Hitman’s pre-order challenge – A step in the right direction?

“HITMAN: SNIPER CHALLENGE sets a new industry standard for pre-order incentives.”

That bold statement comes from Square Enix marketing exec, Mona Hamilton in the press release for this week’s announcement of Hitman: Sniper Challenge. Rarely have I agreed so strongly with such a sweeping statement, but then again Hamilton’s words carry an unintended meaning to them.

Pre-order incentives have been one of the big question marks of the generation; evolving from coloured cartridge beginnings to free DLC and exclusive in-game equipment. But Agent 47’s new pre-order-only mini-game is something else entirely, restricting access to a new entry in a much-loved series. So, yes, it is a ‘new standard’ for pre-orders, but is that really a good thing?

Now, sure, there’s an easy way out of all of this; just pre-order Hitman: Absolution at GameStop and you get Sniper Challenge free of charge. In one line of thinking, this is actually a pretty good deal for fans, who can just pre-order a game they were (likely) going to buy any way and get something free from it. Meanwhile Square gets a nice bump in the guaranteed sales department, and everyone’s a winner.

And, y’know, I’m not overly offended by the scheme. It doesn’t seem like Sniper Challenge is taking a slice of Absolution’s content away and I’d bet my Ballers that it sees general release post-Absolution for a small fee. It would simply be bad business not to try and make a bit more moolah out of it while franchise interest is high.

For me, this is actually the preferred option over free DLC. You either pre-order Absolution or you don’t but you’re still getting the same disc with all of the same content and no codes to reward a pre-order (or scorn you otherwise). And hey, you’re not going to be bothered about Sniper Challenge if you’re not interested in Absolution, are you? So it being unavailable to people outside the fan base probably isn’t a huge issue.

But, right here, right now, there’s an issue. There’s a Hitman game that will be available in a few days and the only way to obtain it is by guaranteeing a company $60.

That just doesn’t sound right when you say it out loud, despite me not being quite able to put my finger on what specifically is so bad about. The bottom line is that the Sniper Challenge content could and should be available to everyone. But it says a lot about the current state of the industry that I still find Square’s plans preferable to other pre-order incentives.

And, as pointed out by TVGB’s Chris Birchall, those that aren’t willing to take the risk of laying down an early order are still going to find themselves with less content come Absolution’s release, regardless of Sniper Challenge being a separate product. Not every Hitman fan is going to be in the financial position right now to be able to pre-order the game; is it fair that they have to miss out?

Frustratingly, it’s a situation that could have been avoided, too. There’s the question of why Square couldn’t just simply release the game for a fee right now as well as the pre-order incentive. Capcom’s Dead Rising 2 prologue, released back in 2010, was an intriguing marketing tool that offered a fully-playable advert for the game before it released, and the same could have been said of this. Wouldn’t selling the game for $5 before Absolution’s release have maybe shifted more copies of the retail game than the current plan?

But, then again, maybe that too is missing the point. Sniper Challenge could be seen as a very rewarding and awesome bit of fan service for those that have been with Agent 47 for a while. If that truly is Square’s aim, as opposed to simply just bumping up the sales figures, then it’s more applaudable than a lot of efforts seen from other companies in years past.

Sniper Challenge isn’t really a step in the right direction, then, but it’s not exactly a step backwards, either. It’s a side-step, a shuffle to the side, out of the way of more harmful pre-order incentives. As a piece of fan-service it’s an intriguing model that uniquely rewards the franchises’ most devoted followers. As a business move it seems to be the (significantly) lesser of a range of evils that we’ve seen exercised in the past few years.

It’s an unusual strategy, something that will need to be judged on its success. Agent 47 never misses his target though, and I can’t see this being any different.