Black Friday Part III

“In the first 24 hours we’ll have an opening that’s (more) popular than any motion picture has ever had in history.”
– Bill Gates, Microsoft, speaking about the release of Halo 2
(Yahoo News)

Part 3: Shipping & Handling

Halo 2 has been one of the most anticipated titles to come into the gaming industry in a very long time. This game has been talked about, hyped, and promoted more than anything else to grace an X-Box so far. Judging from the results, it was a good idea.

As Halo 2 engulfs gamers worldwide, think about a world where every game received the star treatment. Every game had a standardized release date. Every game came out without delays. Every game got promoted so that even non-gaming fans could get on the bandwagon. And while you’re at it, think of a reason why this doesn’t happen.

Of all of the ordeals of being a gamer, video game marketing – or the lack thereof – is by far the most frustrating. How many times have you gone to your local video game store to pick up a new release, only to find out that it’s not there yet? And, even worse, the retailers themselves don’t know when they’re getting it in? Considering you’re ready to drop in excess of $50 on this game, don’t you feel like you should at least know when you can expect to get the game?

Over the years, we have seen a decent share of timed releases, most occurring for the launch of new systems. There have been a few games that have been promoted for arrival on a given date, and these have all been huge games with huge amounts of hype that were guaranteed to be successful.

If you were to state that the reason why these games had standardized release dates is because they were somehow “worthy”, that’s only half the truth. The other half is because the companies wanted to have a big launch. Why? Not because they wanted to let the public know when the game was coming out. Instead, these releases were handled as they were simply because it was convenient for the companies to do so.

What if every release was as convenient as Halo2?

Games like Mortal Kombat, Halo 2, and GTA: San Andreas all had huge followings before they were even announced, let alone released. So it makes sense to hype the hell out of a game like that and maximize your first-day sales. Not only will fans buy the game, but they’ll have friends over to play, and those friends will be eager to buy. People always want to be part of something big, and a big release for a big title definitely fits the description.

However, imagine we’re talking about a dud like Freestyle Street Soccer, which has no chance to make it big at all. No sense in promoting the game, right? OK, so maybe the GamePro ad is out of the question. But there is one thing you can do – maybe you lose a little in per-unit revenue, but you will reach a broader audience as well as make a nicer profit in the end.

Baseball fans have long heard about “manufacturing a run” against a tough pitcher. If your leadoff hitter gets on, bunt him over to second; hell, even bunt him over to third if the situation is right. Then, have your next batter swing away and drive the leadoff hitter home. Not so hard when you break it down, is it?

So why don’t game companies try this? We see it all the time when it comes to DVDs. Movies like The Day After Tomorrow and Van Helsing, which were universally slammed by critics and viewers alike, still had solid DVD releases. Why? Because they picked release weeks when nothing else good was coming out, they featured special promotional pricing, and, quite simply, made the package very hard to resist.

Think about it. You’re at Best Buy with a $20 bill burning up a hole in your pocket. You see a movie on the shelf that just came out on DVD. Now, you missed out on it in theaters, but you wanted to see it. You have two choices here – $5 to rent, or $15 to buy. You know that if you don’t buy it, it’s going to cost $20 next week. And if you rent it and you like it, you’re going to eventually buy it. So why not plunk down the money while it’s on sale and get it over with?

Countless DVD purchases have been made solely by this thought process. The movie in question here is really irrelevant; it’s the promotion and irresistible package that shines through. For whatever reason, the gaming industry hasn’t gotten this. While the addition of “Collector’s Edition” packages have done well to boost sales, at least in the short-term, the prices of these games are increasing rather than decreasing. The “Kollector’s Edition” of Mortal Kombat: Deception was $10 more than the regular version, which cost $49.99. The price hasn’t moved since then. Meanwhile, the Special Edition of Spiderman 2 will retail for just $17.99 at Best Buy for its first week of release. Not only is this cheaper than the average new release DVD, but it already contains all the bonus material that game fans are forced to pay additional money for.

It comes down to this – DVD companies will add extras to their movies to entice you to buy. Game companies add extras to their games to get an extra $10 out of your pocket. It’s not very hard – people will buy something if they feel like they’re getting a good deal. Why should a gamer pay an extra $10 for interviews with the development team that they won’t watch more than once? And why should a gamer pay full price for a new game when they just happen to find it in a store with no promotion and no real reason why it stands out above the rest?

The corporate scandals of the last five years have absolutely nothing on the gaming industry, which has performed countless criminal acts against its paying customers. Perhaps no worse indictment of this industry comes in the form of their practice of issuing “ship” dates rather than release dates.

Imagine, for a second, that everything worked like it does in the gaming industry. We’ll call it an “alternate universe” here. In reality, you arrive at work at 8 AM. But in the alternate universe that is modeled after the world of video game marketing, you leave at 7:40 AM. And if you get there at 8:15 AM, that’s no big deal. You don’t even need to tell anyone that you got there late, or on time, or anything whatsoever. After all, in this alternate universe, timeliness doesn’t matter. Just get there at some point, and you’ll get your check at some point.

Who wants to work for a company like this? Remember, rather than getting paid every other Thursday, you’re getting paid at “some point” – which could be five years from now.

We’re not talking about giving berth here. We’re talking about the simple art of letting people know when they can spend $50 on your game. If someone was going to give you $50, wouldn’t you at least want to let the other person know when and where to meet you? Isn’t that the least you could do? But again, in this alternate universe, you’d be forced to just happen to meet each other at an undisclosed location and at an unknown time. Imagine waiting for the cable guy in your every interpersonal communication, and that’s what it’s like trying to get a game’s true release date.

When you’ve heard for months about a new CD that’s coming out and you go to your local record store on the day it’s supposed to be released, you’re going to find a copy. When you go to pick up a DVD you saw in theaters and want to own, you can get that just as easily. But if you’ve been reading countless previews and bought-and-paid-for reviews about this game that’s hyped to the moon, and each one of those previews has a different release date listed, and you go to the store on each one of those dates and the clerk has no clue when the game will arrive, then you’ve simply had a standard game-buying experience.

Have you ever called your local Video Game Retailer (VGR) first thing in the morning, asking for a new release, only to be told to call back after lunch? Have you ever called back, asking for the same release, to have them ask you to call back at 5 PM? Have you ever called back at 5 PM and heard that the game might be in before closing, but they’re not sure? Have you ever gone there at 8:30 PM, hoping they might have it, only to hear “tomorrow morning” all over again? If so, then you’ve had a standard game-buying experience.

Have you ever been so frustrated by this process that you didn’t even end up buying the game after all this effort? If so, then you’ve had a standard non-buying experience.

Who knows how many sales are lost for each game because the publisher couldn’t be bothered to tell customers when they could spend a day’s pay on their new releases? Obviously, the companies themselves couldn’t tell you. They’re too busy greasing the palms of the video game media, meaning they have no time to spend on, you know, promoting goodwill to the people who pay their bills.

Anyone who’s taken a college marketing class has heard stories about Disney’s marketing tactics. But their most impressive, and most practical, method is known as under-promising and over-delivering.

It’s like this. You pay $40 for your ticket to Disneyworld and you’re immediately struck by the length of the lines for the rides. There’s a sign in front of the ride you most want to experience stating that it’s a one-hour wait. You decide to bite the bullet and spend an hour waiting for a 45-second ride. After your long wait, you finally get on the ride, and it’s a blast. Once you get off, you look at your wristwatch and see that only 30 minutes have passed since you first got on the line.

Now, how could that be? If the sign said 60 minutes and you waited 30, what happened? It’s simple. In reality, the wait was only 30 minutes. But Disney didn’t want you to expect a 30-minute wait, get a 40-minute one, and then feel cheated out of 10 minutes. In this scenario, though, you’re ecstatic that you now have an extra 30 minutes to enjoy the park. By under-promising and then over-delivering, Disney has created a satisfied customer that most definitely will bring his or her kids to the park a generation later.

“DVD companies add extras to their movies to entice you to buy. Game companies add extras to their games to get an extra $10 out of your pocket.”

There’s evidence of this tactic when it comes to consumer products as well, mainly in the music industry. Eminem’s Encore album had a release date of Tuesday, November 16 for months. Just weeks before the release of the record, the date was moved up to Friday, November 12. While this maneuver was done primarily to beat the bootleggers, it made fans happy and got Eminem on the charts for another week. Those people who happened to be in Best Buy on Thursday, November 11 got an extra treat, as they were able to buy the album that very night. And even though the album has gotten bad reviews, the album sold quite well and got into the CD players of many people.

Does the video game industry follow the practice of under-promising and over-delivering? No. Why? Because the industry promises its patrons nothing. Maybe, if they actually had release dates, they could try to go the extra mile for the people who keep it afloat. But since that hasn’t happened yet, it’s not likely.

Instead, the industry practices the rare blend of over-promising and under-delivering. Take Gran Turismo 4, for instance. Here’s a game that was hyped to the moon for its impressive pedigree and a new online play mode. This was to be the game that bridged the gap between the current generation and future generations of Gran Turismo and, by extension, Sony Playstation. And Sony made sure everyone knew about it.

So what happened? Sony removed online play from the game, trying to spin it as a game that could still be considered a step ahead in the series and an advancement of the racing genre. Fine. At least we’d be able to get it for the holidays, right?

Wrong. Sony delayed the game well into 2005, just three weeks before its “release date”. This happened because of “Natural Challenges” in finalizing some of the game’s features. Three weeks before one of the holiday season’s biggest releases, and the game’s not even done yet? Are you kidding? This is the future of gaming? And three weeks before the title is to be “shipped”, there are “Natural Challenges” preventing the game from being completed?

If Sony can half-ass its biggest release of the calendar year, strip it of an essential component, delay it until 2005, and not even tell people about it until the week before Thanksgiving, imagine the kinds of things that happen to the games that don’t already have an established audience of 36 million people.

But rest well, Gran Turismo fans. Sony now says that a February release is “looking likely”. In other words, they have no idea when this game is coming out. They will use the next two months to work on the game, which means that there’s a very strong chance that this situation could repeat itself. In fact, expect it to. And if you actually see the game in February, consider yourself lucky. That’s the gaming definition of over-delivering – putting the game out in a designated four-week period after it was initially delayed and had vital game elements removed.

And while the industry shoots itself in the foot, one major player chooses to sit idly by, as if it were the class geek who lets the bully push him around without fighting back. Could it make a positive impact? Yes. But it opts not to. Who is this player? It’s an entity that gamers are all to aware of. In fact, odds are good that there’s one in your local mall.

Part IV: Video Game Retailers (VGRs)