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Do Pre-order Bonuses Unbalance Games?

“You can have this game for fifty bucks, but for sixty, I’ll make it slightly less enjoyable”.  That’s not a good deal, but that’s what has been offered to gamers with many titles released in the last year or so.  The used game market has caused a lot of damage to game developers; why buy a new copy when a used one is ten bucks cheaper? That’s a great deal for retailers who get to sell the same disk multiple times without having to pay the publisher.  This led to publishers giving away download codes for free in-game goodies with new copies of their games.  The code can only be used once, and used copies have already had their codes redeemed by the original owner.

Even when customers buy new games, retailers have a hard time getting savvy shoppers to pay launch day prices. Why pay sixty dollars when it will be on sale after two months?   These issues are behind the recent trend of pre-order bonuses which give players in-game stuff in exchange for paying full price for games.  But are these "Bonuses" actually reducing the amount of enjoyment players get from the game by unbalancing the difficulty with arsenals of extra firepower?

Take for example Dead Space 2; a damn fine game and a personal recommendation of mine.  However if a player pre-ordered the Collectors Edition at Gamestop, the bonuses included several exclusive weapons and armor that were available for free.  And when I say “Free” I mean the player didn’t have to spend any in-game money for them.  Normally in the game, the hero Isaac Clark has to spend space credits to acquire more firepower, and starting the game with several free guns makes those early levels significantly easier.  Too easy in fact.


Sure most games these days have multiple difficulty levels, but developers usually put a lot of effort into finding the right balance of difficulty, so that Easy, Normal and Hard mean just that.  The average player will need to develop their skills in Normal mode before being ready to take on Hard mode.  However; with the un-earned firepower attained though the pre-order bonuses, Normal mode was more like Not-Quite-As-Easy Mode.  On the other hand, Hard was A-Little-Too-Hard Mode on your first playthrough because players hadn’t quite developed the skills needed to tackle the higher difficulty. 

You had to choose between the unchallenging and the frustrating.

Not to pick on EA, but the same sort of shenanigans were afoot in Dragon Age 2, but on a much grander scale.  Pre-order the “Signature Edition” from the right retailer and you got a pile of extra weapons, armor, allies, and even a bonus set of armor just for owning Dead Space 2!  Add in extra items from the tie-in Facebook minigame and your party was ready to trounce the hapless Darkspawn in the game’s first mission. Then there was the most game-breaking bonus feature; a warhound that could be summoned at will, which would essentially raise the maximum number of companions you could take with you on missions.  With a faithful dog at your side, dressed in your fancy armored pants, followed by a party armed to the teeth with extra equipment, the Normal difficulty level had players slaughtering enemies with ease.  Yet again, the Hard mode was just a pinch too difficult.

EA isn’t the only culprit; Bethesda tossed gamers some goodies for pre-ordering Fallout New Vegas, and plenty of shooters will pass out upgrades in online shooters to players who buy early or new.  There’s no shortage of game publishers who go about this the wrong way.

So who’s doing things right?  Remedy and Microsoft showed the industry how to get gamers to buy Alan Wake new.  They included a code that would get gamers a free copy of first DLC for that game; an epilog that added to the story, but didn’t provide any-sort of in-game weaponry.  Microsoft has also shown some good insight by includig Halo 3 maps with new copies of Halo spin-ooffs like ODST and Halo Wars.  Giving players extra missions, maps and stories is the way to go about this sort of motivation.  Of course creating a new mission takes many more man-hours than just re-skinning a gun and bumping up its damage variable.  That’s why gamers will have to realize that sometimes the bonuses are really just the publisher demanding a fee to screw up the game.


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