Have you ever preordered a video game? Did you feel good about yourself after doing so? Yes? No? Truth is, you should almost never, ever, preorder a video game.
A preorder does virtually nothing for you, but it does a great deal for various other parties. First off, it's a free loan. Think about it. You're essentially giving a game retailer 5 or more dollars for free. All you get back in return is a receipt that you've done so. A big-name retailer now has your 5 dollars that it, in turn, can do whatever it wants with. Sure, it might seem trivial on a small scale, but multiply your 5 dollars times the amount of preorders made a day, and we're talking millions of free unearned dollars here.
Game distributors and retailers also use preorder data to gauge interest in a title. They're basically using your donation to measure how successful a marketing campaign is even before anyone has played the game. And once you've pledged those few dollars, odds are you'll be back come release day. If not, the money stays with the retailer, where you'll most likely use it on another title -- or even worse, forget about it.
While it used to be a means of securing a game so you wouldn't be out of luck on day one, preordering has devolved into a misleading illusion. Once you filter through the useless plastic action figures, pointless DLC, and other nonsense incentives designed to lure unsuspecting consumers in, it's easy to realize you're being sold the artificial idea of product security. Unless you're literally in the middle of nowhere and the closest game store is 40 miles away, odds are you'll be able to find a new game on the day it launches.
Perhaps the ugliest mutation of preorder hysteria has been the introduction of retailer-specific exclusive DLC. This means that the preorder incentive will vary depending on where you buy the game. Wal-Mart may give you the in-game pink rocket-launcher, but Best Buy is offering a camo jumpsuit for your avatar. At the end of the day, it's all junk and will likely have no impact on your experience with the game as a whole.
Developers get forced into playing along with these "bonuses," so why would they ever favor one add-on over the other? Not once has a developer ever come up to me and said, "You know, if I were buying this, I'd really want to pick it up from GameStop over Target."
If you're concerned about collecting all of these retail-specific add-ons, there's a chance that they will be available to everyone at some point. The only catch here is that you'll probably have to wait a while, and it'll come at a price.
So when is it OK to preorder? Never! Haven't you been reading this? Actually, there are still a few legitimate reasons why you should do so. As I mentioned above, preordering is acceptable if you take up residence in an area where game stores aren't exactly plentiful. If you need to plan an entire day around making a trip to the game store because it takes an hour to get there, by all means, preorder.
When else is it OK to preorder? On the occasion that you are interested in a rare title -- I'm talking about a game that could never have a commercial or any type of advertising because of its grass-roots tribulations in even becoming an actual game. Odds are there won't be many of them made, so securing your copy isn't a terrible idea. If the game you're interested in headlined an E3 press conference or has an advertising campaign tie-in with a popular soft drink, do yourself a favor and hold on to that 5 bucks.