Exclusive Content. Special Edition. Collector’s Edition. They sound so seductive, don’t they? Like walking past the velvet rope at a nightclub. Like you’re someone. We’ve all gotten used to these goodie boxes that live behind the GameStop register, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable about them. There are the issues of whether special editions are worth the money of course, and if they encourage publishers to gate off content, but what really gets me is the implicit rhetoric surrounding them. Collector’s Editions and exclusive content treats customers like they need to prove their commitment to the company – when it should be the other way around.
To give an extreme example, let’s look at the PS4 in Hong Kong. Unlike the Xbox One, the PS4 is currently available to the public here through legitimate sources – yet there’s still a huge market for systems shipped in from overseas. That’s because, due to shortages, the PS4 is only available at the Sony store in an exclusive bundle that includes Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, Assassin’s Creed IV, FIFA 14, and Call of Duty: Ghosts. The bundle costs HK$5,074, or around $654.
That’s not much of a discount from buying all that separately. Add in that none of those games are PS4 exclusives and that one’s a year old re-release, and this bundle doesn’t look like a “deal” at all.
That’s because it’s not intended to be. From what I’ve seen, this stuff is all packaged separately, rather than in an exclusive box, meaning Sony could sell the PS4s separately but instead is using the PS4 shortage as an excuse to box Hongkongers into buying four games upfront. Games, I might add, that the customer may already have – or not even want – and doesn’t even include the PlayStation exclusives like Killzone: Shadow Fall.
It’s a way to hold the product hostage so consumers can only access it if they’re committed enough to pay for it. Much like when former Sony chairman Ken Kutaragi suggested gamers would work more hours to afford the PS3, it’s Sony giving its consumers a loyalty test based on enthusiasm. “We want people to feel that they want it,” said Kutaragi in 2005, “irrespective of anything else.”
Let’s hope Sony execs figure out that this isn’t a great strategy before they have to take another 50% pay cut.
But holding a product hostage in an expensive bundle isn’t the only way publishers ask us to commit to their product. They’ll also upsell us through special editions and tiered pricing. Take the upcoming Watch Dogs release. There are so many different exclusive editions that you go cross-eyed looking at the chart. The logic, I suppose, is to offer a premium edition for every taste. There’s the Standard Edition, the Special Edition, the ANZ Special Edition, the Vigilante Edition, the Dedsec Edition, the Limited Edition, the UPlay Exclusive Edition, the UPlay Deluxe Edition, the Digital Deluxe Edition, the Gold and the Season Pass. Some of them are international bundles only available outside North America, while others are for people who download the game from UPlay.
Confused yet? I’ll talk you through it.
If you want the Aiden Pearce statuette, buy the Limited Edition, or if you live outside North America, the Dedsec Edition. If you want his Vigilante mask, buy the North American Limited Edition. But wait! If you want the Vigilante mask and his “iconic cap,” you better buy the Vigilante Edition (only available in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Australia). Get Dedsec for the augmented reality cards and Chicago Map, or buy the UPlay Exclusive Edition for the best DLC lineup.
Oh, and beware – the Dedsec Edition doesn’t come with the Dedsec Pack DLC. That’s the one tricky bit. But no worries, it’s available as part of the Season Pass!
And speaking of the Season Pass, it’s the only way to access all the DLC – meaning that if you get it, you end up paying twice for DLC that came as part of your bundle.
None of this is new. For years game publishers have offered us special editions that were obviously designed as a way to further monetize a game by packaging plastic trinkets and glossy paper alongside it. It’s merchandizing reverse-engineered from what we’re used to. In other mediums you go see a movie or read a book, then buy merchandise based on whether you enjoyed the original product. With Collector’s Editions, you buy your merchandise up front. It’s the equivalent of buying a $30 ticket for X-Men: Days of Future Past and getting a Wolverine statue when you walk into the theater.
Most of the time, I have no problem with it. Sure, in another medium this would be sold separately, but if you want a sweet Titanfall statue along with your game, more power to you. What’s different about Watch Dogs is how it slices up the DLC between different editions to create an illusion of exclusivity between different bundles, then in many cases makes you re-buy it anyway when you get the other missions through the Season Pass.
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.
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.