No Man's Sky PC disaster reminds us why we should stop pre-ordering games

In case you missed the news, No Man's Sky launched on PC last week, and the version that appeared on Steam and GOG was in rough shape. Users reported a whole slew of problems with the game, from frame rate hitching even on overpowered rigs to frequent crashes. The backlash against developer Hello Games was swift and widespread, with angry purchasers tanking the game's Steam user rating almost immediately. All the while, gamers who have been through this before held it up as an example of why we should no longer pre-order video games.

They're right, too. In today's world, there is absolutely no reason to pre-order video games, especially if you're buying digital copies. Once upon a time, a pre-order was conceivably placed so you could reserve a copy of a game in the event that they sell out, but these days that's so rare that pre-ordering has transformed into either a way to play the game the exact minute it launches or as a way to get extra stuff in-game. An example would be the extra ship Hello Games was offering those who pre-ordered No Man's Sky. The ship, in a rather sad fit of irony, also had its share of problems.

When you can't even trust that the bonuses you get for plopping money down in advance will work properly, what's does the point of pre-ordering become? I really can't think of any, and the argument that one should pre-order to get that extra content was a weak one in the first place. No developer is going to lock away content necessary to completing the game as a pre-order bonus, so if the extra content you're getting can't be considered essential to the game you're buying, why bother?

When you pre-order a game, the only thing you're doing is rewarding a publisher for being good at marketing. You're putting down money in advance for an unfinished game of unknown quality on the promise that it's going to be good when it comes out. Do you know how many people I saw saying No Man's Sky was going to be a great game pre-launch? The number was disturbing, and I can guarantee you that most of those people had already put money down toward the game, now left to convince themselves that it would be worth it when when No Man's Sky finally released.

Now, whether or not No Man's Sky is a good game is purely a matter of subjective taste, but there are more than a few people expressing disappointment at the lack of things to actually do in No Man's Sky. That leads me into my next point.

If you take one thing away from this article, let it be this: there is no way to know if a game is going to be good – or even that it will arrive in a playable state – before it launches, and you're fooling yourself if you think otherwise. Expecting a game to be good is going to lead to disappointment more often than not, because a game's marketing campaign will almost always paint the game to be better than it actually is.

Also, it should be stated that just because a developer has delivered really solid games in the past, that doesn't necessarily mean future games from them will be good. One only needs to look at Batman: Arkham Knight for an example of that. While Arkham Asylum and Arkham City were two of the best superhero games ever made, Arkham Knight was a complete mess on PC when it first launched. It got so bad that Warner Bros. eventually had to pull the game from Steam and offer refunds to upset customers. We would all do well to remember that a developer's past successes are no reason to reward them in advance for future endeavors.

Now, an admission: I wanted to pre-purchase No Man's Sky on Steam, I really did. I bought into the hype for a while and got super excited for the game, but I decided I would wait to see some actual gameplay footage on Twitch and read some reviews before I took the plunge, because I've been burned in the past. The launch problems coupled with the fact that No Man's Sky turned out to be something I thought I would only marginally like means that I now have $60 that can go toward games I will actually enjoy for far longer than just their opening hours.

In a way, I have Peter Molyneux and the mess he talked himself into with the Fable series to thank for deciding to hold off on No Man's Sky. I still distinctly remember getting all excited for the release of the original Fable, watching gameplay videos and reading every article I could find. I happily climbed aboard Molyneux's hype train and fell for his sales pitch – which promised that Fable would be one of the coolest games ever – hook, line, and sinker.

Then Fable released, and I realized that I had been led astray by a man who either can't keep his mouth shut or had no interest in doing so from the beginning.

Don't get me wrong, Fable was very good, but it wasn't what was promised. Those promises ultimately meant nothing in the end though, because Molyneux had his money and I had my game, and even though I had fun playing it, the whole experience was tarnished by this internal nagging that I didn't receive the product what was pitched to me.

Since then, I've tried to keep that feeling in mind when I consider pre-purchasing games through Steam or dropping money on a pre-order at GameStop. There have been some slip ups along the way, but after dodging a bullet with No Man's Sky, I can confidently say that it'll be quite a bit easier to resist the urge from here on out.

The next time you find yourself tempted to pre-order a game – any game – remember No Man's Sky, remember Arkham Knight, and remember Molyneux. Then spend your cash on something that actually exists.