The Psychology of Hype and Pre-Order Culture


I’m not here to be a whistleblower. I’m not going to tell you how bad pre-order and hype culture is for us, the consumers. There are plenty of people more articulate than I who have said as much at length and I have no desire to beat that horse any further, regardless of how lively it continues to whinny.

Instead, I’m simply going to provide you with the facts. We all know marketing schemes are playing us like puppets. I’m just going to walk you through the machine and let you come to your own conclusions.

WantWanting What We Can’t Have

You’re probably familiar with the natural desire to want what you can’t have. While I’d love to provide scientific evidence of this phenomenon, there isn’t any. I don’t know if that’s because the idea is so generally accepted or because Pepsi paid more to beat Coke this time, but I think we’re all familiar with the natural humanistic need to want for things that are just outside our grasp.

This is where the machine starts.

Have you ever asked yourself why a video game company or movie studio announces projects years before they’re made? Why they hold conferences and conventions focused solely on telling you about new products that aren’t going to be available for months or sometimes years?

There are a few reasons doing this plays in a company’s favor.

  1. It allows them to judge a product’s potential market value before dumping a ton of money into a risky proposition.
  2. It shares information with and reassures stock holders that the company’s future is bright.
  3. It primes customers.

In psychological terms, priming is when the implicit memory of one stimulus influences the response of a later stimulus.

PrimingA Prime Example

Let’s say you’re a fan of the Halo gaming franchise.

While watching or attending E3, one of the biggest gaming conventions on the planet, the company behind Halo announces they’re making a brand new game that’s a lot like Halo – we’ll call it ‘Destiny’.

The announcement isn’t just some schmuck saying, “We’re making a game called Destiny.” It’s a spectacle of flashing lights and fast paced music where the developers talk about their vision of the game, how it’s going to be bigger and better than Halo ever was. They essentially say all the things you want to hear, describing the greatest gaming experience you could ever think of.

No gameplay footage is shown. They may provide a few screens of concept art but the game isn’t set to come out for another 18 months. They haven’t really given you anything other than nice description but that’s all they needed to do.

You’ve just made a memory, pairing the feeling of excitement with a video game called Destiny that doesn’t remotely exist. It’s a meaningless theoretical construct but now every time you hear about Destiny you’re going to remember that feeling and get excited.

Congratulations! The hype train just left the station.

The Simplicity of Hype

Now you want something that doesn’t exist and the scenario is going to play out one of two ways.

  1. You slowly forget about the game.
  2. You become obsessed with it.

Hype-train-brakesIt doesn’t really matter whether you become an obsessive fan or not. Sure it’s better for the company, but you’ve already been primed regardless. Now they just have to reinforce that stimulus and build on what the initial announcement created.

This is the “hype train” in a nutshell. It’s meant to make you want something that’s unattainable and to constantly keep it in the back of your mind.

The primary purpose of hype culture is prepare a large group of consumers for consumption. It’s preparing audiences to buy as soon as the product hit shelves.

The bigger the budget, the longer the hype train. More expensive products are announced earlier than those with smaller budgets because they have to sell more to recoup their production costs and turn a profit. These products also have larger marketing budgets, meaning they can naturally afford to hype consumers more than their competitors.

That’s all there is to it. Announce, prime, wait a bit and repeat. It’s all meant to prepare you for the next part of the machine, pre-ordering.


The Sinister Complexity of Pre-Orders

Hype culture really isn’t that bad. It keeps fans excited for the future, let’s them know there’s even going to be a future, and gives them talking points to discuss during dry spells when new product releases are few and far between.

The reason many of us have grown to despise hype culture is because of how it ties into its older brother – pre-orders.

The core concept of pre-orders is inherently a good idea. It comes down to a simple solution of supply and demand. Companies don’t want to produce an excessive supply of a new product and end up with millions of dollars of stock left over that no one’s willing to buy, but they also don’t want to sell out severely and upset customers by forcing them to wait. Pre-orders let a company know just how much supply they need to have in order to meet demand at launch.

For a while pre-orders served their purpose and were largely just an option die-hard fans could take advantage of to ensure future gratification. Then marketing specialists started to see a pattern. The more they hyped a product, the more pre-orders they received. The market took a turn for the worst when these specialists realized they could use this formula to make an entire product’s budget back at launch, before word-of-mouth ever became a factor in whether a product failed or succeeded.

Thus pre-orders stopped being a nicety and became a marketing tool.

Getting a Foot in the Door

foot-in-the-doorPre-orders largely work by using the foot-in-the-door phenomenon to their advantage. They ask you to pay a little money up-front to reserve an upcoming product, which doesn’t seem like a strange request. You’re just being asked to show that you actually intend to purchase the product. However, this is actually using a common, well-known psychological phenomenon and sales tactic..

Anyone who’s worked in sales for any length of time can tell you how the foot-in-the-door technique works. I was using it to sell newspaper subscriptions door-to-door when I was 13 years-old. I didn’t knock on a door as say, “Hey, do you want the newspaper?” I asked smaller questions first, like “It’s pretty hot out today isn’t it?” Or whenever I saw sports flags and decorations I’d say, “You’re a _______ fan too?!”

The point is to get a small positive response first, even if it’s a yes to something as simple as “Can I ask you a question?” You get the customer to agree to small request in order to better your chances of them agreeing to a larger request.

In sales we called this yessing your way through a no.

Based in ScienceScience!

In 1966, Stanford researchers Johnathan Freedman and Scott Fraser published a study called “Compliance Without Pressure: The Foot-in-the-Door Technique”. Based around the idea of the foot-in-the-door technique, the researchers conducted two separate experiments.

The first experiment consisted of four groups of women, three of which were called and asked to provide information over the phone about their household products. Three days later the researchers called all four groups, the three previously contacted and the fourth that hadn’t yet been spoken to, and asked if they could send a group of men to their homes to physically catalogue their household products.

52.8% of the women who answered the questions over the phone also agreed to allow the men to stop by. Only 22.2% of the women who were only asked the large request accepted. The study essentially showed that people were twice as likely to agree to a larger request after being asked and complying with a smaller request.

Testing the technique again, Freedman and Fraser randomly selected four new groups of men and women and decided to take their experiment door-to-door. They knocked on the door of the first three groups and asked each person if they’d place a small sign on their home or in their car. Two weeks later they went to the homes of all four groups, the last of which hadn’t received any sort of previous contact, and asked them to place a large, obtrusive billboard in their yards that was similar to the small sign. Again people were twice as likely to agree to the larger request if they previously accepted the smaller request.

Nessy-350All I’m Asking for is $5

The five or ten dollars you put down on a pre-order is a small request that readies you for the larger request of buying the entire game at launch. Does it ensure every person who pre-orders will also buy the game? No, but it makes the possibility much more likely and drives launch day sales.

Once you put down that $5 the question isn’t “Why should I buy ______?” Instead you find yourself asking “Why Not?” And it’s much easier to say yes to the latter.

Putting It All Together

putting it togetherIt starts with the hype train making you want what you can’t have while associating positive thoughts with their product, like the totally “hypothetical” Destiny video game we talked about earlier. Then, before the game is even complete, and well before anyone gets to see the final product, the publisher says, “Remember that game you want? You can guarantee receiving your copy at launch for only $5!”

Triggering the response stimulus they started building back when the game was first announced, you think, “Oh yea! That game sounds awesome. I definitely want to get it.” So you put down a little bit of money and accept the company’s small request.

You’re on the hook now. They don’t have to sell you anymore. The company in question just has to not fuck up before launch to get the rest of the money.

Keep in mind, we haven’t even touched on the pre-order bonuses and incentives that push even more people towards pre-orders and compound the issue even further. Remember, you’re twice as likely to make the purchase if they can get a little money early.          Do I really have to explain how much more manipulative the system is with bonuses?

but-waitBut Wait, There’s More!

One of the biggest crimes committed by hype and pre-order culture is the confirmation bias it breeds.

People hate to have their beliefs challenged or proven wrong. They hate it so much in fact that it’s one of the most common reasons for war and genocide.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret and prefer information that confirms your own personally held beliefs while ignoring information that contradicts them.

While not as radically held as religious beliefs, we all like to think that our purchase decisions are warranted – that we’re right to spend money the way we do.

To continue using our “hypothetical” Destiny example, instead of searching for “Destiny reviews” someone experiencing confirmation bias will search “Is Destiny Good?” Seems harmless enough, but look a little closer at the search terms being used. Which is more likely to find positive or “good” reviews?

These same people will often defend their purchase to their dying breath, constantly citing the few positives of the product while brushing off negative aspects as “not that bad” or saying they’ve “seen worse”.

The innate desire for confirmation bias only gets stronger as the hype train gains longevity and the amount of biased people grows as pre-order numbers rise. These people point to one-another to prove their views, creating a group of people who point at each other saying, “I’m not the only one who likes it. He likes it too.”

The End Resultkeep-calm-and-thanks-for-reading-16

In the end, consumers get duped into buying a product at launch that they’re naturally more inclined to like regardless of the product’s overall quality. The publishing company turns a profit on day one of launch and laughs their way to the bank despite how good or bad the product actually turned out.

This means quality isn’t a priority. All a company has to do is meagerly apologize if consumers aren’t happy with the end result and focus on pre-selling them the next product coming down the pipeline. They’re already ensured there’s going to be a sect of mindless zombies with confirmation bias who will defend their product anyway, which diminishes the blowback they might feel if the product (*cough* Destiny *cough*) turns out to be less than they originally promised.

That’s how it works from start to finish. Announce, hype, repeat. Is this blatant anti-consumer system something you really want to support? The decision, as always, is ultimately up to you.

3 thoughts on “The Psychology of Hype and Pre-Order Culture

  1. Not sure if the last paragraph is warranted, at least in that form, after the initial statement that you’re not going to beat the not-so-dead horse. The implicit critique to the “mindless zombies” might also be a bit harsh, I reckon. That said, I have no qualms with the actual contents of the article or the conclusion you clearly draw from said contents.

    What’s your opinion on Kickstarter? The mechanics feel at the very least similar, but the fact that it’s supposedly a medium for donations that may yield a reward offsets my evaluation a bit.

    I’ve never preordered a game, but I’m familiar with the concept of the “hype train” from MtG and I can certainly understand its pull. Like you, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, per se, nor do I think it’s wrong that a game publisher would want to ride it for profit.

    I have to wonder about the actual quality not mattering, though. Some numbers would be useful, here, but my gut says that an actually good game is bound to generate substantially more money than a bad one, assuming everything else being equal. If the monetary advantage from a well executed job is not big enough to justify the effort, though, that’s where I believe there’s a problem with the system.

    If the payoff is there, companies “scamming” their customers, and attempting to recover from a cruddy title with preorders, are actually damaging themselves. If it isn’t, however, then I can’t dismiss the notion that some rules (i.e. laws) to enforce the right to return overhyped and faulty games could be needed.

    Anyhow, as a last note, confirmation bias would probably also lead a customer who’s prone to preordering less likely to read an article with the kind of premises yours has, so I have to imagine not many would be swayed by this kind of publications. If data supported that it’s actually worth it to do as good a job as possible, an article directed at game producers might be more effective.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right. It is me basically going against the very thing I said I wouldn’t do in the beginning. I just figured I’d add my two cents at the end to spark conversation – and frankly I couldn’t resist chiming in anymore. I actually wrote that last part after proofreading and tightening up the article because I didn’t feel a matter-of-fact ending was really strong enough.

      I think Kickstarter has proven its worth with games like Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin. It’s a nice platform indie devs can find the funding they need to make games that are ultimately geared towards giving gaming fans what they want. If anything I think it’s the epitome of pro-consumerism.

      I think Kickstarter’s incentive system serves as a great way to weed out poorly thought-out projects with unmotivated teams. I don’t think the platform would work nearly as well as a simple donation system with no tangible rewards. Are bad seeds going to come along and try to abuse the system? Yea, but that’s the nature of doing business and I think the good we’ve seen from Kickstarter out-weighs the bad.

      While the article is geared towards games, these systems are certainly used to market a variety of other products the same way. MtG is another good example. Just look at how cards are slowly spoiled over time and how much they push pre-release events to drive sales even before each set’s initial launch date.

      The quality argument is simply this. If a game costs $300 million to make and it earns $500 million its opening week from pre-orders, then that game already turned a healthy profit without its quality ever coming into question. Is a better game going to make more money in the long run? Absolutely. But is it worth it to take another 6-18 months to make a game good when you could turn a healthy profit now and start focusing on your next money maker? That’s the problem this system calls into question when games like Watch Dogs sells 4 million copies at launch, which rightly caught a lot of flak because the final product was not at the same quality as its E3 presentation.

      If a company releases something that’s utter trash, like a universal 1/10, then of course their reputation would be damaged and future sales of anything they do would be severely harmed. But these companies know better than to blatantly abuse the system like that. Instead they make 6/10s and 7/10s, releasing unfinished products of what would otherwise be stellar titles because they know they’ll make more than enough money at release and won’t take a terrible hit to their reputation. It’s like an oil company cutting corners because they know the payout of the potential spill won’t actually hurt their bottom line more than simply doing things the right way first.

      And I’m companies don’t necessarily use the system for evil. I don’t think there are massive teams of developers who purposefully set out to make subpar games. But you also can’t deny that the system rewards such behavior and it’s been happening more and more often. Also us, the consumers, gain nothing from it.

      You make a good point about confirmation bias except that it largely works on a subconscious level. We’ve all fallen prey to it at one time or another. The point of the article was to bring everything to light to consumers, and I know a lot of people who admitted to learning firsthand about confirmation bias from Destiny – gamers who sung its praises at launch only to backpedal later as more and more people saw the game for what it was and realized it wasn’t really as good as they initially thought it was.

      Actually, since I’ve released the article I’ve found out that pretty much no one seems to care about the topic. I posted it on r/gaming and r/games and literally no one clicked on it. But it was interesting to research and write about.

      As with everything I write, I hope whoever happens upon it finds the article enjoyable and informational whether that’s one person or one hundred people.

      I appreciate the insights. You’ve certainly given me a few things to think about moving forward.


  2. IMO a very important subject to think about. I hate thinking about the fact that things rarely ever live up to the hype, and that consumers like me would probably be better off not even knowing about a product until it was in our hands. That’s how it was mostly when I was a kid, when my introduction to a game was usually playing it at a friend’s house or my dad bringing home a game.


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