Grumpy Gamer: In Remembrance of the Retail Box

Wherein the Grumpy Gamer remembers the good ol' days, when manuals and maps weren't just for the premium pre-order bundle, and when kids respected their elders.

Grumpy Gamer: In Remembrance of the Retail Box

It's been an exciting week. The Elder Scrolls Online became available for pre-order, and of course I went ahead and paid for it. There were four different versions available for the pre-order promotion, each offering a different level of access to the game and additional swag. That's the common order of the day and a fine model of capitalism in a nutshell - pay the bare minimum, get the least; pay more, get more.

The thing that bothers me is, the stuff that's bundled with the most expensive, ultra-deluxe retail box version, which is a hundred bucks or more these days, is basically the same stuff you used to get in the 40-dollar box. Plus a statuette, usually.

Back in the day, when Black Isle Studios was still a thing and all the best games were isometric, games always came bundled with physical media, meaty instruction manuals, reference cards with keymaps, full-color maps and other goodies. The first Icewind Dale and the second Baldur's Gate shipped with gigantic novel-sized manuals - 200+ wire-bound pages, almost detailed enough to replace your tabletop pen-and-paper Advanced Dungeons & Dragons core rulebooks. Icewind Dale even shipped with a full-color cloth map instead of the glossy paper maps that came with every other game. I once bought a bargain-bin bundle with the original Fallout and Fallout 2 for like 12 bucks, and it came with amazing instruction manuals for both - the Vault Survival Guide, a nice, chunky, illustrated game manual masked as official Vault-Tec literature for dealing with nuclear fallout and life inside and outside of the formidable vaults. I've long since lost the physical media - loaned 'em to a friend, never got 'em back - but I still have those outstanding manuals, and they came in handy when the games were being sold dirt-cheap on Steam a short while ago. 

Grumpy Gamer Retail Box - ComicCon swag

Back in the day, every retail box PC game had all this in every box. Every single one.

It wasn't just the RPGs that came packaged with gigantic manuals, either. Age of Empires II shipped with a lovely manual filled with nice little illustrations and illuminated text. Any real-time strategy game worth its salt came packaged with a handy reference card showing the entire chain of buildings and units produced by each civilization, so if you wanted to make Unit X, you could plainly see on the chart that you needed Buildings A and B, and then needed to research Technology C. Plus, on the other side of the card, there was your keymap, so you never had to go messing around trying to find the key bindings thing in the Settings menu. 

There would often be additional swag in the boxes, too. My copy of Warcraft II came with the great manual and a Blizzard notepad, a nice thick one with decent paper that I still use to this day when I need to quickly jot down a note or whatever. Or, rather, I DID use it until I "cleaned" my desk and lost it. It's around somewhere. The swag outlasted the game.

Grumpy Gamer Retail Box - Justin Bieber and fan looking like idiots

Wrong definition of swag. Forever.

These were not deluxe editions, available for a limited time only. These were the standard retail box versions from chain stores. But then Steam came along, and the world grew a little bit darker.

Game developers started to realize that the suckers consumers suckers would continue to pay 60 bucks for a new release even without a box, expensive manuals, maps or other swag.  Hell, they would even pay that much for a digital "copy" they would have to download from their intrusive virtual storefront, even though it would take 3 days because they live in a rural backwater with crappy bandwidth.

To be fair, the economy over the past 20 years has certainly changed, and stuff is generally more expensive now than it was in the 1990s. But I remember new games costing 60 bucks back then, too. In Canada, anyway - American prices were usually a little lower, the same as books and magazines. But in the mid- to late-90s, $60 bought you the game plus all the swag.

Last year, I spent $60 on the mid-level pre-order Founder's Pack bundle for Neverwinter. That's the one that was between the cheap-out, no-frills "basic" version that didn't come with any cool stuff - the one they seem to want to make you feel guilty about looking at - but which only cost $30, and the Ultra-luxe megabox swag version that got everyone so worked up because it cost $200. The version I bought included some cool items - a cool horse for every character, some cosmetic items that I actually use and a few other things. What it did not come with was physical media (CDs, DVDs, etc), a paper game manual, world maps, reference cards or any other desk stuff I could hold in my hands while not playing the game.  That's always been a big seller for me - a game holds my attention better if I have something related to it that I can read, handle or look at while not actually playing the game.

Grumpy Gamer Retail Box - Neverwinter Hero of the North Founder's Pack

A $549 value, but not one single item you could hold in your hand or read on the toilet.

I don't feel like a chump for paying $60 for a game I enjoyed the hell out of for a few months. But I do miss those days where I would take a game manual to the bathroom, and thinking how awesome that game was while I was dropping a deuce.

The Elder Scrolls Online is offering up some swag options for their pre-orders. The digital download and retail box versions come in two tiers, "Imperial" and "Standard." I considered getting the Standard retail box version, but it's only available at Best Buy or FutureShop in Canada, and I hate both of those stores. So I went with the Imperial Digital Edition - the "middle" version.

According to the ESO website, the pricing breaks down like this:

  • Standard Digital: $59.99 (no swag other than the 5-days "early access," 30-day sub and the Explorer's Pack that everyone else gets)
  • Imperial Digital: $79.99 (same as Standard, plus a mount, a pet, XP bonus and additional race options)
  • Standard Retail: $59.99 (same as Standard Digital - no physical swag)
  • Imperial Retail: $99.99 (same as Imperial Digital, plus a giant collector's box, a huge full-color book, a big printed map and a statue of Molag Bal)

In other words, the super-deluxe edition for rich kids comes with the swag we used to get in the regular-ass retail box version. Okay, so the book is much nicer, it has a toy like a Happy Meal and it comes in a sweet tin lunchbox or whatever. But look at the disparity of value here:

  • The Imperial Retail version costs $40 more than the Standard Retail. Theoretically, because it contains $40 more worth of packaging and extras. But...
  • The Standard Retail and the Standard Digital are the exact same price. So the cost of the box and physical media are either negiligble, or the company is willing to eat any losses they might incur because of it. But...
  • The Imperial Digital version is only $20 more than either of the Standards, and has no packaging or physical swag at all, only giving access to extra stuff that is already built into the game. And...
  • The Imperial Retail is only $20 more than that. So the book, box, map, statue and packaging can't be all that expensive to produce and ship. And this seems to be the only version that comes with old-school swag.

Somewhere along the line, we started getting hosed. It's been a downward trend over the past several years - once they started putting computer games in DVD cases, that was pretty much the end of the epic manual and all the extras. The games you buy now - if you can even find them in retail stores, which can be a rare thing - come with a thin little pamphlet if they have anything at all. More likely, it's a PDF in the install folder. Or a link to the developer's or publisher's websites.

Grumpy Gamer Retail Box - Elder Scrolls Online Imperial Retail version

Bathroom literature, wall art and a statue. Plus the game in a fancy box. Ah, the 90s.

I'm not going to sit here and ask, "Whatever happened to the good old days when blah blah blah." We know what happened to them. It's obvious. Digital retailers like Steam changed the way publishers sell games. Consoles have driven PC games almost underground. There used to be a wall of PC games at my local mall game retail outlet - that wall is now for used DS games, and all the PC titles are on one miserable little rack in a back corner of the store, like they're being punished for misbehaving.

We know what happened. Steam made more money at it. Physical media, retail boxes - these are luxury items now. The last game I bought in a brick-and-mortar store was TES V: Skyrim, and the DVD case came jam-packed with a decent map and a 20-page full-color booklet. This was actually an upswing from previous Elder Scrolls games, but that has been reversed with the Elder Scrolls Online. It's back to manual-free business as usual, or the Happy Meal version for 40 bucks extra.

Got an opinion about the Elder Scrolls Online pre-order program, or multi-tiered pre-orders in general? Let us know in our comments!

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Neverwinter Game Page.

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