The Consumer’s Guide to Purchasing Video Games

In the weeks following the release of No Man’s Sky, there has been a vocal subset of gamers furious with Sony, Hello Games, and pretty much anyone else who dared enjoy the game. In amongst the fury and the pissbabies, there were a number of valid complaints regarding Sony’s refund policy, and the perception of being ‘lied to’ by the developers.

It was this backlash that got us at LTTC thinking about what we can do to protect ourselves as consumers against these situations. It’s naïve to assume that developers or publishers prioritise the consumer over their balance sheets, just as it is naive to think you have to fly blind into every game purchase. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the ways in which the hype train carries consumers away, and what advice we can impart to try help you.

No Man's Lie? NMS' release has attracted claims of broken promises and lies leading up to launch.
-No Man’s Lie? NMS’ release has attracted claims of broken promises and lies leading up to launch.

Trailers

Trailers are generally the first point of contact most people have with a game, whether when an E3 or a Gamescom roll around, or casual gamers may see a trailer pop up on Youtube. The purpose of a trailer from the dev’s point of view is to create buzz, generate conversation and entice pre-orders. One of the problems with these trailers is that they are often crafted and released long before the game is finished. This is the nature of modern advertising: businesses generally demand a sustained advertising campaign- partly to drive anticipation and hype for the product, partly to ensure investor confidence remains high and the company remains valuable.

For indie developers, a high quality trailer can be the difference between mass exposure and obscurity. For both indie and AAA game developers, the pressure is on to put their best foot forward and make their game look as good as possible. The problem is that this combination of early stages of development and a perception of pressure to deliver means that often times, whether intentionally or not, trailers do not remotely represent the final product. This exact problem is one of the cardinal sins of No Man’s Sky, apparent in the now-infamous Reddit thread in which users catalogued the pre-release promises that were not present when the game released. NMS is not remotely alone in this phenomenon. When we first saw 2015’s The Order: 1886, the grimy Victorian supernatural shooter looked like it had the potential to be Sony’s next great first party IP. By release, all that really remained of its incredible promise was its undeniably stunning graphical fidelity. Gameplay in The Order revealed itself to be a generic and uninventive cover-based shooter. The world it delivered looked great, but was sadly narrow and linear. Most egregiously of all to some was that the campaign in this much hyped game was shorter than some naps I’ve had. 2014’s Watch Dogs footage was blowing minds at E3 2012, over two years before its eventual release. In fact, we had our first unveil of Watch Dogs over six months before we even saw what the PS4 and Xbox One would look like.

Products not always as advertised: (Clockwise from top left) Watch Dogs, Bioshock Infinite, Aliens: Colonial Marines, The Order: 1886
-Products not always as advertised: (Clockwise from top left) Watch Dogs, Bioshock Infinite, Aliens: Colonial Marines, The Order: 1886.

These games, and many more are examples of how generally misrepresentative of the finished product game trailers often are. In our experience of buying games (nearly 40 years’ worth combined between myself and Mark, Jesus…) the only thing we have been able to reliably gleam from trailers is what could probably be loosely described as the atmosphere of a game. The first several times we saw Bioshock Infinite for example, we saw little to no gameplay, and loose elements of story, some of which did not make it to the final game. Indeed, in a situation eerily reminiscent of No Man’s Sky, Infinite’s development and advertising cycle was so long that characters, features and narratives were changed, edited, or removed entirely. However, much like NMS, our first look at Infinite gave us a feel for the world we were entering. Even looking back now, the 2010 trailer has exactly the same balance beauty and foreboding as the final floating city of Columbia would have upon release in 2013. Our advice is that it is perfectly normal to be very excited by a trailer, but exercise caution in anything you see and use them as an indicator of tone and not much more.

 

Pre-ordering

Pre-ordering has become part and parcel of the retail experience when it comes to video games. It is somewhat re-assuring for the consumer to know their product will be reserved for them at launch. It’s also easy to get sucked into habitual pre-orders when retailers promote them on every shelf, and when the Playstation Store places pre-orders so prominently. One of the problems with this was evident in the NMS fallout where people who plonked down their cash over a year before anyone actually played the finished games left them feeling burned. And that is in no way an isolated incident. So given how little we usually know for sure before a launch day, why would we ever pre-order? In this author’s humble opinion, the benefits of pre-ordering in theory are two-fold:

  • Fear of supply constraint.
  • Financial planning.

To tackle the first point, gamers are a nervous bunch, and to a minority, the thought a game may be sold out on launch day is enough to startle some into a pre-order. However, nowadays with the ever-growing acceptance of gaming as a ubiquitous part of popular culture, suppliers rarely miscalculate so drastically as to not meet the demand of the market. Within the last four years in my area, I can only recall a handful of times (Pokémon X/Y, The Last of Us, GTA V) where this has occurred, and only one in which that supply issue continued for any more than a week (The PS4 launch). In addition, in 2016 the overwhelming majority of consoles have a connection to the internet, enabling connection to a digital store where obviously software does not sell out. Our own Brian McNamara discussed on a recent episode of the podcast his revelation of need vs. want. We all feel like we need to play something straight away at launch. It’s a nice feeling to believe yourself to be amongst a privileged few playing as soon as something comes out, and I can personally identify with the fun and giddy energy of a midnight launch. (I think I had more fun at the Watch Dogs launch event at my local Gamestop than I ever did playing the game). But as Brian pointed out, if we ignore our impulse to be on the crest of a wave and think rationally, we don’t actually need to play things as soon as they are released, with the exception of those in the games media who often get download codes free anyway, the absolute gits.

Pre-order culture has gone bananas in recent years.
Pre-order culture has gone bananas in recent years.

Financial planning is, however, a different kettle of fish and the way in which I believe the wise consumer should view the pre-ordering system. If you have done your research and are prepared to properly commit yourself to buying a game when it launches, this is when perhaps a pre-order can sometimes be to your benefit, and it is the way I personally have used the pre-orders I do make. In the last three years I operate a system in my budgeting whereby if there is a game I know without question I will be purchasing after the start of September (FIFA being a prime personal example), I will begin putting money away or paying off a pre-order gradually in April or May, because I know in the final months of the year I will be saving for Christmas presents, or for my oil, and not have the money spare to piss away on something so inessential in the grand scheme of things. By staying on top of my finances in this way, I generally have any game I may want paid off long before I need to worry about Christmas. In this way, the pre-order mechanisms for digital and physical retailers has been a positive for me, and this is the way in which we would recommend you use it too. Your game will not be sold out forever, but if you need to manage your money in a way to make sure you can still get that game you’re dying for, pre-order away, just DO YOUR RESEARCH FIRST.

DLC/Season Pass

The phenomenon of DLC and the season pass has been viewed by many as poisoning the well for some time now. After all, it does sting a bit having bought a full priced retail game to know there’s more game you cannot have until you give over more money, sometimes up to 50% of your initial purchase. There is a strong belief (and a popular burger-related meme) that the feeling your complete experience has been carved out to profit off you later. This notion is utterly scandalous and would scarcely fly in any other medium. Imagine it: “Here’s your DVD, but to get the part where you find out if Frodo actually destroyed the ring, that’ll be another tenner”, or “There’s your book, but you need to purchase the add on content to see what Voldemort was up to this whole time”.

Some games announce Season Passes available with no details about their content and before the core game launches.
-Some games announce Season Passes available with no details about their content and before the core game launches.

I generally distrust the idea of DLC and Season Pass when offered to me as I buy or pre-order my games, particular the insidious notion of a slight discount for a season pass if you buy it right that second, or as part of a deluxe package. Nowadays I vote with my wallet and insist that by and large developers have to do more to get more of my money and should not just assume I will buy the season pass, especially since the season pass content doesn’t usually equate to being value for money in my view. The first season pass/DLC I bought was in 2013 and since then, only twice has it felt to me as well worth my money: Bioshock Infinite and The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In the former, I got a two-part narrative DLC that not only expanded on that game’s universe, but also tied it beautifully together with the previous games. In the latter, I spent about €30 to get two expansions that told incredible stories and totted up to around 50 hours of extra game. The crucial thing about both of these season passes was that I bought them after I had already played a sufficient amount of the games to know I wanted more. Our best advice to the consumer is to never buy the DLC or season pass when you pick up the game. Sure you may save a fiver here or there, but it would be substantially worse to end up having shilled over a hundred quid for a game you didn’t end up enjoying.

Reviews

Like it or not, video games are an art form, and thus are subjective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. We can all rattle off a list of games we love that everyone else hates (ahem, Deadpool…) and vice versa. Thus, reviews can be a mixed bag when it comes to knowing if a game is for you or not. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t say that in the tone of a lot of people you may find online, for whom any review contrary to their opinion is a transgression worthy of abuse and threats, because those people are idiots. No Man’s Sky is a perfect example of a game that has wildly oscillating review scores, with critic scores ranging from 100 to 50. And because games are such a personal and subjective experience, none of these reviews are wrong.

-Review aggregators like Metacritic give the average of impressions but not the personal touch you should seek out.
-Review aggregators like Metacritic give the average of impressions, but not the personal touch you should seek out.

As a consumer, the work you need to do, rather than to read any one review or watch any one video, is to find for yourself a person (or people) within games media whose tastes by and large align with your own. In that way, their view may be more reflective of how you yourself will feel about a particular game. Over the years I have come to value the opinions of a number of different people: Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller and Colin Moriarty, Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker, Dan Ryckert and (chiefly) Jeff Gerstmann, not to mention one man independents like Jim Sterling and Danny O’Dwyer. Though I do not end up agreeing 100% of the time with them, if a game gets a strong recommendation from one or more of these people, I am going to take notice and consider it. The smartest thing for a consumer to do with reviews is just that. In 2016 it isn’t difficult to access a wide number of reviews and reviewers. Read us, read Giant Bomb, IGN, Gamespot or countless others and find the reviewers that speak to your views most. They will be your best barometer of how you will enjoy a game.

So there you have it, an exhaustive account of the tools we have developed over the years to try and cut through the hype to get the games you want without feeling like you have been duped. Best of luck and happy shopping friends!

 

-Dave Ryan

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