Thursday, 5 April 2012

Games Retail: A Love Story

When I was 8, working in a games shop was my dream job. You could play all the newest games for free, and you could tell other people what the good games were! Finally people would listen to me when I said Crash Bandicoot totally sucked, and Spyro was way better.

Over twelve years later, and my childhood dream of video game retail has been met with two years working as a Christmas Sales Assistant at GAME. It obviously wasn't going to match up to my younger aspirations; and a knowledge of just how greedy retail industries can be jaded my outlook; but it wasn't a bad experience by any means. But either way, it's good I got to have the experience when I did - the games retail industry has changed.

To be fair, brick-and-mortar stores have been suffering for a while when it comes to digital entertainment. Competing with the behemoth that is e-commerce; and then digital download services, consumers were able to consume media faster and cheaper than ever before. Roll on services like Steam and suddenly no one is interested in going to their nearest shopping district to buy PC games any more. HMV had long been sweating bullets over their future, and in the last two years or so GAME has been feeling the pressure far more overtly.

It was something I noticed first-hand as I worked there. I've never been one for forcing a sales pitch down someone's throat, but it's disheartening to offer legitimate purchase suggestions and be told time and time again "Never mind, it's cheaper online." The higher-ups sent e-mails almost every other day demanding for harder pushes for items that netted us the most profit: preowned games, loyalty cards, preorders and gift cards. It was shrewdly penny-pinching; every lost gift card was free profit for the company, 100% of a preowned game's price went straight to GAME with nothing to the publishers, and the number of people who put a deposit on a preorder and then entirely forget to retrieve it on release is stunning.

But it wasn't enough - back in February the Game Group saw fit to downsize to staunch a bleeding wound, closing 39 European stores. Unfortunately, that didn't slow things down. Last month EA resolved to deny GAME and sister chain Gamestation from stocking EA titles, most notably Mass Effect 3. The explanation for this is rather unclear - maybe it's because their sales of new EA titles had been dropping in light of cheaper online options, or maybe due to the financial issues, GAME was no longer capable of paying whatever selling costs EA imposed. Either way, it was the kiss of death - after that bomb; other publishers started to pull out. GAME could no longer sell Street Fighter x Tekken, Kid Icarus Uprising, Mario Party 9...

Despite fire sales to shift as much stock as possible to recoup losses, it was over. GAME went into administration, the company was removed from the stock market, and the number of functioning GAME and Gamestation branches was roughly cut in half. The store I used to work at was one of those that didn't make it; and it saddens me. Not because I was a huge supporter of the company - I readily recognised that its practices were outdated and barely in the consumer's best interest - but because the presence of games retail was a huge part of my childhood, and UK nerd culture; not to mention that the staff I worked with were wonderful people, and seeing people you care about have to seek new jobs is heartbreaking.

Things are looking up for the survival of the remaining shops though - on April 1st Opcapita, an investment group, agreed to buy out the Game Group, saving it from administration. I argue that it's a little too late, considering an offer was made before the company had to cause a loss of over 2000 jobs, but if the purchase can save the remaining 300 stores and their staff then that's at least something of a positive outcome.

If nothing else, I hope that these tribulations for the company will result in the games retail industry seeing a change - with fewer worries about surviving until the new financial year and more direct competition (or embracing?) of media through digital distribution.

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