buy.

Both Battlefield 3 and Arkham City will almost assuredly be financial successes, reinforcing the idea that these complex pre-order systems are beneficial. Where does it end? In the future, will we be poring over convoluted Excel spreadsheets just to decide where to buy a game? Only time will tell.