Why Isn’t The Witcher 3 Perfect?: Pre-Order Culture And The Expectations Game

PHOTO CREDIT: © CD Projekt Red

PHOTO CREDIT: © CD Projekt Red

Yesterday, I received a game in the mail that I had pre-ordered the week prior: Puzzle & Dragons Z + Puzzle & Dragons Super Mario Bros Edition. The reason I pre-ordered it was, from all the preview coverage of the game, it seemed like the kind of video game that I would get a lot of mileage from. From the initial hours I’ve spent on it, it won’t be the perfect video game, but I expect it will be a pretty good one this year.

Another game this past week that has received a lot of preview coverage (and I suspect many people pre-ordered) was The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Again, the first impressions and initial words on the game were very positive…until the actual release date. Early reviews were very high, with some of them being perfect 10s. Then, everything we’ve come to expect from a modern day video game launch happens: there are game-breaking bugs, reports of frames dropping, saves wiping, hair textures not getting the proper sheen, and glitches that players are exploiting. Patches will eventually come to fix all this stuff (while this is all fair game for criticism, whether any of this is excusable from a full retail product in the year 2015 is the subject of another column). Alongside all of these discoveries, some players started throwing around accusations that CD Projekt Red deliberately downgraded the PC version of the game in order to meet console-specific thresholds for those versions of the game AND that the preview coverage prior to this game’s release did not match up with the actual reality.

I get it. Sixty dollars is a lot of money to pay for a product that, at the end of the day, leaves people cold for one reason or another. However, there exists a cabal of people buying and playing games that always assumes malice and intent when it comes to expectations not lining up with reality. Somewhat answering this criticism, CD Projekt Red told Polygon that “maybe [CD Projekt Red] shouldn't have shown that trailer.” They cited a game engine change from the trailer to the actual product, the elemental underpinning that’s causing all these bugs and all this anger.

We, the game-buying public, may never uncover the “fast one” that the developer pulled on us this time, but for all of the values that CD Projekt Red seems to espouse (DLC should be free, DRM is bad, PCs are a more open development platform than consoles), maybe they deserve this mistrust for perpetuating the “Pre-Order Now!” syndrome that plagues every game marketing campaign.

Anybody who has been on the Internet in the last decade perceives that we live in a culture of perpetual outrage. It comes home to roost in video games frequently because, as marketers and game companies would have you believe, you should pre-order everything and the new hotness is better than that old crap we sold to you last year. Ubisoft basically copped to this a few weeks ago when they admitted that Assassin’s Creed: Unity was a broken product, then turned around in the same video to say you should be excited for Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Electronic Arts basically does this with every year’s release of Madden, and Madden’s glitches have become their own Internet sensation. One of the reason this generation of games is getting so many remasters and HD restorations of games we’ve played before is that, well, the initial game’s sales (and pre-orders!) weren’t high enough the first time around, and game companies need money. The release of a second remaster of Final Fantasy X/X-2 by Square Enix on PS4, after last year’s remaster of the same games on PS3 and Vita, along with another limited edition of this re-remaster, is a sign that this “new=good, old=bad” pre-orders and expectations game motto has played us.

On the other hand, maybe the expectations game that The Witcher 3 downgrade controversy delves into doesn’t matter much. At the time of this writing, the game is being bandied about as the best game some critics have played this year so far, even with all of the game’s documented warts. By all accounts, it is selling pretty well, across all platforms. My impression of the game is that it looks impressive and ambitious. 

Then again, I didn’t pre-order the game, am not currently playing it, and therefore, my opinion on the matter doesn’t matter much. Do you see the cycle here? Pre-order culture is hurting criticism of this game AND contorting what everyone expected from the game right out of the gate. The developers are left burned by the experience, the public gets a worse product now and potentially in the future, and in the ensuing mess, no one can decide who is to blame. Everyone loses. You can imagine this in the coming months: The Witcher Trilogy: Enhanced Edition, available for pre-order now! It’s totally not downgraded or borked this time! Comes with a limited edition soundtrack!

While we’re all asking the perfectly valid and important question of whether The Witcher 3 is good, bad, or the worst video game to come about since ET for the Atari, no one’s asking the better question of why we expected anything from it at all. Maybe we should be.