BioShock Infinite's Pre-Order Scheme Is A Bold Step In Consumer Manipulation

Each week it feels like the video game industry is coming up with new ways to get you to pre-order games. Packaged bonuses, collectors' edition cases, limited edition figures, in-game items, early access to betas, and more.

Today, Irrational Games announced new Steam pre-order incentives for their hotly anticipated action game BioShock Infinite. The rewards sound pretty good at first: "Pre-order BioShock Infinite on Steam today to help unlock exclusive rewards and free copies of BioShock and X-Com: Enemy Unknown!"

But then, you read on:

Here's how it works: if enough people pre-order BioShock Infinite, a free copy of the original BioShock gets unlocked. If that's not enough, a series of exclusive BioShock Infinite-themed items (details below) in Team Fortress 2 will be unlocked if the number of pre-orders reaches the next level. Lastly, Steam will sweeten the pot by unlocking a free copy of X-Com: Enemy Unknown once pre-orders hit that magic number. Of course, this is in addition to the Industrial Revolution pack that you will receive immediate access to just for pre-ordering!

In other words, they not only want you to pay them for their game before it comes out and anyone has had a chance to review it, they want you to act as marketers and encourage your friends to pre-order. Both of those bonus games are great, and make for outstanding pre-release rewards. Both are published by BioShock: Infinite's publisher 2K, which is doubtless why they're part of the deal. I'd take a free copy of XCOMKotaku's 2012 game of the year — over an in-game outfit or weapon any day. But surely I can't be the only who finds this whole racket sketchy.

Look, pre-orders are bad enough on their own. They're entirely designed to help game publishers circumvent game reviews and get people locked into purchasing games before the press has a chance to tell the public whether the game is good or not. As Stephen so recently pointed out, the entire preview-to-preorder cycle is a challenging one for the press. Previews of BioShock Infinite have been no different: Stephen was confident that the first four and a half hours of BioShock Infinite are good, since that's what he played. But none of us can say for certain how the next four and a half hours are, or how the finished game is. Of course we can't. We haven't played it. But the people selling this game don't care: They're perfectly happy for you to buy it right now, sight-unseen.

With this new method of pre-order incentivizing, 2K and Irrational have taken a bold step forward in manipulation.

With this new method of pre-order incentivizing, 2K and Irrational have taken a bold step forward in manipulation. I'm not sure if they're the first company to try this, but I've never quite seen anything quite like it, at least in video games. And while a lot of people pre-ordering Infinite have likely already played BioShock, the more-recent XCOM remains something of a good get. So of course, it'll also require the most pre-orders to unlock.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that this is for Steam only, meaning that these are "Steam Pre-Purchases", which work a bit differently than your run-of-the-mill GameStop pre-order. If you pre-order a game from GameStop, you aren't charged in full until you actually come down to the store and pick it up. If you wait for a day after the game launches, you can call in to the store and cancel. So if, say, you pre-ordered Aliens: Colonial Marines, then saw the terrible reviews, you could save yourself the purchase price. GameStop would keep the $US5 deposit you put down, but as store credit — you could put it toward another game.

But if you've pre-purchased on Steam, you can only get your money back if you contact Steam support before the launch date. After the game launches, you own it. "As with most downloadable software products, we do not offer refunds for purchases made through Steam", reads the Steam FAQ. "An exception is made for games purchased during a pre-order period if the request is received prior to the games' release date."

So let's say that Infinite gets some negative or conflicted reviews, for whatever reason. It's not important why. You decide that you don't really want the game after all. If it's past the release date and you pre-purchased through Steam, you'll be out of luck. You'll own BioShock Infinite.

I've asked Valve to confirm with me that you can only return pre-purchased games before the launch date, though I've no reason to believe that's not the case. I've also asked Irrational and 2K for some clarification regarding the finer points of this operation, specifically whether they'll be telling people who pre-order how close they are to unlocking the next target, or if those numbers will be hidden from customers. Lastly, I've asked what would happen if both BioShock and XCOM are unlocked but someone decides to subsequently cancel their preorder. Would they get to keep the two free games? It's unclear. I'll update if and when I hear back.

"To unlock all these rewards, you'll need to spread the word and work as a team," Irrational's marketing copy says. "The more people who pre-order, the more rewards gets [sic] unlocked. Simple enough, right?"

Sure, I guess it is pretty simple. Irrational, 2K and Valve want you to help them sell a game that hasn't come out yet. But for the time being, steer clear of this scheme. Pre-orders are bad enough — you don't have to take part in a viral marketing campaign, too.


    The big pre order focus of the last 6 years is entirely due to publishers losing control of marketing once a game hits the shelves. In the old days all they had to do was butter up a few magazines and show some flashy goods at a trade convention. Bad word of mouth would eventually spread for poor games, but it took long enough that it wasnt a major concern. The internet chnged this.

      That's an interesting take on the pre-order phenomina. Not sure I think that's the only reason why, but it probably does have some sort of impact.

      Personally I think it's part that, but mostly just clever marketing. Building good early buzz with a pre-order hype is a great idea, especially when everything you are giving away costs you essentially ZERO. :)

      Kickstarter does this.

      Stretch goals are pretty much identical to this set up - you buy a game (pre order) at $x. If total earnings hit $y, you get this incentive or that one.

      If not, you get the base game.

      Pretty much identical.

    This didn't seem to be an issue when they did the same thing with XCOM (giving away Civ 5 once pre orders reached a certain level), so why is it only a problem now?

      Because the author decided to take offence to it. This isn't news, nor is it a new thing, it's just someone having a whinge.

    Free BioShock and XCOM sounds pretty cool, but thanks to the austax, it would only cost me $3 more to order PC copies of Infinite, XCOM and BioShock 1 through ozgameshop and not have to hope that they get enough pre-orders to unlock the games, though I should note, BioShock 1 is currently out of stock.

    Sensationalist headline much? These kind of articles drive me crazy. How exactly are people being manipulated? Everything seems above board to me - if you know you're going to play BioShock Infinite, regardless of reviews (like I am) then you can preorder and get some cool free stuff. There's nothing shady going on here.

      Missing the point. Pre-orders stemmed from brick-and-mortar retailers so you would be able to have a physical copy on day one. Therefore, first; there's absolutely no reason to pre-order a digital copy and second; why would a company feel they would need to add incentive to one.

        Except there are reasons to preorder a digital copy. That's why they're called preorder incentives.

          Isn't the incentive of a cheaper price for the actual game enough? Why pay full price for a "pre-order" when the full release will cost the same? Xcom costs 'x dollars'... i don't want that included in the price of my pre-order.

      The incentive isn't simply to preorder the game, it's to do a bit of marketing for them and to get your friends to preorder as well. It's certainly manipulative, but I wouldn't say it's crossing any line.

      I agree. I don't think I'm being manipulated at all. If I want to buy the game, I will.

      Most people pre-order a game because they're confident it'll be good. If you're not dead keen, don't preorder!

    Infinite is $38 on ozgameshop as direct download. Regardless of preorder bonuses I see no need to pre-purchase on steam. Same with Tomb Raider only $37. Two triple A titles for the price of one, minus games your more than likely to own, rendering them useless.

      Just checked They've got it for pre-order for $52 bucks, comes with Bioshock and a choice of The Darkness II, Spec Ops: The line, Bioshock 2 and Mafia 2. Gonna snag it from there

    Well, they're welcome to dangle these offers for us. If people want to pre-order a digital game, sure, go ahead, that's fine. Offering a free game if enough people pre-order isn't immoral. It's a bit desperate, but there's nothing morally wrong with it. It's not like people should expect a copy of bioshock to ship alongside bioshock infinite.

    Like with what some other people have said, I don't think this is manipulation. Or, if you think it is manipulation, then all business and sales tactics are manipulation. Are 2-for-1 deals at the supermarket "Manipulation"? Are Kickstarter stretch goals "manipulation"? If you want, you could consider virtually anything humans do or say, to be a form of "manipulation".

      Why is the bonus only for pre orders? Its so they can 'manipulate' as many people as possible into buying the game before they have the chance of being influenced by reviews or word of mouth. Marketing is all about manipulation, how you choose to interperate a particular campaign depends on the circumstances.

        It's not manipulation, it's incentive. Manipulation is devious and underhanded, there's nothing below-board about offering preorder incentives as added value to encourage people who are otherwise sitting on the fence. The whole 'getting you to buy before the reviews are in' thing is only a very minor effect, since the people who preorder are usually the people who buy in the first day or two after launch anyway.

          Deleted - realised I replied to the wrong comment.

          Last edited 25/02/13 12:00 am

    Things like this kind of make me wonder how bad this game actually is!

      Why? They did the same thing with XCOM and it was an excellent game. It's not all some grand conspiracy to trick you into buying a dodgy game, you know.

    I'm pretty sure X-COM (Kotaku's game of the year) did the same thing. If enough people pre-ordered the game then they'd get a free copy of Civ 5. Tomb Raider and Company of Heroes 2 are also doing something similar. This isn't something new. Also a thing I love is that with a lot of steam games, you can pre load most of the game a short time before and then the game unlocks on the release day. So I'm also saving a lot of time.
    Whether people should or shouldn't pre order games is a matter of opinion. When I see this I see a pack containing X-COM ($69.99), Bioshock ($19.99) and Bioshock Infinite ($79.99) all for $80. This looks to me like a great way to save money. Instead of paying full price for Bioshock Infinite, and full price for X-COM, I'm only paying half of what I would have had to pay later on.
    If you don't like pre-ordering, don't do it. The fact is that there are so many people who do and there's nothing we can do about it, may as well take advantage of it when things like this happen.

    Last edited 24/02/13 5:46 pm

      Let them extend the same offer to people who purchase the game after release, then ill call it an act of goodwill. As it currently stands, its simply an attempt to get people to drop money on a game nobody knows is any good.

        I don't see it as an act of good will on their part, I see it as a way for me to get X-COM: Enemy Unkown and Bioshock Infinite for half the price that it would cost me in the future. If Infinite turns out to be crap, I can tell myself I spent the money on X-COM instead. If it turns out to be great, then I've saved myself some money that I can spend on other games.

          I think you are forgetting the fact that it may not happen. You *MAY* get x-com and bioshock. Not a definite.

            I haven't forgotten. I did forget to mention that I'll only be pre-ordering if those rewards get unlocked. If they don't get unlocked then I'll probably wait a few months for the prices to drop. Sorry for not being clear earlier.

    If I didn't have xcom already and have Bioshock collectors preorderd then I would go for this maybe.

    I assume it is so Steam can contend for sales on the game. Games retailers have special physical editions that people want, and lets face it, the people who will pre-order are the people who want the game regardless of how it reviews. They are eager and willing to assume they are going to buy it day one so if extras are available they might want those too.
    Steam needs something to combat the fact that they don't have physical items to give, but they do have a huge catalogue of digital games to offer, so you fight with what you've got.
    Some people will wait for reviews and hold out, the people that pre-order aren't those people, they want the game already (for their own reasons) and might be willing to pay more to receive more, or in this case, pay early to receive more.
    The chance to gain 3 games you might like for the price of one you know you want is incentive to go with Steam as opposed to say Gamestop.

    The only people to blame are consumers.

      Implying preorder incentives are a problem that needs apportioning of blame. It's not. If you want to buy it and get the preorder incentives, then buy it and get the preorder incentives. If you want to wait for the reviews, wait for the reviews. People in one group complaining they don't get the benefits of people in the other group, or insulting people in the other group because they view the situation differently are both stupid things to happen.

      Pick which one you want, and let other people pick which one they want. Easy.

        It is a problem though. Developers/publishers cut off a part of a game to give as a day one DLC pre-order bonus, or make extra content to give away. Some people won't be getting the full game on release because they didn't pre-order. Some people just won't buy the game at all because they aren't interested in an incomplete product.

          That's nonsense. When you buy a game you're entitled to what you were told you'd get, nothing more. If developers want to write a few extra bits of optional content for preorder bonuses, they're more than welcome to do so and people who don't preorder have no entitlement to those extras. You're not getting an incomplete product by not preordering, you're getting the full game that was advertised that you were always entitled to purchase. You're just missing out on extras made for people who preorder.

            My sentiments exactly. It's your choice to pay for the 'optional extras' or not. I find it a rare occasion a game has interesting enough pre-order bonuses to justify the extra cost of a day zero purchase.

    As several people have mentioned, this isn't the first instance of this happening. How come this non-issue is one now? People understand the risks of "pre-ordering" on Steam (Well, they should if they're putting that much down outright) so it's really down to the consumer to literally vote with their wallet. In the worst case, you get a game. In the best case, you get three...

    this isn't the first time... article makes me think its like "omg shock horror how dare they?" this sort of thing has been happening with steam pre-orders for a couple of recent titles... go and look at the resident evil 6 pre-order... sure you don't get a free game at the highest level but you get the season pass (don't get me started on what i think of season passes...)... so it is certainly incentive...

    bioshock however... if anyone pays the aussie tax on the steam store for this game they're stupid... that said i guess if you want xcom and it gets unlocked it helps the value... slightly...

    In the comments section: People who havent learnt from the Aliens Colonial Marines fiasco

    Piss poor article full of hyperbole and little fact.

    The main reason for Presales is two fold.

    1 - To give publishers and retailers an idea of how much stock to push into channel on Day 1. This way they dont over commit on produce to many games ( publishers ) or buy too many games ( retailers ) that sit in a warehouse and negatively affect their cash flow.
    2 - To get games sold before pirate versions come out

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