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Vendor Trash: Imagining the Future of Video Game Retail

To look at your average high street, you'd think gaming was in the dumps. It's not, obviously, so what can we do to fix that situation?

by Danny Wadeson
13 April 2015, 5:09am

A well stocked Swiss games store, albeit in the early 2000s, via Wikipedia

Our beloved pastime of gaming takes place largely in a virtual space, so it follows that the physical places where we used to purchase these experiences might become neglected. Now they have, and we, the consumers, are as implicit as the patently disinterested businessmen running things (into the ground). How long has the ghost of video game retail haunted its hollow, off-white and purple cadaver? What GAME and its counterparts need isn't an exorcism, it's a full on resurrection. That, and to learn a few things from Apple.

How did it come to this? Perhaps the biggest problem physical retail faces is that the wider industry just doesn't seem interested – and why should it? Distribution both physical – via Amazon, Shopto and more stores – and digital is now as scarily convenient as an IV drip, and we can buy up months of game-time with the loose change and lint in our Steam wallets. Convenience is always the death of innovation.

A branch of GAME in Leeds, image via Wikipedia

GAME is the perfect cipher. Walk into one (I dare you) and try and make it past the garish swathe of Disney Infinity and Skylanders figurines, soon to be joined by the newcomers of LEGO Dimensions. You'll contend with the thousand-yard stare of the likely lone staffer and then peruse a shelf of charting titles, all straining against the upper limits of their RRP like an over-reaching socialite.

Worse than soulless, the purple GAME logo is a blight, a throbbing bruise upon the landscape, both psycho-spatial and cultural. "The industry is constantly evolving – that's the nature of any technology-based industry," explained GAME CEO Martyn Gibbs, in a 2013 article by MCV staffer Christopher Dring. "The current changes require a very different approach... more versatile platforms [are] changing the fabric of the gaming industry." Far from typical marketing doublespeak, Gibbs offers here an incisive, specific commentary on how best to address the widening gap between an increasingly defunct model and the gamers it purports to serve.

It's such a shame, but why should we bother with saving it all? Lest I be accused of rose-tinted glasses, GAME and its ilk didn't have far to fall from grace – but just imagine. It's crucial these spaces exist, and improve. Sure, we have the newly curatorial Steam pages, which are a haven for finding and supporting indie stuff. Yet it was a shelf in the GAME my young self took frequent shelter from parental mundanity in that my attention was caught by – on it, a huge and ugly Baldur's Gate box, something that would come to dominate my gaming persona.

It was in Games Workshop as a shy, nerdy kid that I discovered camaraderie, realised that there were older geeks who were cool and supportive, that I discovered the artistry behind it all. And it was in countless other community minded retail spaces that a large part of my identity was reconciled with my vision for what the world around me should be.

Now, Games Workshop still exists, and we're in a creator-owned comic (and shop) renaissance – and at the other end of the mainstream spectrum of codified consumerist fetishism we have Apple Stores. These shops were actually a gamble for the now-giant back in the first flourishes of its ascendency, but they paid off due to passionate (cultish) employees, events, workshops and tech support drop-ins. And the free games. Apple understood – and have since built a Smaug-like fortune on – the importance of providing a safe space for people across the tech-literacy spectrum and having a raison d'être that digital can't provide.

So it's not a stretch to picture a dynamic space that reflects the vibrancy of video gaming culture and its proponents. Enterprise such as Jake Tucker's VideoBrains (the TED Talks of gaming), Meltdown, GamerDisco, Kotaku's burgeoning game nights, Rezzed/EGX's continual expansion, eSports (see VICE's recent documentary on the subject) – these all reflect the appetite for in-person analogues to the vendor hub, a flesh and bone cry of "LFG". Perhaps the future of retail rests on the shoulders of these momentous up-starts.

An Apple Store in New York, image via Apple.com

Imagine: your local game space has a cast of inclusive, diverse characters (not unlike Cheers) that you actually looked forward to seeing upon entering, maybe discussing new releases with and receiving tailored, up-to-the-minute recommendations from.

Imagine: as a younger gamer, there's a regular event or small part of the space that you feel genuinely at home in – wherein you commune and play games (including card/board games) with other likeminded youngsters that have happily eschewed jock-life for one of constant condescension from the self-proclaimed mainstream.

Imagine: you go and hang out and play a few in-person multiplayer games that are impossible to usually assemble a full complement for – Gang Beasts, Starwhal, Marvel vs Capcom (never forget), TowerFall, and so on.

And imagine if, much like the Apple Stores, you could pop in to a shop with technical queries, have them solved, graciously, without having to pay for any bullshit add-on insurance.

The very biggest stores deliberately loss-lead on their games stock just to divert attention from e-tailers such as Amazon, making up the margins on typical supermarket shit...

Unfortunately there are plenty of debilitating factors preventing this utopian ideal. A quick run down: a luxury/entertainment commodity undermined by cut-throat subsidies of the supermarket chains; the simple fact our generation has to be so frugal thanks to the economic hangover of the Baby Boomers; the entrenched distribution and manufacture models.

In short, as darling industry analyst Michael Pachter recognises, the UK retail industry is "a joke". He goes on with his typical cutting wit and aplomb to surmise that "retailers' failure to make money on games has contributed to high street bankruptcies," due to loss-leading prices. Pachter's delusional bon mots might actually make sense if he was referring to the used game trade or supermarkets.

Further insight comes from a source very close to me who works as a retail games buyer for Tesco, who must remain anonymous but requested in all seriousness that I refer to him as "Deepthroat" (it's a Metal Gear in-joke, apparently). He claims that the very biggest stores deliberately loss-lead on their games stock just to divert attention from e-tailers such as Amazon, making up the margins on typical supermarket shit, but that now it's not worth it to the extent they're considering stocking only the sure-fire AAA hits.

Quite why anyone still turns to Pachter for any kind of "analysis" is as beyond me as competitive StarCraft.

Brighton's branch of CeX, image via Wikipedia

Pre-owned sales, of course, is another piece of the puzzle. I don't know what CeX's turnover is, but their retail persona is that of a hormonal teenager. The in-store music alone cuts purchase intent off at the waist, and the cold sweats I get in anticipation of a visit makes paying PSN's absurd, inconceivable premiums seem a privilege.

Anyway, the economics of the used-game trade have been written about plenty, and it's widely recognised to up-cycle consumer spend (despite shafting publishers and developers on a unit by unit basis) and keep retailers afloat.

We're further spoilt in Dring's piece to the ineffable wisdom of Dominic Mulroy, responsible for another of our high street's veritable constellation of shining stars, HMV, "who joined the retailer," Dring writes, "after selling it his Gamerbase business... which remains one of HMV's most profitable businesses, something HMV's owner Hilco will no doubt be aware of." You'd be forgiven for thinking that constant liquidation, administration and selling off controlling shares to a hopelessly irrelevant and stagnant retail giant signified a downturn, but apparently the UK high street video game market grew by 12% to £2.3 billion in 2014 – so what's the problem?

If distributors and publishers could break down their old-boy networks, interface with and support these new game spaces, launch events and tournaments, then we'd be getting somewhere.

Well, 2014 was the year the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were released, and new consoles are one of the last bastions of retail relevancy – being able to walk in and pick up your hefty new box of tricks is indubitably desirable, especially as the alternative is usually the hateful courier knocking once on the wrong door before dumping your cargo on the step, outside your door, in full view of the street (true story).

Now, if distributors and publishers could break down their old-boy networks, interface with and support these new game spaces, perhaps keeping costs competitive by taking a leaf from the "Gamer's Edition" revival of boxed products being more than a green plastic wallet, support launch events and tournaments, then we'd be getting somewhere.

Mulroy is right, despite his heinous language, when he goes on to say: "The games stores of the future will need to become edutainment stores." And with the ever-rising tide of talented indies breaking out of their AAA digital sweatshops, innovative, cultural spaces and events, perhaps some (ahem) marketable synergy fusing the best of footfall philosophy with digital ROI paradigms (ahem, *bang*) might indeed pave the way for these new retail hopes of the future.

Until then, I'll be the one in the corner of Meltdown ordering dirt-cheap games on Amazon from my phone and ignoring everyone.

@MadQuills

Previously:

Glimpsing the Ghost in the Machine: The Beautiful Instability of 'Axiom Verge'

From Sexless to Sexy: Telltale's Queer Trajectory

Ten Things I Love About Video Games in 2015