According to the people who want to sell us the next Ratchet & Clank game, "everyone's favorite Ratchet & Clank weapon" is the Sheepinator, a gun that transforms bad guys into sheep.
According to these same game-selling people, the only way for any series fan to get the "classic version" of that weapon in the next Ratchet & Clank game, is to pre-order the game at WalMart.com.
Too bad if you're one of the series' fans—one of those "everyone"—who doesn't want to shop at WalMart. Too bad if they, for example, really likes the insult-throwing robot-buddy Mr. Zurkon, who will only be available in this new game, Ratchet & Clank: All For One, if you pre-order the game at GameStop. You didn't want the Morph-O-Ray, the gun that turns enemies into dinosaurs, did you? Yours only if you pre-order at Amazon.
[UPDATE: A reader correctly points out that the video Sony showed today in its announcement of the pre-order weapons, refers to them as "early weapon unlock[s]", which could mean that the pre-order consumer will simply get the gun at the start of the game while other consumers have to play more—or that the weapon is available "early" compared to when it'll be sold separately later. Sony has not made that clear, referring, in their press release and in a statement to Kotaku to these weapons only as " free unlockable items exclusive to each respective retailer." A company rep just told me that they're trying to sort out what the truth of the matter is now. I'll update the story when I receive clarification.]
The previous Ratchet & Clank game was superb (I reviewed it), and the next may be the most innovative four-player co-op game since Left 4 Dead. In the perfect world, both that history and that potential would sell the game itself, but apparently flagging Ratchet series sales—it's not been the hit in the PlayStation 3 era that it was on the PS2—have dovetailed with the publishers' new favorite marketing trick to present another case study in how annoying pre-order incentives can be.
Game companies have decided that a great way to convince big retail outlets that an upcoming game will sell well is to coax consumers into stores months early with differently-flavored carrots suspended at different shops. The Mortal Kombat people did this late last year, offering certain classic finishing moves only to consumers who pre-ordered the game in one place or another. The people behind L.A. Noire just did it too, splintering off some cases and even a game mode to different consumers based on where they pre-ordered the game. It's not enough for companies to convince all the shops with one great incentive. Nope. GameStop needs their special bonus; Amazon needs theirs; Best Buy gets something else; let's not leave any of the big guys out.
The pre-orders don't tend to be exclusive forever, which means, of course, that they were never exclusive to begin with—except in the video game company manner of telling consumers they can only get something one place, when the truth is that, if you wait, you can get it all. Former Assassin's Creed creative director Patrice Desilets once told me that all of Assassin's Creed II's so-called retailer-exclusive downloadable content would eventually be available to all gamers. What was unusual is that he told me that before the game came out which, I later heard, didn't go over too well at his company. Shame on him for messing with the marketing team's version of reality. (Credit to Rockstar for telling their fans, shortly before the release of L.A. Noire, that their DLC would eventually be available to all—and apologizing for not pulling that off so swiftly for their previous game, Red Dead Redemption.)
Earlier today, Sony's public relations team sent out a list of game retailers and their respective Ratchet pre-order perk. I e-mailed them back, asking if those special weapons would eventually be available to anyone who gets the new game. "These pre-order bonuses announced today are exclusive to the retailers listed below," a Sony rep e-mailed back. "We'll keep you posted on any additional announcements."
The smart money is that the classic Sheepinator, Mr. Zurkon and any other pre-order incentives will eventually be for sale for all Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One gamers to buy. After all, if "everyone" loves the classic Sheepinator, why not sell it to everyone? The smart money's also on Sony not acknowledging that they'll do that for a while. They'll see if they can get retailers to believe, months before the new Ratchet's October 18 release, that people want this game, any fan aggravation be damned.
As the pre-order incentives for games get sweeter, as they continue to be divided across multiple shops, it seems like consumers are being asked to make choices about giving up on small pieces of the very things that delight them. Unless the gamers see through it all, of course, and wait it out. Skip the pre-order, skip the panic. Trust that it'll all come out eventually. And if it doesn't, many the publisher plan backfires, and maybe gaming retailers will have to find another method for figuring out what's going to be a good game. Better that than turning game customers ever more into sheep.
Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One Releasing October 18th [PlayStation blog]