(Submitted to The Platformers 4-17-07)
Once upon a time, there was something called the “record store”.
In that place you could find a vast collection of music, from the most pedestrian pop to the most obscure regional new age gospel reggae acts. And these stores would hire knowledgeable, (if not always exactly friendly) people, enthusiastic about music, able to steer customers in the right direction of whatever they were looking for or new stuff that the customer may have not even been aware of. Record stores would have regular customers, they were places were fans could hang out and just enjoy music, they were a credit not only to their particular community, but to the industry in general. The RIAA decided to destroy all that one day, but that’s another issue.
As gamers, we deserve something similar. Small, independent stores staffed with people who have a love for games, shelves stocked with both popular and obscure titles. These stores could, like their music store brethren, be places were gamers could hang out and learn about new games, where neophytes and casual gamers could come in, purchase games, and perhaps even expand their tastes a bit beyond EA and Tom Clancy.
Unfortunately, we have Gamestop.
I wouldn’t complain if Gamestop were a useful tool for the gamer community, a place where you could get your hands on niche titles not likely to be carried by the big box stores. But Gamestop isn’t that place. I realized this last week while trying to hunt down a copy of Puzzle Quest. I was reminded that the game exists when I saw it on the shelves of the local Best Buy, amid rows of That’s So Raven and Hannah Montana. I could have bought the game there, but I thought I’d do the responsible gamer thing and support the other billion dollar sales behemoth instead. Gamestop. I enjoy the luxury of having three Gamestops within five minutes of each other, and I felt sure one, if not all, should carry the title. After all, Puzzle Quest may be a tad niche, but if a big box store had it, surely the store dedicated to selling games would too.
I was wrong. Instead I was met with shelves full of the the exact same movie tie-in crap at Best Buy, along with rows of preteen girl shovel-ware. No Puzzle Quest to be found, or pretty much anything remotely niche for that matter, save for the used section. EA, masters of mass-market pablum, had their own dedicated stand in the middle of the store– just as large as the aisle dedicated entirely to used DVDs and strategy guides. PC games found themselves relegated to the back of a single EA-sand-sized aisle, and even that was shared with used console peripherals.
The space dedicated to console games wasn’t in much better shape. Sure, you could find a variety of titles in the used section, but the new sales area was the domain of Ubisoft, EA and more damned games based on children’s movies. Indeed, looking around the three stores I felt that I wasn’t in a dedicated games store as much as a Wal-Mart games section crammed alongside a yardsale and stuffed into a mall cubbyhole. And if that’s the case, how is Gamestop any more useful to the community than Wal-Mart or Best Buy? How is it that the only dedicated games store left in America has abandoned the hardcore base in favor of soccer moms looking to sate Little Timmy’s desire for the latest Madden roster update? In the age where virtually any videogame currently made is but an Amazon listing away, is Gamestop necessary anymore? Indeed, I believe that if we look more closely at Gamestop’s corporate model, we may see that the chain is, in fact, harmful.
Sure, Gamestop sells us used games at a discount, but isn’t this practice hurting the industry? Consider. Gamestop pulled in 5.3 billion dollars in revenue last year. Analysts believe up to 25% of Gamestop’s revenue comes directly from used sales. That’s 1.3 billion dollars Gamestop pulled in last year that was never seen by the gaming industry, at least not after that initial new sale that lead to the cascade of used sales that followed, and there’s no real way of being sure that the new game was purchased at Gamestop to begin with. Admittedly, not all of this money would have found it’s way back to the publisher, there are cuts on top of what they pull in, but it’s still 1.3 billion dollars directly into Gamestop’s coffers that have been pulled out of the regular distribution channels. All of this made off the backs of the people who make our games, at a time when the average game developer salary is falling. Can Gamestop justify it’s existence when it’s very corporate model depends on money stolen from the industry?
I could perhaps overlook this if it were not for Gamestop’s abominable customer service. Whether it’s the incessant pleas for pre-orders and trade-ins, the practice of selling gutted games as new, the actual act of shopping in a Gamestop is a repulsive, degrading experience, and that’s not counting the outright larceny involved in the paltry trade-in values compared to how much the used games are then sold for. It’s rare to find knowledgeable, enthusiastic staff at a Gamestop. Indeed it would seem that knowledge and enthusiasm about gaming is a detriment to employment, no true hardcore gamer is going to suggest with a straight face that a parent should purchase a copy of Kim Possible over a copy of Beyond Good and Evil. Gamestop managers don’t want enthusiastic gamers working under them, they’d rather have someone enthusiastic about selling Driver 3 pre-orders. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the Gamestop experience actively discourages casual gamers from the hobby.
Gamestop relies on the conceit that they are providing the gamer community a valuable service despite the horrid customer service, outright fraud and the money syphoned directly from developer’s pockets. But the truth is, that service is not there. There is nothing that Gamestop provides that cannot be found via other avenues, whether that be Wal-Mart, Ebay, or even direct download. It is time we admit that not only do we not need Gamestop, but we’d be better off without them.