As a resident of South Florida, I can tell you that fear of scarcity is a powerful sales motivator, especially during hurricane season; if you’ve never had the opportunity or the inclination to wrestle an 87-year-old woman for the last tube of Dentu-Creme, as sideways rain pelts the supermarket windows and palm trees limbo ever-lower under the wind, you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. And that’s a Good Thing. Trust me; that bitch was tough, and I don’t even wear dentures.
Fear of scarcity can keep you alive during an emergency, as long as you prepare responsibly and don’t make an ass of yourself in the process, and establishments that trade in said survival accoutrements know this — in local supermarkets and big-box retailers, displays of Buy-or-Die! hurricane supplies begin showing up around the first of June, then trail off a bit during the summer before making a final end-of-season resurgence around the beginning of October, all of which is just fine with me; if I remember to buy six cases of D-cell batteries and thirty cans of Spaghettioids because someone at Big Red Dot shoveled them onto an end cap, and I wind up needing them because I live in a meteorological Cuisinart, I have no problem with that — consumables are the weakest link in the supply chain, so it’s good to always have a couple days’ worth on-hand in case of foreseeable and unforeseeable emergencies such as weather events, transportation strikes, zombie invasions, and/or your in-laws coming to town.
Regardless of the reason, if you have to go to ground under the kitchen sink with eight cans of beans, a flashlight, an iPod, and a spork, you want to be prepared, and the people who sell tangible goods are willing to aid in your preparation. To be frank, they’re also more than a little willing to motivate you by jumping out from behind the oatmeal while wearing a Gangie mask and shouting Insane Clown Posse lyrics at your adrenal medulla, but that’s fine too; I’m a GAM, and I use protection.
Fear-of-scarcity marketing works because tangible goods are, by definition, limited in their availability; after all, Chef-Boy-Ar-Dey-Bad can pump out only so many units of Spaghettioids before they run out of resources and manpower, or the Universe implodes due to quantum culinary deficiency disorder. But what about intangible products like real digital goods, which include downloadable books and games? In an age when digital downloads virtually eliminate the scarcity of music, games, movies, and books (barring server capacity and outages), what reason could there possibly be to pre-purchase the electronic versions of any of the above?
The quick answer is that there isn’t one. Ask yourself when the Kindle store has ever been out of stock on anything, and then consider that six months before its release, it was possible to pre-purchase Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep at the full price of $14.99. Don’t misunderstand; $14.99 is a great price for any product that will keep you entertained for dozens of hours, but paying for something six months before you actually receive it is like giving the retailer and publisher an interest-free loan for that amount of time. It’s a little different with games, as gaming publishers frequently offer at least some incentive towards a pre-purchase — extra levels, items, or characters, for instance — but most of the time it’s merely a discount (which amounts to giving the publisher less of an interest-free loan), or the incentives are things that should have been included in the game to begin with.
My gripes do not apply to indie developers, who frequently work regular jobs in addition to creating games, and sometimes offer beta versions of their work in exchange for a discounted price and lifetime upgrades once the project is complete. That’s not the same as ponying up $59.99 two months in advance for a game like Call of Duty: Ghosts, and getting nothing in return but a wallet full of moth farts for the next sixty days; Activision has sold more games in this current hardware generation than any other publisher in the world, so the notion of giving them something for an immediate nothing, when smaller, better developers are struggling to get by while doing innovative, inspirational work, grates on my last indignant nerve.
It’s not a case of corporate greed as much of a case of corporate ineptitude and inflexibility; publishers learned years ago that they could minimize production overruns — and therefore costs — by assessing the demand for their products through retailers’ preorder numbers (which were, in turn, a reflection of the customers’ desire not to walk away empty-handed on launch day due to lack of sufficient inventory). Over time these numbers were assigned increasing importance as competition in the gaming retail space grew, with ship-in totals for each retailer correlating directly with their number of respective preorders — today this means that chain-wide stock levels (and, as such, chain-wide success or failure) are directly linked to the ability of someone making $7.25 an hour to sell something that doesn’t exist to someone who doesn’t want it in the first place. Thus was a mutant paradigm born, and grafted onto the digital age.
Much like a particular dish that was made popular in the U.S. during the Great Depression, preorders became a staple of the gaming industry’s metaphorical digital diet by their association with an obsolete necessity, namely the need to secure a copy of a tangible game on launch day at a time when scarcity was a legitimate concern. This was particularly relevant during the cartridge days of the Super Nintendo, the Sega Genesis, and the Nintendo 64, when profit margins were vermicelli-thin due to high production costs and ship-in was much lower as a result. Now the preorder is primarily a tool of the publisher, used to track sales and forecast a game’s success long before the last line of code is written and the manual is sent to the virtual printer’s office for virtual typesetting so it can be ignored by virtually everyone. Personally, I can’t recall a time when I could not get a copy of a game on launch day from somewhere, whether at Gaming Specialty Store or Big Red Dot or PuckerMart. And I certainly can’t recall a shortage of any real digital goods, ever.
So what’s the harm in offering digital goods for pre-purchase? Well, there isn’t any, really, other than the fact that it panders to a fear of non-existent scarcity in a medium for which the biggest advantage is a near-zero distribution overhead and an essentially unlimited supply. Even with “value added” offers, like extra weapons and playable characters, the digital preorder is a vestigial organ on a cybernetic body, and effectively marginalizes people who purchase a game on or after its release date by showering buckets of virtual appreciation upon those whose stunted financial acumen is matched only by their fear of deprivation:
Full-Priced Six-Month Pre-Purchase — “You bought our product six months ago, with no immediate value given for your money and no possible way to assess the quality of our game through trusted reviews or peer assessment?! Here, Friend, have these wonderful yet strangely dissatisfying tokens of our gratitude that cost us absolutely nothing and probably should have been included in all copies of the game anyway! Thank you, thank you, thank you, o purveyor of goodness!”
Full-Priced Day-Three Purchase — “F*ck off, traitor.”
I don’t do preorders of physical games anymore, and I sure as warmed-over heck don’t do pre-purchaes of anything digital, the reason for which is simple; money is more valuable when you have it than when you don’t have it. The same can be said for any good, whether tangible, digital, or other; paying for something before it’s available is absolutely the best way to make sure that you have neither your money nor the thing for which you have deferred receipt, which in an equivalent and equitable transaction takes the place of your money as the stored value of your time and effort. I don’t give my time (and necessarily any portion of my life) away to anyone for what amounts to nothing more than a whisper and a promise.
Hey, I’m as susceptible to the f of s as anyone else, but only about tangible, perishable goods that can actually — you know — become scarce.
(I don’t know how that got there. Really.)