A pre-order is a request to purchase a game in advance of its release date. Ordering a game online or at a retail store before it is released simply means you intend to purchase a particular title.
You typically aren't charged for the game until you pick it up at the store or it ships, although some retailers may require a minimal down payment (such as five dollars) to reserve a title. This reservation fee is deducted from the game's price at the time of purchase. You should also be able to cancel a pre-order at any time before the game is released for any reason.
For retailers and publishers, pre-orders are a beneficial tool. Retailers can help gauge interest in a particular title and plan their orders accordingly. Publishers like pre-orders since consumers are buying new games at full retail price instead of buying used titles, where the profit goes directly to the retailer instead of the publisher.
So it's generally in the best interests of retailers and publishers alike to entice you into buying a game as early as possible, but what's in it for you? Quite a number of things, actually. You'll want to compare several retailers when pre-ordering a game to see what bonuses you can get in addition to the cheapest price.
Many publishers hope to build interest in pre-orders by including exclusive incentives. Some of these incentives may be associated with a particular retail chain or digital download store. To help clarify what's out there, here are five things you should be looking for when shopping for your favorite computer or console game:
1. Free Older Games. There's nothing better than getting a game for free, unless of course, you already have said game. If the title you're planning on purchasing in advance is from a large publisher, you might receive an older title from the publisher's back catalog -- particularly if the game is digitally distributed.
Sega's sports management sim Football Manager 2011, for example, gave those who pre-ordered the game on Steam an opportunity to acquire two Sega Genesis collections for free -- a total of 20 bonus titles. Those who pre-ordered Kalypso's Dungeons on Steam were given M.U.D. TV as a bonus to play while they waited.
2. In-game Extras. By far the most popular pre-order bonuses are in-game extras, such as maps, new missions, cosmetic items and so forth. You might receive a clothing choice or two for your on-screen character, or a shiny new vehicle that's not available anywhere else.
The pre-order bonus for Cities in Motion, for example, was a collection of five authentic transport options that add some personality to the cities you manage. The bonus for The Sims Medieval was a collection of three themed throne rooms and two outfits for in-game monarchs and executioners.
3. Clothing or Accessories. Clothing and/or accessories that can be used outside of the game are another popular pre-order item for traditional retailers. These may include shirts featuring the game's logo or artwork, a keychain, sunglasses or even a hat.
Those who pre-ordered Scribblenauts at GameStop received a rooster cap worn by the game's protagonist, Maxwell. The pre-order bonus for Marvel vs. Capcom 3: Fate of Two Worlds at Capcom's store was a shirt featuring artwork from the game.
4. Cheaper Prices. Sometimes the best reason to pre-order at a certain vendor is a discount off the price of the game. You might be able to receive anywhere from 10 to 20% off the retail price if you pre-order within a certain timeframe. Amazon, Toys R Us and Wal-Mart have offered gift cards for future purchases if you pre-order select games -- sometimes as much as $25 simply for ordering a title through them instead of somewhere else.
Independently developed games also frequently offer discounts, primarily as a way to fund ongoing development. Those who pre-ordered Minecraft before its beta release received a discount and a promise that all future game updates would be provided at no additional cost.
5. Early Access. You already are pledging to purchase the game in a pre-order, so it stands to reason that you, well, want the game. What better incentive for those chomping at the bit to play a particular game than to receive it early? In addition to saving 25% off the game's price, Out of the Park Baseball 12's pre-order bonus let owners download two days before the official release.
Some games offer instant access to the beta -- allowing players an opportunity to try out a portion of the game in advance of its release date. Fate of the World owners could immediately play one of the game's scenarios if they pre-ordered the game at the publisher's official site.