Black Friday Part IV

“If you’re looking forward to a game, and you plop down $5 or $10 to preorder it, you’ve made an investment. It’s up to you to stay up to date with news on that game, just in case it is delayed. Because the stores that you preordered at most likely won’t tell you if it’s been delayed.”
– Jorges Estobal, Inside Pulse Associate

Part IV: Video Game Retailers (VGRs)

Do you know of any stores that deal exclusively with the sale – not rental – of movies? Probably not. Why? Because there’s not really a need for one. If you want to buy a movie, you can go to an all-in-one electronics retailer (i.e. Best Buy, Circuit City), a movie rental store, or even your local pharmacy. But when you want to buy a game, you basically have two options – you can go to your local all-in-one electronics retailer, or head down to the local branch of a video game retailer (VGR).

Assume you don’t know any better since you’re buying your first system and you decide to go to a VGR because you believe they’ll be more knowledgeable. And maybe the employees actually are more knowledgeable than those of other retailers. But over recent years, a disturbing trend has developed – rather than just buying a system, you are now subjecting yourself to a barrage of offers and high-pressure sales tactics specifically designed to drain you of your hard-earned assets.

Believe it or not, but you don’t need a strategy guide when you buy a game. Do you need a seeing-eye dog when you have 20-20 vision? No. So what makes you think having a book hold your hand throughout the game makes the experience more enjoyable?

Like life, watershed moments in games are better when they’re unpredictable. However, try buying a new game from a VGR and you’ll be offered the strategy guide. Sometimes, it’s not a bad investment. But you don’t need to be laying down $15 for a strategy guide for a $20 game like ESPN NFL 2K5.

Besides, doesn’t the term “strategy guide” imply that there’s only one strategy to be followed if the game is to be completed? That’s ludicrous. If all of this talk about “non-linear gameplay” is anything more than rubbish, then there should be more than one sanctioned strategy in a game.

But if you’re buying a strategy guide for the helpful hints, you’re missing the bigger “strategy”, the trap that your VGR is hoping you’ll fall into – beat the game quickly, sell your game back, and buy another one. Wash, rinse, repeat.

OK, the appeal of used games is quite obvious. Basically, you’re getting the same game for cheaper. That’s nice. But if the new version costs $50 and the used costs $45, why not just get the new one?

Your local VGR doesn’t completely grasp this concept. Try buying a new game from one of these retailers, and watch them try to sell you on their “pre-owned” copy. This is where they make their money, and this is why their supply of new games is ridiculously small.

If you were a store owner, you’d probably prefer selling used titles over new ones as well. If someone brings in a game to you and you buy it with $20 store credit – ensuring that the recipient will come back to the same store to use that credit – and you turn around and sell it for $30, nobody really loses in that instance. This is one area where the buying and selling of used games is mutually beneficial.

“You’d think that your VGR would just be happy you’re buying the game from them and not anybody else, right?”

However, this is about the only level it works on. If there’s a game you’re willing to try, you might pick it up used. But if there’s a game you want, odds are good that you’ll want a new copy, especially if you’re of the school that considers games as collector’s items in their own right. And if that’s the case, you don’t really have any use for the used copy, nor do you appreciate the hard sell on the way out.

You’d think that your VGR would just be happy you’re buying the game from them and not anybody else, right? Not quite. Instead, it’s got to be on the terms of the retailer, and it’s their way or you get an attitude along with your receipt. If you break it down, it’s quite petty – if you wanted an authentic New York Jets jersey for Christmas and Santa brought you just a replica, you wouldn’t complain because it’s still better than what you had before. But many of these VGRs have a way of making the consumer feel like they don’t matter when they purchase games outside of the intended manner.

Another reason why VGRs don’t carry a whole lot of new games is because they want to entice you into pre-ordering new releases. If you’ve ever been burned when it came to having enough copies of a new release, you’re that much more likely to pre-order a new release. And odds are good that you’ve burned before if you’ve ever tried getting a new game without pre-ordering.

When I tried to purchase Midway Arcade Treasures 2 last month, I knew that the store definitely had copies available. Unfortunately, since I staunchly refused to pre-order – receiving quite the rude reception when I took this stance – they weren’t able to accommodate my request. That was it for me. I went to Best Buy immediately afterward, where there were plenty of copies available. And when I went to purchase it there, they didn’t try to sell me on anything else. I went home very satisfied with Best Buy; very furious with GameStop.

And while your local VGR will assure you that pre-ordering is a sure way to make sure you get your title, all they’re really doing is taking a 10% deposit so that you’ll go back to get it at that location. It’s like poker – if you’re already pot-committed, even if you get burned on the flop, you still have to play the hand out to its conclusion. In other words, if a game were to get delayed or have its online mode removed, you’ve still put your $5 down and, quite often, that just might be enough to get you back into the store to pay the other $45.

Zelda: TOOT’s limited quantities caused mass dissapointments at launch.

Now, you might be surprised to know that pre-ordering a game doesn’t necessarily guarantee that there will be a copy waiting for you when you go to pick it up. In fact, two of the biggest releases in the past 10 years – a game, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and a system, Playstation 2 – made names for themselves not through their quality, but for their well-known failures to ship enough units to satisfy pre-orders, let alone anyone else who wanted one. And again, if this is the kind of thing that happens to items that were the biggest releases in gaming for their respective release years, imagine what happens when there are games that people aren’t so enthusiastic for.

Imagine that you purchased a PS2 right when the system launched in October 2000. It’s currently over four years old. So you pop in GTA: San Andreas only to see the three words gamers dread… Disc Read Error. Throw Madden 2005 in there… Disc Read Error. Madden 2004? Disc Read Error. Madden 2003? Disc Read Error. Uh-oh.

Your PS2 has died a vicious death, and in its wake, you have a ton of new games that you can’t play. You decide to get a new PS2 – even if it’s only a few years until the PS3, it’s worth it just to play all the games you’ve just spent a ton of money on. Getting a used system is immediately out of the picture, because you don’t want this to happen again.

So you log on to the website of your local VGR and see what the deal is with the newly designed PS2. You figure, why not? You’d like to order this one online, and you go to the PS2 Systems page. On this page, there are a ton of bundles, and a ton of neat offers for refurbished systems. But nowhere do you see anything about purchasing a brand-new PS2 by itself.

Instead of promoting the new PS2 as a solution to someone in this situation, this particular retailer would rather sell you a bundle with games and memory cards you already have. Given that the average PS2 lifespan is three years or less at this point, how is this possible? Were there enough kickbacks from Sony? Who knows? The bottom line is that you’re stuck being sold a product you don’t need for all the wrong reasons. If you’re buying your second PS2, you don’t need a bundle including a second controller and some game you already beat three years ago. All you need is a new system. And the “recognized leader” in video game retailers can’t help you with that.

Bundling is another practice that works on a certain level, provided that retailers don’t get too greedy. Unfortunately, the industry passed that point a long time ago. In May 2002, I tried to purchase a GameCube and a game from a VGR, only to be told that I wasn’t allowed to do so. Why? Because they mandated that the only way a GameCube could be purchased was through one of their “official bundles”, all of which included a second controller and not one, but two games. Obviously, this did not go over very well with me, and I went to Toys ‘R Us, who not only sold me a GameCube and a game with no hassles, but also gave me a $25 gift card.

And even when a VGR is “willing” to sell a new system on its own, store-approved bundles, usually featuring pre-owned material, are pushed to the forefront in place of factory-fresh systems and games. Why? Not for your benefit as a gamer, to be sure. Take a look at the X-Box Bundles. The best offer on the page – a new system with two brand-new free games and two free months of X-Box Live – is buried underneath a series of ten refurbished bundles. While these offers might be less expensive, that does not make them any better. In fact, the only beneficiary of the purchase of a refurbished bundle is the VGR.

There’s an old saying – do one thing, do it well. For the most part, VGRs do only one thing, which is deal with video games. And they can’t even get that right. So what’s the use of having these stores anymore?

In the past, the only place to get a video game was a store that sold only video games. Sure, there were toy stores that sold games, but they never had the new releases quite early enough and were, more or less, a step below the game-exclusive retailers. And as time elapsed, these game retailers all began to merge together. Ten years ago, you might have four game stores in your local area. Today, there are still four – but they’re all owned and operated by the same group. Like all monopolies, this group got greedy – and fast.

Slowly but surely, they stopped being mere video game stores and started becoming VGRs. Out with customer-based marketing, they said! With people spending more on games than ever before, this group felt no need to give anything back to consumers. Instead, it was decided that people couldn’t buy games without being asked to pre-order other titles, sign up for clubs and magazine subscriptions, purchase strategy guides, and purchase new titles. Remarkably, people haven’t complained about this. Instead, they’ve taken it – just like the industry pushes its retailers around with no fuss, so too do the retailers push the customers around. And, if given an inch, both the industry and its VGRs will take a mile, which they most certainly have done and will continue to do.

There is, however, one glimmer of hope – all-in-one electronics retailers like Best Buy and Circuit City who know how to promote and know how to speak the language of those with purchasing power. Five years ago, the future of the CD industry was looking incredibly bleak, with new CDs retailing for $20 and MP3 downloading hitting the forefront. Today, that’s all changed. People are buying CDs more than ever, prices have become much more reasonable (new major-label CDs can go for as little as $9.99), and downloading has changed from a threat to a source of revenue for the industry. This change never would have happened if the industry didn’t make a conscious effort to put the customer first.

So why can’t gaming be any different? Why couldn’t a scenario exist where video games came out on a specific day and the big titles were being promoted with discounted prices? If you’re a game company, you get more sales and, more importantly, give a sign of goodwill towards the game-buying public. In this scenario, who doesn’t benefit?

Look, people don’t go into Best Buy on any given Tuesday with the intention of buying 5 DVDs. But when people walk out of those stores, it’s rarely empty-handed. On the other hand, how often do you go into your local video game retailer, “just browsing”, and leave with nothing? Maybe if there were true game sales rather than the usual price drops, things might change.

Instead, the gaming industry has chosen its path. The industry would rather align itself with chains that have the same attitude about its customers – an apathetic one.

Part V: Black Friday