Burning in the Halo Pre-Order Hell


I’ve railed about the lunacy of the videogame pre-order boondoggle often enough to get my own satellite radio show about it (my door is always open, Sirius), but here we are again, another fall has brought us another wave of new releases, and I’ve been asked by my local game retail associate to drop some cash for the right to purchase (the “right” to purchase) a game that will undoubtedly be flooding every store imaginable in just over a week.

I’ve even heard that it’s going to be sold at 7-11s in California – starting at midnight. At least at 7-11 the line in front of the store will be stocked with Slurpees and rotisserie hot dogs. I’ll more than likely be standing in line at midnight in darkened mall wondering when the zombies will start appearing. (Which reminds me, I should probably let my boss know I won’t be coming to work that day.)

The local gamerporium in question had a sale this weekend, giving extra-super-duper bonus credit for used games traded toward a Halo 3 pre-order. I just happened to have a few games lying around, so I took advantage of that, and yes, put the money toward Halo 3. The worst part? I already had money on Halo 3, and have had for at least two months.

I know better than this. I haven’t pre-ordered any game – ever. Not even the much ballyhooed BioShock, which, if there was ever game worth pre-ordering, that was it. But Halo is a special case. Or is it?

I didn’t even buy the original when it came out. I didn’t own an Xbox at the time. About a week before Halo 2 came out I found myself in a game store and though about pre-ordering it and then rapidly came to my senses and bought Halo 1 instead. The day Halo 2 was released I was on a business trip and stopped in at the first retail store I saw (a Kmart) and picked it up from among the several hundred copies on a shelf.

Pre-ordering is the biggest scam going. It combines the seeming frugality of layaway with the luxury of exclusivity. You feel good about putting down just a few dollars on a game. It’s like opening an IRA with an extremely short term. It’s also alluring. There’s a chance – not a large one – that the game might sell out. If that happens (and it never has) your pre-order slip is a ticket to salvation. You’ll be walking home past that dreadful line of folks who’ll be going home empty-handed, and, if you’re like me, you’ll get to write about the next day.

But again, this has never happened. Games don’t sell out, and if one store runs low, another nearby is sure to have more in stock. It’s true that pre-orders help game distributors gauge interest and thereby ensure adequate supply, but games, unlike game consoles, are cheap and easy to make. If, heaven forefend, any game should be so surprisingly popular that its first production run falls far short of demand, you can easily expect a re-supply within a week.

I know this. I also know that even though putting money away on a game I’ll get to play in the future feels like saving, it’s really not – it’s lending. I’m lending EB/GameStop money so they can fluff their revenue report when it really matters. Like now, for example. IRAs and savings accounts generate interest, and when you cash it out it’s theoretically supposed to be worth more than when you started it. A game is just a game. My Halo 3 pre-order isn’t generating interest for anyone but EB/GameStop, and when I finally cash it out next week, it will have instantly depreciated by about 50 percent. This is what we call economics of the stupid.

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Layaways are what we used to call buying on credit, although now you can do that and take the merchandise home before you’ve even paid it off. Perhaps that’s why we’re currently on the brink of a recession, and the housing market is in the toilet. The idea of ensuring people can actually pay for things they buy on credit seems to have fallen by the wayside along with the common sense that a 21 percent interest rate isn’t really doing you any good, even if you get to take that HDTV home without making a payment until April of 2008.

No, videogame pre-orders are something new and different. You’re paying, but you don’t get to take it home, and when you do, the actual product will be worth less than before you owned it. I know all of this. And yet my copy of Halo 3 was nevertheless completely paid up a good 10 days before I’d be able to get my hands on it.

I don’t remember why, several weeks ago, I put the first few dollars down on the game. Perhaps at the time I thought it was like checking the $1 dollar box on your tax return, or tipping the pizza guy a little extra because, well, I had it in my wallet and felt like being generous. Putting a few bucks on a pre-order, knowing full well I hadn’t made so much as a dent in the full price of the game, seemed a bit silly, but then, so does buying a scratch-off lottery ticket at the gas station, and we’ve all done that once or twice.

From then, the pre-order frenzy had its hooks in me. I’d committed myself to something, and from that point on I was an entry in the EB/GameStop ledger. It’s like knowing you have an FBI file – once you’re aware of it, it’s all you can think about.

Night and day, no matter where I was or what I was doing, I thought about my Halo 3 pre-order. Every dollar spent on everything from food and gasoline to other, more satisfying consumables was weighed against what that same net amount could do for my pre-order. Sure, pizza and a movie night is great and all, but that $30 or so could have gotten me over the halfway hump on my pre-order. What was I thinking?

Over the course of weeks, my common sense had eroded, and when I heard of the trade-in sale (they called my house to tell me, as a matter of fact – damn you J. Edgar) I knew exactly what I had to do; in spite if the awareness I was about to commit two great sins, I packed up my used games and headed to the mall. I was not only endorsing the ridiculously backward pre-order economic model, but feeding the used-game glut at the same time. I felt like I’d driven to Alaska just to run over endangered animals in a gas-guzzling SUV, tossing garbage out the windows and laughing.

And in spite of the fact I’m now $60 poorer, with nothing to show for it but a slip of paper, I feel as if I’ve somehow increased my net worth. In spite of the fact I know full well all I’ve really earned myself is the chance to stand in line for something I could walk into any store and pick up a few hours later, perhaps giving me an edge in play time and writing time equal to the amount of sleep I’ve lost (and perhaps the worse for it), I’m practically giddy with anticipation.

Perhaps the secret is in extending the joy of discovery, that especially keen moment when we finally hold a long-awaited product in our hands for the first time, inhale the aroma of new plastic and run our eyes lovingly over every stitch of art adorning the cover and disc. Perhaps these game retail folks are the purest sort of brilliant, able to sell what we not only don’t need, but don’t really want, by playing to our need for ownership.

I feel as if I should be deeply ashamed, and perhaps repentant, but I also feel that just this once I’ve got license to be stupid. This is Halo, after all. And although I’ve thrown caution to the wind – and all my principles with them – for some reason, I’m OK with it. Perhaps it’s because I know in eight days I’ll be playing Halo 3. And after all, it’s not like I bought a Mountain Dew just for the stupid can. Yet.

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