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When did special editions stop being special?

5:20 PM on 07.20.2009 // Jim Sterling
  @JimSterling

Special editions. Collector's editions. Limited editions. There are many ways of referring to them, but they all mean the same thing. An alternative method of giving game publishers more money in exchange for extra trinkets and a posher looking box. The phenomenon of the "limited edition" videogame release has steadily grown more and more prevalent in this industry, with nearly every major release, regardless of venerability or popularity, almost expected to release a grander, more opulent version of itself.

It really, really has to stop. 

It's something I've discussed several times on Destructoid, in little dribs and drabs, but I thought it would be good to gather my thoughts into a comprehensive article. Consider this the special edition version of my opinion, all wrapped in a nice collector's package for you. The only difference here is that it won't cost you at least seventy bucks. 

 

There was a time, I'm sure, when a special edition truly meant something. There have been games released over the years that deserved the special treatment. Long-running series, huge franchises, critically acclaimed and respected games have earned the right to appear in a metal box, come packed with a soundtrack CD, or ship with a little toy that will probably break the second you take it out of the package.

One example of a deserving special edition would be The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It was the N64 debut of one of Nintendo's most popular franchises, and even then it was nothing incredibly grandiose, just a golden cartridge. It was classy and understated, yet you could tell right away that you had something important in your hands if you were lucky enough to be holding such a thing in your hands. 

Age of Empires III may have had a grander special edition, but again, it was deserved. Age of Empires is a well known, incredibly established and highly popular series, and by the time it was in its third iteration, it had enough prestige to produce a large sliding case, huge art book, "making of" DVD, soundtrack, poster, players guide and exclusive game manual. That's a lot of stuff, but it was Age of Empires, so therefore acceptable.

Contrast that with some of the shit that thinks it deserves a special edition these days. I'm talking games like Two Worlds. Yes, Two Worlds -- arguably the worst RPG to be released this generation. This buggy, slapdash, badly written and poorly executed game has become a running joke among roleplaying gamers ever since it was released, and yet despite its low quality and status as a brand new IP, it had the nerve to spew up a holographic slipcase, a map, a pen & paper RPG book, and a bonus disc. 

Or how about Prey? A relatively mediocre shooter, the game was released with little interest and failed to, so far, produce a sequel. Yet someone felt the game was good enough and had sufficient status to demand a metal box, a pair of die-cast figurines, a downloadable soundtrack and an art book. Seriously, who could be so interested in an unknown and uninteresting shooter so much that a collector's edition could be justified?

Even worse than these, however, are the games that look like they could be excellent, but are still untested. Take, for example, Dragon Age: Origins. Its collector's edition includes a variety of cool stuff, including a tin case, bonus DVD, cloth map and in-game content. This is a game I'm really interested in, to the point of reading the prequel novel (which is surprisingly enjoyable, even as an independent fantasy novel), but I have no idea if I will like the game, and here is the conundrum. 

I could play Dragon Age and find that it's a pile of dog shit. I could hate the game and never want to play it again. This would mean that my buying the collector's edition would be a waste of money and I'd feel terrible over spending so much money on something that is now useless to me. However, I could also buy the regular edition of the game, find that it's excellent and decide that Dragon Age is now my favorite franchise ever and that I want to own everything related to the franchise. In which case, I'd now be kicking myself over my own wise decision to remain prudent. 

This is one of the biggest issues with special editions -- attaching them to untested properties. It presents a dilemma to the consumer, where they have no previous game as a reference point and thus have no real idea whether they want, or will want, the shiny trinkets dangled before their eyes. Games like Assassin's Creed, Clive Barker's Jericho, even BioShock -- we had no real idea, as consumers, whether any of these games deserved an extra twenty bucks of our cash. Some of them did, others not so much. Whatever the case, special editions for new IP gives the consumer a 50/50 chance of regretting his or her purchase. 

Further to that, there's also an inherent arrogance and in releasing a so-called limited edition for a brand new property. Kind of like a recently signed garage band expecting top billing at a music festival, a new IP really hasn't earned the credit and the fanbase to demand such lavish treatment. Really, what did Tabula Rasa do before its release to earn its dog tags and poster? Outside of being developed by Richard Garriot, not enough. The game was untested and, now, quite defunct. Hindsight seems to indicate that it was a complete waste of time, and seemed to exist purely to fuel the ego of the developers. It's self indulgence at its worst.

None of this even mentions the fact that most "limited" editions don't feel all that limited to begin with. Perhaps due to sheer over saturation, Best Buy tables can often be found littered with old "special" editions of Saint's Row 2 and Resident Evil 4. These things aren't special anymore, many of them have been reduced to the status of unwanted junk. 

This final problem is perhaps the gravest -- special editions just aren't special anymore. They've become so mandatory, so expected, so bloody ordinary that it's actually more special for a triple-A game to release without any decadent finery and pompous flare. When something becomes par for the course, calling it special feels wrong. They've become just another cog in the business machine, no longer reserved for things that have earned the right, no longer saved until a franchise feels well and truly remarkable.

The only way for a special edition to rise above the pack now is to do what Infinity Ward did with Modern Warfare 2, but we have to ask where that's going to end. The inclusion of fully working night vision goggles with the latest Call of Duty game is absolutely ridiculous, but it's the kind of thing that has to happen these days. One can only shudder to think of where such extremes will end. Will Modern Warfare 3 come with a fully working M1A1 Abrams Battle Tank? Who knows? 

Either way, special editions are destined to either be considered run-of-the-mill or straight up ridiculous in their overabundance, and it's all because publishers and developers apparently can't control themselves. They should show some discipline and hold off on doing a special edition until they have a franchise that deserves such a thing. Now special editions have basically been ruined for everyone. Special edition no longer means special. 

But hey, we've got some night vision goggles out of it, right?



Jim Sterling, Former Reviews Editor
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Destructoid reviews editor, responsible for running and maintaining the cutting edge videogame critique that people ignore because all they want to see are the scores at the end. Also a regular f... more   |   staff directory

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