Once upon a time, pre-order bonuses for video games were a fun way to score a little something on release day, thus amping up the buyer’s excitement over the game by a small but delicious notch. While some companies have a legacy of distributing classy pre-order stuff, most tactile bonus material involved keychains, or oversized shirts that were perfect for schlepping around the house in.
Downloadable content (DLC) has helped elevate pre-order bonuses from an occasional treat to something that’s more or less expected to accompany every big game release. It makes sense: DLC doesn’t have to be manufactured, molded, shipped, and stored. Aside from the cost of developing said content, it costs comparatively little to woo a buyer with an exclusive downloadable level versus even a badly-molded action figure.
Unfortunately, this brave new world of bonuses has also opened up an abyss of confusion and disappointment. Downloadable pre-order bonuses are becoming ridiculously fragmented: You only need to look at the bonuses for Batman: Arkham City to get an idea of how these fun surprises have turned into a hair-pulling guessing game. WB Games and Rocksteady are offering a number of bonuses, including exclusive Batman skins (because not even the Dark Knight can save Gotham City in his skeleton), Robin, and Joker-themed maps. Sounds great, until you realize with a kind of creeping horror that many of these bonuses are exclusive according to retailer and country. Want to play as Robin? Better pre-order at Best Buy if you live in the United States, and Amazon if you live in Germany. Want the Joker map? Make sure to pre-order at GameStop if you’re in the United States. Want the Batman skin from the beloved ’90s cartoon Batman: The Animated Series? If you don’t live in Australia or Europe, forget it.
Chances are good that all of this fragmented content will eventually be available to every Arkham City player, regardless of which corner of the Earth they purchased their game at. Chances are also good that scoring said content will require you to reach for your credit card.
As GiantBomb points out in its own write-up about the current state of the pre-order bog, it’s hard not to get frustrated at such vivid examples of buyers getting lightly ripped off.
Pre-order bonuses should exist to reward early adopters for their loyalty and excitement. They should not require a primer to understand, or leave us with the hollow feeling that we’ve just been had. Arkham City is a hotly anticipated game, and given its pedigree, we have every reason to expect an excellent experience. Nevertheless, all publishers should keep in mind that game distribution is only becoming more competitive. When consumers must pay $60 for a game in a market that’s saturated with high-quality games that can be downloaded for a quarter of that price, they become keenly aware of what’s being withheld from them for the sake of being forced to pony up a few bucks more down the road, or to order from a certain retailer.