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The Mortal Coil of Games Retail

January 28, 2013


To say that games retail is troubled is as much of an understatement as saying that Malcolm Tucker from The Thick Of It was a wee bit miffed. Video gaming never really got its foot in the door before the digital wave swooped high streets, and consequently, retailers don’t really know how to deal with it. It’s not that surprising, to be honest. Bookshops have been around for longer, and they are being pummeled equally as hard in the face of the ebook, if not moreso than video gaming.

I’m just a gamer. I’m not the head of a large gaming chain. I don’t even work in a GAME store. It’s painfully obvious that something needs to change, though. As busy as HMV and GAME looks, the digital market is its worst nightmare, and these digital sales are more than a gimmick. They are here to stay.

GAME in the UK had a very narrow escape after being dug out of its grave by OpCapita, and rather than trying to combat publishers also seeking to exploit digital sales, it has rode the wave to an extent and now sells downloadable content in-store. Sure, it still has problems: the company doesn’t have credit insurance, for example, which was a big factor in tech retailer Comet’s downfall. It could be worse, though.

Steam, meanwhile, enjoys unrivaled success and popularity as its library grows, be it the latest triple A title or a bunch of new indie projects. Certainly, the future of the gaming disc looks bleak when noting the recent announcement of the ‘Steam console’ to be released by Valve.

One to watch?

Whilst other consoles wallow in some melting pot of home entertainment, Steam has been something of a bastion for gamers who simply want to play games without being advertised at. It’s great for indie titles, too, which is something of a dealmaker for me. The Walking Dead, Bastion, Braid: these are three humble examples that set the standard for industry powerhouses with far, far more financial backing.

It’s tempting to ask if there is a future for gaming retail at all, but that question is immature and something of a knee-jerk reaction. There will always be a need for physical retailers. There’s no doubt about that. To survive, however, the current retailers out there, in their respective countries, need to figure out how to adapt to the changing climate. The idea that the digital product is an add-on to the physical product still seems to perpetuate the minds of a lot of companies, though, and it is this attitude that is outdated and needs to change.

It’s a very grim picture when we imagine the jobs lost last year thanks to GAME Group’s fall into administration. Is there anything that they can do?

Rob Fahey of GamesIndustry International mentions one such example in passing:

Merchandising, too, has immense potential that remains woefully untapped in the West – it’s worth looking to Japan, one of the only places where games retail is still thriving, and noting that game retailers there are often merchandise stores first and software stores second. I may have bought my copy of Minecraft digitally, but I’d certainly walk into a store with a really cool Creeper plush toy in the window (I’m not very good at this whole “being an adult” lark).

I can see Rob’s point. Gaming stores – at least in the UK – are losing ground to digital sales, so why not try to tap into gaming merchandise and snag more customers that way? It’s a novel approach and would be a welcome change from what we have at the moment, but Rob cites no figures to his claim that Japan is thriving (in fact, a few Google searches reveal nothing but stories of mild concern). I suspect that Japan’s success, if we can call it that, is simply down to the fact that Japan’s gaming culture is more deeply embedded into the country’s society than that of its Western sisters.

In fact, in the process of writing this article, two more UK retail giants have fallen, namely HMV and Blockbusters. Both have lost out massively to brands that set up shop online, such as Amazon and LOVEFiLM. What is profoundly annoying is that even customers are kidding themselves that these retail stores will survive as they are. A cursory glance at Twitter’s #hmv hashtag reveals loads of posts about people who might say they hold the loss of HMV close to their hearts, but the truth of the matter is that almost everyone I know uses Spotify or just torrents music for free.

So what is the answer? I’m no retail guru. I don’t know. Honestly, it’s as if people are expecting retail to have a hidden gem of an answer somewhere that will push the digital demon back, but digital is here to stay and retail will have to make do. GAME is taking steps in the right direction by hosting some digital download keys, but an overhaul is long overdue.

How will this be achieved? Honestly, it’s for grizzled people with far more experience in the retail environment than me to find out, but trying to compete with digital stores will only delay the inevitable. Perhaps some of the high street giants that are left could follow GAME’s example and embrace it just a little bit more.

Original Sources: Why a ‘Steam Box’ Game Console Would Be a Big Deal; GamesIndustry International: Retail limps to the finish line after a tough 2012

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