There's a frightening trend taking place in the MMO industry. One fueled by marketing teams and retailers who don't understand the industry, the customers, or the experience that those of us who play these games are looking for. You see, I remember back in the day, when pre-ordering a game meant that when it shipped, you were sure to get a box. That's all it meant.
Everyone in the pipeline was aware of the expectations (launch day, box in hand!) and for the most part, minus shipping issues - it worked for pretty much everyone involved. But then folks had to go and try to get fancy. So far, no one has delivered a flawless, or even partially flawed, experience. Every MMO pre-order experience has been fraught with issues that should have been avoided but instead tortured players with out of reach goodies and poor customer service. Early access, in game items and titles, and beta access are all used as ploys to sell as many boxes as possible, often before the boxes are printed and ready for public consumption.
In the end, gamers are the only folks losing out, and no one seems to care. Consider the last two large retail titles to launch: Age of Conan and Warhammer Online. Both promised pre-order customers goodies that just didn't work out the way customers or studios expected them to. Nowadays pre-orders come with all sorts of fancy doo-dads that sound cool, but that often experience delivery hiccups that mar an otherwise smooth release.
Let's take Warhammer Online's release, last week. The game allowed Collectors Edition pre-order purchasers to start on Sunday, Standard Edition pre-order folks were let in on Tuesday, and the game officially opened its doors to the general public on the Thursday, 18th.
When the pre-orders first became available, customers were told they'd have until the 22nd to have their boxes delivered, or to pick them up. Due to retailer pressure, that story changed rather drastically when pre-order holders were told on official launch day (again, the 18th) that the codes from their boxes had to be entered by the 19th, one day after launch, by 7am Eastern, in order to maintain access.
That's 19 hours between launch and getting your box in hand before your access to the game is cut off. The community railed at the unfairness and short notice pointing out that with even 2 days more notice shipping could have been changed to overnight and game access would be uninterrupted.
Aside from the fact that the date on the official pre-order FAQ was changed with no notice to customers because of retailers, not a very customer oriented move, the deadline threatened to lock thousands of players from the game during the first live weekend. This sprouted calls of conspiracy theory from the community (thinking servers would be less congested) - regardless of the fact that it was clearly just a bad public relations move.
Mythic called out the fact that pre-order codes for the special collectors edition items were given out by retailers to regular edition purchasers, but somehow, players ended up paying for that mistake. The studio was either unwilling, or unable to tell their retailers to honor the original agreement. I find both increasingly disturbing, and found my faith in my long term love affair with the MMO company wavering dangerously.
Mythic CEO, (Vice President, General Manager...whatever he calls himself these days) and general guy in charge Mark Jacobs even had the audacity to post on the official Warhammer communication site, The War Herald:
"Good, bad or ugly, Mythic has always had the integrity to stand up for what we think is the right thing to do in any situation. I don't expect everyone to agree but I've never intentionally made a decision to hurt the community and/or our players and I don't intend to start now. For the last couple of days we've been dealing with a very difficult and complicated situation. Sadly, there are lots of moving parts and sometimes it takes both a bit of elbow grease to get things working properly ."
I have to wonder how much integrity it took to change the date on the page without saying anything, and then come back and blame the change on retailers. I realize that's not entirely fair, and Mark does have an incredible track record of player interaction and explanation of Mythic's stances throughout the years. But, as a customer, I have to say I feel pretty betrayed that it came to this at all.
Age of Conan had issues just as unfair to players, and their community was no less outspoken (read, rabid) in their response. AoC's pre-order offerings included a head start that cost players money! Talk about micro-transactions! Meanwhile their beta servers remained open, giving hundreds of people access to the game (granted, it was beta servers), without payment. To make matters even more confusing and frustrating - Funcom claimed server unavailability and stopped honoring codes to customers who had purchased what was promised to include early access.
Now, this might be my cynical side showing up here, but isn't opening an extra server, the ones you plan to open in one or two days anyway, verily the ones that are sitting right there, the answer? How is locking out customers who purchased a product that offered access a good move? Then to charge them extra and still not give access that reeks of nothing less than insanity! Yes, we've all heard "While supplies last", but with an MMO what are we worried about? Lack of pixels?
More so, isn't that the idea behind pre-orders? You know exactly how many have been sold so you can prepare the appropriate amount of access. Not doing so was simply a lack of planning and forethought that was truly unforgivable for players who'd paid money up front to show their enthusiasm and were rewarded with nothing.
The story here is that the delivery pipeline for games is incapable of delivering what's being offered. Studios have little control over customer service and delivery options of retailers and retailers don't know or care for anything except moving product. For both brick and mortar and online companies selling boxed copies their one time interaction with customers is quickly over whereas studios have a long term commitment to these customers. So why do they keep offering things, and why do we keep taking it expecting it to somehow magically be different?
What's a player to do? What recourse do we have? We can't honestly say we're going to cancel our order and never play the game. That's not the answer. Nor can we call the company responsible and get a straight answer and a fix because it's always the other guys' fault!
Pre-order issues will be fixed only when marketing teams aren't given control over them and let's face it, that's not likely to happen any time soon. So players are stuck with having preferential treatment given to those who pre-order. Except that you're more likely to have delivery and game access issues than if you just waltz into a store on launch day and pick up your copy.
Even today my 2 collector's editions for Warhammer have not yet arrived, and the extended grace period Mythic gave the EA Store, and Amazon, GoGamer, and The Source after a huge community outburst has passed and I am now locked out of the game. My only mistake? Having ordered a collectors edition to support my game and beloved studio the day it was first offered. How's that for great service?
What do companies gain from creating these huge gaps in customer service? What is the reason behind allowing holes in price segmentation to determine service and, in this case, those who bought higher priced collectors editions from certain retailers were punished!
Some retailers have gone so far as to outsell their allotted number of collectors editions. Customers have been told their product hasn't shipped yet due to the item being out of stock. How are these retailers planning to re-stock a product that was limited in the first place and no more are being made? More importantly, how will these retailers make it right to the MMO player base who expects the studio to accept responsibility for partnering with people who don't have a clue?
Gamers are at a severe disadvantage for what? So that the game goes gold as soon as possible? So that investors see a return on their money sooner than the actual launch date? Why? Game studios why would you offer to deliver a product that you are sure you can't get right because you're working with partners who do not share your goals for customer service? Anyone who controls a brand knows that, if you can't be responsible for the end result and the steps to get there, you're better off not making any partnerships, because it will screw you.
But do studios have a choice? Can they afford to not sell product on shelves? I'd like to consider that they could indeed, but that we're reaching that step too slowly to match the market needs of consumers. Technological issues and the learning curve customers new to downloading software present an entirely new and different and scary market to a product which has enough cost barriers to entry problems as it is!
Ultimately, who is responsible for service to the people who are not getting what they were offered? In Funcom's situation it was clearly an issue with the studio simply not being prepared, which is hard to imagine since AoC was not their first horrible MMO launch. In Mythic's situation I can't be sure how many players are currently locked out of the game still awaiting their copies and I have to hope it's not many. I know one gal bought a CE and when it didn't arrive and her retailer wasn't on the "approved grace period" list she went to Direct 2 Drive and bought a standard edition just so she could continue playing. I sincerely hope she's the only one, because that is truly an unacceptable way to make money off your players.
In the end, I for one will never "pre-order" a product again, unless it's done digitally. Those who've purchased from Direct 2 Drive have seen no issues with their pre-orders whether it be early access codes, game downloads, or getting into game once it launches. Why is it so hard for other retailers to follow suit? Because they don't have to. We'll still buy from them, put up with their high and mighty "I'm sorry, I can't help you with that" attitude and then we will forlornly walk out of the store with our tails tucked between our legs all because we feel we have no choice!
I implore you, fellow players! Do not be brow beaten into another pre-order scam that doesn't offer one single solitary advantage for you! Demand that virtual sellers and brick and mortars offer the same level of professionalism and value our hard earned dollars! Demand that studios do not offer something and then change it because of retailer pressure. We should be the ones putting pressure on these companies, and we alone! We are their dollar, both studio and retailer alike!
To MMOs putting together their launch plans, I implore you to consider your end player through the shopping experience and how you set up your deals, because you are leaving a bad taste in the mouths of millions! Maybe someday, someone will figure out a way to not screw players and to get a box in my hand on launch day. That's all I really want.
Becky "Tovin" Simpson
Senior Editor, ZAM Network