Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Collector's Editions: A Test of Consumer Loyalty

Robert Rath | 15 May 2014 16:00
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Critical Intel

Again, it's a loyalty test. Are you a Watch Dogs fan, or a true Watch Dogs fan? From the advertising perspective, a special edition isn't just sold on the promise of extra stuff, it's pitched as proving your enthusiasm via investment. Often, the message is implicit, but not always. The Titanfall website, for example, marketed its Collector's Edition as "a must-have for the true Titanfall fan." According to the ad copy, owning marks you as an exclusive group.

It's the Little Orphan Annie decoder pin all over again - pay $2.50 so you can be part of the elite club and get special content.

Which begs the question: how can someone be a "true fan" of a game like Watch Dogs or Titanfall when you're ordering the special edition before the game has come out?

Because let's remember: Unless you're reviewing it, no one has played Watch Dogs. While initial reactions have been good, it's a little dubious to sell fan products before anyone's gotten their hands on it. I can see doing that with Assassin's Creed or a series that has a good track record, but buying a pumped-up Watch Dogs special edition means investing in a game sight-unseen.

After all, there's inherent risk in buying a Special Edition - after all is said and done, you might not like the game. Feeling unsatisfied with a game you paid $60 for is one thing, but disliking a game you paid $120 for and having a desk statuette reminding you of it? That's another thing entirely.

It's not great for the publisher, either. When you ask people to invest big in your game upfront it sharpens the consumer's disappointment if the product isn't good. And by isn't good, I don't necessarily mean bad either. A lot of people who're at peace with paying $60 for a middling game will be upset at paying $120 for one. Greater investment, by its very nature, creates higher expectations.

Consider Mass Effect 3. The furor over the ending was so large and virulent precisely because players invested $180 and 100+ hours to the series. Whether the outrage was justified or not, I think we can all agree that EA created an expectation that they didn't meet, and a significant number of players felt betrayed. The higher the player commitment, the more the publisher has to deliver.

Critical Intel

But it's not all the publishers' fault. The problem partially lies with us, the consumers, too. Our enthusiasm about games, often a pure thing, can prove easy to co-opt into marketing strategies. We'll play games just to see how they are, or get upsold based on hype. There are external pressures from our subculture as well. You might feel a little meh about the new Halo, but still play it because you don't want to be left out of the conversation. That happened to me with World of Warcraft in college - I didn't want to play, but I tried it out because not playing it excluded me from my friends.

As gamers, we put so much of ourselves into the games we play that we can disappear into them, make them part of our identity. Not only is that not entirely healthy, but it makes us a sure thing in a publisher's eyes. We keep coming off like a group that'll chase whatever carrot they dangle in front of us for the sake of full completion, collectability, elitism or the feeling we belong. We've taught publishers we'll buy any game they put on a billboard, and it's starting to hurt us.

We're at the point where they're starting to ask how much we're willing to pay for games. $60 for a game, plus $10 for all the DLC? $100 for an included statue and artbook? $650 to get the PS4 before everyone else?

While publishers seem increasingly presumptuous, I admit that I don't have a solution. The obvious one would be to council a more tempered view of game buying, to not trust hype and think hard about supporting a game before you play it - but that sounds like I'm telling people not to be enthusiastic. On the contrary, I love it when people get excited about games. It especially makes me happy to see people so hyped up about new IP like Watch Dogs. But I hope we can eventually find a middle ground between being eager and overzealous, a time when publishers have to create a fanbase through the game itself, rather than trailers and screenshots.

After all, on release day a game should prove itself to us - not the other way around.

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