I spent some time on the other side of the country for work last week. I was more disconnected than usual from the standard game release cycle during that time, but tuned in just enough to see Mortal Kombat 1 impressions going live across social media. When I flew back to New York on Friday night, I decided to unwind from a long trip by dropping $70 on a digital copy and enjoying some good old-fashioned violence.
Those plans were killed faster than Johnny Cage. I’d try to launch the game only to be greeted by a countdown screen. Assuming it was a mistake, I reloaded the store page and noticed that I had absent-mindedly preordered the fighter instead of buying it. If that was the case, then how was everyone online playing it already? It turned out I hadn’t ponied up enough. Had I spent $110 for a Premium Edition, I would have gotten a chance to play it starting on September 14, the day before I landed. Instead, I would have to wait until Tuesday, September 19, to get access. I was so frustrated, I nearly ripped my own spine out.
That isn’t a one-off launch strategy; several of this season’s biggest video games are taking the same approach. You could play Starfield on “day one” via Xbox Game Pass, or spend $100 to start it five days early. Payday 3 became available to early adopters on September 18, three days ahead of its official September 21 release date. The Crew Motorfest just employed the same strategy and Forza Motorsport will do it too in October. It’s slowly becoming the norm for certain publishers, with more employing a similar strategy every year.
Video game release dates are getting more complicated, and though that might create benefits for early adopters, it can just as easily feel like an uncomfortable monetization tool waiting to be abused. Just because you can drop extra cash to play a few days early doesn’t always mean that you should.
The pros …
On paper, getting early access to games via preorder sounds like a great deal — and it is in some cases. Say you were already sold on Starfield based on Xbox’s June showcase and knew reviews wouldn’t talk you out of it. In that case, it might make sense to spend the money on a Premium Edition and start playing early. It’s not as though that five days of extra playtime was all you were getting for your money. The extra $30 would give you some digital goodies like an art book, as well as some in-game skins. It would also cover the game’s eventual Shattered Space expansion. One could argue that all of that is worth the higher price; the early access was just a freebie.
It also makes sense for companies in the PS Plus and Game Pass era. With so many games available as part of subscriptions, publishers need to create some incentive for dedicated players to pay some cash for their games. In those situations, early access sounds like a fair trade-off: Most people can access the game for no extra charge, while publishers still can make a buck.
Through that rose-colored lens, it’s easy to see the early access practice as a form of corporate generosity — or at least convenient business. One could argue that it’s even practical in some cases. For competitive fighting game players, it makes sense to get dedicated players in early to make sure that the competitive fighting game community could start organizing tournaments and events for its proper launch day. And, hey, why should press and influencers be the only ones who get to check out games early anyways?
… and the cons
All of that makes sense in theory, but there are some cons to the strategy that can make it feel like another predatory industry practice in the making. Even if the strategy was done with the best intentions in mind, it’s hard to set aside the uneasy mental mind games situations like this create. While patient Game Pass subscribers could play Starfield at no extra charge on September 6, they’d have to spend five days seeing every detail of the game pop up all over the internet. Anyone hoping to avoid spoilers would have to navigate the internet like an asteroid field. Bethesda would also engineer its launch plan to be as enticing as possible. Spending $100 would mean getting to play it over a long holiday weekend — an ideal time to crack into a massive RPG, especially for anyone who works a steady day job or is a full-time student.
If all that FOMO was enough to convince you to purchase it, the standard $70 version of Mortal Kombat 1 wouldn’t be enough; you’d have to shell out for the Premium Edition. When I purchased Mortal Kombat 1, I was suddenly left with a choice: Just wait until the actual release date or spend that extra money on an upgrade. It was the same mindset I feel when I’m playing Candy Crush Saga and I wonder if I should spend a few bucks to finish off a level I was one turn away from beating. Only here, I’d be dropping significantly more money had I followed that impulse.
That purchase doesn’t always pay off, as we saw this week. On September 18, players could get access to Payday 3 three days early by buying the Silver or Gold editions of the shooter. Unfortunately, players didn’t get that full benefit; connectivity issues left the game unplayable for a full day on PS5. So they paid an extra $30 to $50 and were not be able to play for one-third of the early access period.
What’s also troubling is how early access launches like this tend to skirt around the standard game review cycle — something that’s rarely in the best interest of players. From what we’ve experienced this year, the longer a game’s early access period, the less likely it is that you’ll see full reviews beforehand. We often get our codes for games that use this strategy just a few days before early access, or on the day itself. Sometimes that’s just practical; an online-only game like Payday 3 can’t be tested unless servers are fully operational and populated with players. Granted that creates its own issues. In other cases, though, it can obscure serious issues from those who just can’t wait to play.
Mortal Kombat 1 is an unfortunate example.
Though the fighting game runs well on modern platforms, those who preordered on Nintendo Switch quickly found a significant visual downgrade that’s a sight to behold. Had critics gotten into the game early, potential buyers would have had reviews and content detailing those shortcomings, allowing Switch owners to make an informed decision about whether or not they should spend triple digits on the game. Instead, players had to find out the hard way as journalists and creators rushed to inform their audiences after the fact.
Issues like this aren’t new, nor are they exclusive to early access releases. CD Projekt Red famously held back last-gen console codes for Cyberpunk 2077 at launch, leading many people to drop their cash on a buggy version of the game come launch. Still, the current early access model seems to exacerbate that problem even more, as review timelines have seemingly gotten shorter.
For some people, none of this may seem like much of a problem. It’s ultimately every person’s choice how they decide to spend their money. If they want to drop $100 on a game to play it early, they should know there might be some risk there (especially anyone who would buy a “next-gen” game on Switch). And it’s not like we’re talking about people getting access to lifesaving medication; they’re video games.
Still, video games are an expensive hobby with a long history of finding clever ways to squeeze money out of players. Whenever a trend like this pops up, I can’t help but be a little vigilant. I’ve been gaming long enough to know that if something sounds too good to be true, there’s often a catch somewhere nearby. If you’re comfortable taking that gamble, just don’t be surprised if you find a string or two attached.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m finally going to play Mortal Kombat 1.