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Generation Worst Part I: The War on Used Games

November 3, 2013 1 comment

This multi-part series will break down each of several factors that combined to make the seventh generation of video game consoles my least favorite, and why it chased me away from the next generation. This is my own perspective and opinion, and is not intended to sway others.

 

Throughout my years of buying video games with my own money, which started in 1991, I’ve always had a balance of buying new and used merchandise. I’ve also subsidized my spending with game and system trade-ins. Within the last 7 months alone, I’ve purchased the limited edition of Bioshock Infinite (and the limited edition strategy guide), NHL 14, Kingdom Hearts 1.5 HD Remix, Diablo III, a new Dual Shock 3 controller, and several funds cards for the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and the PlayStation Store, completely with trade-in credit. Before and even during my job at the bowling alley, money was not a plentiful resource… so I made tough decisions about what to part with in my game library in order to pare down or afford the price of new games that I wanted.

A funny thing has happened to the video games economy over the last 3+ years, starting with EA’s Online Pass program being introduced in 2010. In the War on Used Games, that was the shot heard ’round the gaming world. We had begun to transition from used games just being a part of how things were to used games being a menace to publishers and developers that needed to be dealt with. Used games were cited as eating into the bottom line for the industry, causing sales of new games to decline. The Online Pass program would finally add a cut for EA, compensating them somewhat for the resale of a used game and the resources required for online play for a person who didn’t contribute to EA’s revenue stream.

From then on, we have heard prominent industry players decrying the sale of used games. Some have even compared used game buyers to pirates, though the former is still legal (for now). We also hear the same cries of denouncement from within the gaming community:

  • “Games are expensive. People should know that going in.”
  • “If you can’t afford to buy new games, you’re not entitled to play these games on or shortly after launch.”
  • “Buying used games means you’re not a real gamer and that you’re too cheap to support your hobby.”
  • “When you buy used games, you contribute to the decline of the industry since publishers and developers don’t profit.”

Let’s hypothesize, for a moment, that used games had simply ceased to exist as of January 1st of this year. Games could only be purchased new and could not be resold or traded. That would have been about $400 less that I would have contributed to the new video game economy this year. $400 is insignificant to some, but if you multiply that by just 5,000 others? That’s $2 million less per year in new sales revenue for GameStop and other retailers that accept trade-ins and allow you to use trade-in credit for new items. When less is spent in stores, the affected stores buy less product from publishers, hardware companies, and accessory companies. Then the pain is felt by everyone.

Is that really what people want? Do they want consumers to spend less? Are they going by an assumption that consumers will buy everything new at the same clip they’ve been spending of late? Do they really want to test that theory?

The second-class treatment of buyers of preowned video games over the last three years is one of the major factors in my decision to not buy new video game consoles for this new console generation. For nearly 20 years prior to 2010, it never mattered if I bought used or new. I didn’t read insulting quotes from publisher execs and staff pertaining to used games. While buying used might have resulted in a worn disc, missing instructions, or a missing case, the game still worked exactly as it did had I bought it new– or even when I had bought it new before, and decided to trade it in towards another game. Telling friends and fellow members of the community that I bought a game used and saved a few bucks used to lead to conversations about what I thought of the game or asking how cheaply I got it instead of being chastised as used game buyers are now by some in the community.

My new PlayStation in 1995 was partially subsidized by trade-ins. My new Dreamcast in 1999 and a couple of new PlayStation 2 units that I’ve purchased were also partially subsidized by trade-ins. I became a Dead Space fan after buying the first game on the PlayStation 3 used in 2009, leading to new purchases of Dead Space 2 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 as well as a digital version of the original for the 360. The same kind of thing happened after I bought F.E.A.R. used for the 360; I bought F.E.A.R. 2 new later on. The Yakuza series is another example as I bought the first game used for PS2 and bought the three PS3 games all brand new.

That’s the used game economy at work, in practice. Used games do lead to more money being spent on new items in many cases, even if it’s not that way 100% of the time. And yet… this is constantly ignored. History is ignored, and we choose to forget about how it had always been a level playing field before internet connectivity gave publishers new-found power to lock content behind a paywall unless you have a code… and unless you have a high-speed connection. Trade-ins and buying used were rarely stigmatized before this past console generation. Now it’s fairly commonplace.

It’s great that publishers are backtracking on the Online Pass model now, but the damage has been done for me. I don’t trust publishers any longer. What else might be in store for the second-class people who buy used games? I sure as hell am not spending half a grand to find out. Add in the rest of the complaints that I had about the previous console generation that, in my eyes, made it the worst one I’ve ever experienced… and that made the decision not to upgrade at all pretty easy.

What other complaints? That’s what the rest of the Generation Worst series will cover. Part two will come soon.

Shooting Straight: The FuncoLand Experience

FuncoLand

It’s hard to believe that 15 years have gone by since I began my first video game retail job, working for FuncoLand here in West Springfield, MA.

It was, for me, a bit of a dream come true. I knew video games upside down, inside out, backwards and forwards… but there really weren’t a lot of related job opportunities in this area. There were a couple of independent video game stores before FuncoLand arrived, but getting a job at one of those was next to impossible. There were stores like Electronics Boutique and Babbage’s, too, but I never really thought to try my luck there. FuncoLand was brand new to this area, hiring managers and assistant managers, and I knew that I had to try to get one of those spots.

It wasn’t a question of if, but rather a question of how and when.

I typed up a resume and brought it to a store that had already opened. I hung out there, talked to the district manager, played Hot Shots Golf with the staff, and basically sold myself. I was the right person for this job. I would point customers to game suggestions and engage them with appropriate knowledge while I visited. I mentioned on the application that I would work any and all hours needed. I admit that I sucked up to the DM a bit. I just knew that this was an excellent opportunity. I knew little about retail operations, but I knew a lot about the products being sold… and I knew that would be enough.

I was kept waiting for a couple of weeks. I didn’t have any retail experience, which hurt my appeal. I think I came across as being more desperate than eager, which probably wasn’t a good sign, either. I had to come up with references, and the DM had some trouble getting in touch with them. I was starting to doubt that things were going to happen until I did get the call and was hired as an assistant manager for the chain’s newest location.

FuncoLand was an awesome place, with good and fair policies and a decent gaming atmosphere. I loved having ten demo stations active, ranging from the NES to the PlayStation. I loved being able to let customers try games before they were bought. I loved being able to focus on customers, talking about games and helping them get what they were looking for. I loved that the chain carried so many different platforms, rather than just the newest ones out there. I loved my co-workers in West Springfield, who helped me grow as a manager and as a person. My tenure in that store remains one of my favorite jobs of all time.

That’s not to say that my time with FuncoLand was perfect. I wasn’t the best seller of cleaning kits and Game Informer magazines, and I did get talked to a lot about this deficiency. I accepted a promotion to manage a different location, but it was too soon and I wound up burning myself out before I could really succeed. The difference between being an hourly assistant manager and being a salaried manager was like night and day. There was a lot more responsibility, a ton more hours, and a lot more in the way of shenanigans. As a manager, my store was broken into at one point, I had to break up a fist fight over Pokemon cards, a customer pushed his way into the cashwrap and stole a Game Boy Color, and more. I just wasn’t ready for the responsibility increase, and that’s too bad.

Of course, FuncoLand would become GameStop before long, and the FuncoLand culture died after the transition. GameStop was more corporate and less customer-focused, with a decidedly weak gaming focus. The demo stations were all pulled, the ability to try games in-store was axed, and an eventual focus on metrics like pre-orders and used game sales over customer service soured the experience. It saddens me to go into what was my old store in West Springfield and see how far it’s fallen. I can’t imagine what it’d be like now if I’d remained with the company.

Present day aside, I’m grateful for the opportunity I was given back in 1998. It was a great experience and a fantastic way to utilize my video game knowledge while helping people at the same time. Coincidentally, I also began dabbling in review-writing at that time… but that’s a story I’ll save for another time.

Retail Review Follow-up: GameStop (Riverdale Road, West Springfield, MA)

January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

Before I begin, I wanted to thank everyone for their support and candid feedback on my review and about the experience I had. I got some good information from you and was able to follow up the best way that I could after what happened. It’s unfortunate that such experiences happen in today’s brick & mortar retail environment. As someone who has worked on the other side of the counter, I simply cannot understand how an employee can be so distracted and disinterested in a sales transaction… but more on that shortly.

Today, I did two things:

  1. I completed the Tell GameStop survey and gave explicit details about my experience. I rated the experience a zero overall. I supplied my name and phone number so that management can follow up with me if they so choose– and I sincerely hope that someone does. 
  2. I called the GameStop corporate office. I was routed to GameStop customer service and wound up giving another account of the experience to the rep who handled my call. There was no display of empathy from the rep at all, which was surprising, but he did say that he’d be forwarding my comments to district management, who would then allegedly take them up with store staff. No promise of follow-up was made, so I’m assuming that this will probably be the last of things.

I am less upset and more disappointed by this experience. It should not be a matter of fact that, “Hey, bad experiences happen.” Yet that is exactly how this feels, based on how my follow-up has been handled and based on what some folks have told me as I decided to move forward. Perhaps GameStop doesn’t care at all, assuming that I’ll just forget about this and, when the urge finally overtakes me, just forget about it and give this store another chance. That’s not going to happen, despite the good inventory of used PS2 games and the close proximity to my home. This isn’t the first time that I’ve had a negative experience at this store, but after a couple of times with deteriorating results– and after a prior complaint about this store more than a year ago that went unanswered– I’m done with it.

What really gets me is that this experience could have been so much better if the employee had bothered to pay attention or made use of the other employee on duty. This isn’t peak retail season and there simply isn’t any excuse to be so scatterbrained when it comes to a customer who has just given you money. Before you complete a transaction, doesn’t it make sense to pull the games and make sure that they’re in stock and ready to go? If the phones are busy, doesn’t it make sense to pull the other employee off of store tasks and focus on customers to help you? These are basic things. Retail work is not that hard. It demands full attention, task management, and understanding priorities. The employees on this day understood none of these things, and it led to a truly awful experience that happened to a guy that coincidentally writes about gaming retail a little bit.

If anything comes from today’s follow-up, I’ll post an additional entry with all of the details.

Retail Review: GameStop (Riverdale Road, West Springfield, MA)

January 14, 2013 Leave a comment

When you visit a GameStop location, the results can sometimes vary wildly. Sometimes it’s a fantastic experience, other times it’s an average experience… and sometimes, like I saw with my visit to the location on Riverdale Road in West Springfield, MA, it can be downright awful.

Appearance:

This location looked pretty dingy. The open sign was never turned on, so I had no certain idea that the store was open until I tried the door. We’re now a bit removed from the end of the holiday season, but the inside was still dim and dirty, with below-average organization. Many games were out of alphabetical order or were spined/faced out incorrectly. The area behind the counter was messy and magnified the appearance of disorganization. All in all, this GameStop location is not at all inviting and is actually a pretty scary place.

Selection:

There was a decent supply of games, both current and for older platforms, like the PlayStation 2 and the PSP. I managed to find a few PS2 games that I was interested in, as well as games for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. This selection is the location’s best asset.

Service:

This is where the experience completely failed. My transaction was a trade-in transaction, along with a purchase of four used PS2 games (which were part of a Buy 2, Get 2 Free promotion), three used Xbox 360 games, and one used PlayStation 3 game.

The trade-in was fine, though added steps put in place by local law enforcement (photocopy of picture ID) lengthened this part of the transaction. The manager on duty handled the transaction, and at least started out on the right foot by being personable and talkative to keep time moving while he performed the necessary tasks.

When it came to the sale, though, things went south. The employee scanned the games the I brought up. The loose PS2 games were fine. He scanned the PS3 and Xbox 360 cases and got his total, which I paid in cash after the store credit for the trade was used. He then gave me my receipt and ended the transaction.

Aside from the PS2 games, which were live products, I was given four empty cases with no games in them and a receipt. I had to remind the employee that I didn’t receive all of the merchandise that I paid for. Usually, I can understand if it’s busy that maybe a game gets forgotten… but all of them? Unacceptable.

And it got worse.

The employee half-heartedly and haphazardly looked for my games, leaving one on the back counter and two more on the front counter while he multitasked with a phone customer and gave out a live DLC code for Black Ops II, which distracted him and took a considerable amount of extra time.

The employee only found three of the four games that he’d scanned the cases for– and that I’d paid for already. This meant a return (which should have been a void since the game couldn’t be found), which took even more time.

Even after the return, the employee gave me the two games that were on the front counter. I had to ask for the one that he’d forgotten on the back counter. At that point, he finally offered a bag to put the games in.

Hopefully my case is an isolated one, but there’s no way that this level of “service” is acceptable for a retail store. It’s inexcusable when there are two employees on duty and one is doing tasks not related to customer service while the other fails to complete a transaction without distraction or accuracy.

Recommendation:

I cannot at all recommend this location, despite the decent inventory available. Poor appearance and poor service add up to a poor experience that GameStop’s corporate office should be ashamed of offering to any customer. Steer clear of this location; I recommend alternate locations, including sites in Westfield, MA and Chicopee, MA.

Consoleation Quickie: Worst of the Worst

November 26, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s been about two weeks since I’ve been back in Massachusetts, and thought it would do some good to get out and hit my local GameStop store. I know that many of you can’t stand the chain, for reasons that do– and don’t– make sense, but it was something to break up the monotony of being stuck here at home with nothing to do. I understood that this is a holiday weekend, and fully expected lines and a little bit of chaos. It makes sense; I’ve worked several tours of gaming retail duty during this time of year. I know how things work.

I could not have prepared myself for what I was going to see.

When I arrived, my eye first spotted the cracked glass on the bottom pane of the front door. It looked like someone had taken a bat to it. It looked like a crime scene, honestly. Despite the poor initial impression, I went inside. There were certainly plenty of people in the store, but the space wasn’t small. The greeter did his thing, acknowledging me and handing me a flyer. As I made my way further inside,  it looked like an F-5 tornado had ripped through the interior. There was stuff everywhere. Games strewn all over shelves. Product all over the floor behind the counter. Despite counting five employees (and only two registers), there wasn’t any kind of recovery effort going on. In fact, throughout my 35-minute visit, no recovery took place. (Recovery, for those not in retail, is cleaning and reorganization after busy periods.)

Again– I get that this is one of the busiest weekends of the entire year for GameStop. I went through it last year, plus did two seasons for FuncoLand in 1998 and 1999. I know that it’s crazy. I expect to see a bit of chaos. But what I saw went beyond chaos. It was a disaster with no clear leadership or acknowledgement. I had a difficult time understanding how conditions like this were allowed to occur– or continue. It was poor enough that I was compelled to complete the store survey and communicate how appalled I was. I’ve been to many GameStop and other gaming retail stores during the holidays over the years. I’ve worked in some and shopped at others. This store was the worst that I have ever seen, even during the busiest of holiday times. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.

I suppose that I shouldn’t let this bother me, but it does. Maybe it’s my experience in retail that makes me care so much. Maybe it’s because, as a consumer, I was horrified by what I saw. It may not be fair for me to criticize a store during a big weekend like this, but this was the worst of the worst.

Hopefully steps can and will be taken to turn the store around, but as for me, I won’t be going back.

Categories: General Tags: ,

Consoleation Wrap-Up: Ledesma-gate Odds and Ends

August 26, 2010 1 comment

First off, a big thank you goes to the staff over at GameCritics for picking up my reaction piece on Ledesma-gate. I see that my viewpoint has incurred about equal amounts of commenters for and against my viewpoint, and I guess that batting .500 isn’t too shabby. I see that at least one commenter works in the industry, and naturally his comments were the most harsh. Being on the opposite side of where he stands, as I am a consumer of his goods, I guess that disagreement is natural. He wants to make money, and I want to be able to afford his goods. We’re both right, and we’re both wrong.

What’s unfortunate in all of this is that Ledesma’s comments have not only damaged relations between the industry and its consumers who read Ledesma’s views… but they’ve also succeeded in widening a rift between the haves and have-nots when it comes to this form of entertainment that we all enjoy. Charges of entitlement are flying back and forth and the argument that video games are a luxury– or even a service– makes what was once touted to be “fun for everyone” into a select group of individuals who are financially fortunate enough to take part.

It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

We all know what the easy solution is: Get members of prominent game publishers and prominent resale retailers together and hammer out some sort of financial agreement. That solution, however, isn’t going to happen as long as you or I are not in charge. Both sides have obligations to their respective investors. If resellers agree, their profits dwindle and shareholders will find another venture that may be more lucrative. As long as the agreement doesn’t occur, the industry will continue to wage this war on resale and there won’t be a winner when it’s all over. In fact, if the industry was actually successful in the removal of resold product and decided not to adjust their pricing scheme, it’s highly likely that the financial state of the console gaming industry would be far worse than it is now.

If recession-like economic conditions continue, which is likely for at least the next couple of years, eliminating cheaper alternatives than new $60 games will erode the consumer base. That’s not a prediction; it’s a fact. We’d be looking at a firm IF/THEN argument; IF you don’t have $60, THEN you won’t be buying these games. Sure, there may be sales now and again, but with several periods each year when there are more than a handful of new releases for each platform, many games are going to be ignored and left on store shelves. This will lead to retailers not being as bullish on console games as a viable revenue stream as the industry will have lost popularity and the depth of its consumer base. That leads to smaller amounts of retailer purchases of games from publishers, which then will lead to more closures and consolidations. Over a decade’s worth of growth will be lost in a short time, and other– cheaper– sources of entertainment will be sought.

Why are used games so bad? It’s not a black and white scenario. Many consumers sell or trade games to be able to afford new releases. I’ll admit that I’ve done it for years. In fact, I sold my entire NES collection and other games back in 1999 to FuncoLand and gained enough store credit to buy $700 worth of new Dreamcast hardware and games. Note the bolded word there: NEW. A fair amount of that $700 went right back to the industry, with FuncoLand receiving a small profit on the sale. They got their profit from me when I willingly traded in my games for less than they were worth. The industry won, the retailer won, and I won. I do the same now. It makes me a second-class citizen in the eyes of the Industry Defense Force, but everyone really does win. It’s the same scenario: I trade in games for less than I paid for them (reseller profit) to afford to buy new ones (publisher / developer profit) that I can enjoy (my own gain). Where’s the loser here? Is it because the publisher doesn’t make any more money from me or the resale retailer if the game finds a new owner? That’s a shame, but the industry is already making money from the reseller to begin with.

And this incessant ranting about GameStop killing the industry? No. GameStop’s #1 revenue driver is sales of new software.

Let me say it again, with emphasis: Gamestop’s #1 revenue driver is sales of new software.

NEW. SOFTWARE.

As with any business, there are certainly some GameStop business policies that can be debated. Gutting of new games. Questionable trade-in values. Occasionally over-emphatic employees begging for subscriptions and preorders. GameStop isn’t anywhere near perfect, but they’re also doing business well enough that they’re still here and making money in a time period that’s seen Game Crazy go by the boards and Blockbuster’s Game Rush experiment fail. There are lots of myths out there about how GameStop does business, and a lot of online embellishments of in-store experiences that become gross generalizations. Despite what you may or may not agree with about GameStop’s policies, the company isn’t worse for the industry’s financial well-being than GameFly, Goozex, yard sales, or Goodwill.

How about those who buy used games? People have been doing it for years without having to be harangued or made to feel like a second-class citizen or criminal. It used to be called “getting a good deal”. Now it’s some sort of moral dilemma. Again, there’s no black and white here; if you buy used, you’re a (legal) pirate. It doesn’t matter if you’ve bought once or plenty of times. Think of the developers… think of the publishers. If you want better games, buy the “right way”. You know, outside of this bubble called the internet, consumers honestly don’t care about the developer, the publisher, or even what some no-name blogger has to say. He or she has a budget and sticks by it. If he or she wants a game, that person is oftentimes going to buy cheaper if possible. Impulse shopping has been a revenue driver for video games for a long time; if a game is cheap enough, some people will drop the money on it. It’s not about putting money away each week like Wal-Mart layaway and rejoicing when you finally have been able to stash enough away that you can afford this luxury. Maybe for the hardcore gamer, budgeting and savings are a way of life… but for everyone else, it’s a snap decision: Buy now as cheaply as possible, or table it and see if money becomes available in the future. I see this ALL THE TIME. Sometimes they come back, sometimes they’ll buy it used, and I’ve even seen cases where the consumer has flatly said that games are too expensive and that he’s going to “sell the damned thing.”

I would think that, rather than locking features, cutting content for future DLC, and basically trying to nickel and dime what’s left of its consumer base, the console gaming industry would instead think about how to not get back to gaining more consumers… but also try to use incentives instead of what’s viewed as punitive actions to maintain the consumers that it’s been trying to build for years.

We’ve all said things this week that probably should have been held in check. What we need to do now is find real solutions and enact them before it’s too late.

Consoleation Reaction: Five Comments, Five Reactions

August 24, 2010 3 comments

I’ve been reading some comments to some articles relating to Cory Ledesma‘s verbal slap at used game buyers and about Sony’s decision to at least consider using some sort of Online Pass system for their games, and I’m disappointed in what I’ve seen. It’s one thing for industry workers to be so defensive or to say some pretty dumb things, as they believe that used games affect their bottom lines. It’s another for gamers to point fingers at others and basically tell them that they don’t belong to the Gamers’ Club.

Let’s take a look at some examples:

1. “If you can’t afford a $60 game, you shouldn’t be playing video games.”

I love this argument, which generally comes from a group of commenters that I like to call the Industry Defense Force. It’s similar to the “You’re not a real gamer if…” argument in that there are apparently rules to becoming a video game consumer which aren’t clearly stated when you buy a game. It’s bunk, of course. The console gaming industry went through its strongest period of growth by expanding its potential user base. During the previous two console generations (PS2/Xbox/GC and PSX/N64/DC), console hardware and software prices were generally under control and it was all about selling the best value. Yes, the Nintendo 64 did have higher software prices for a time, thanks to Hiroshi Yamauchi’s decision to stick with cartridge-based media, but these prices eventually fell into line with its competition. Now, publishers have happily tacked on a $10 “HD tax” to games for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, citing higher development costs… and, unsurprisingly, software sales have trended down thanks to a recessed economy and games that feel incomplete or rushed.

Please note the term recessed economy. The Federal Government may claim that the Great Recession is over, but look around you and you’ll see a different story. Foreclosures are still happening. Layoffs are still occurring and new job creation is occurring at the speed of molasses. Unemployment has gotten so bad that the rate is inaccurate because some people have been out of work for so long that their benefits have ended. Credit is tighter. Taxes are going up to try and help states that are on the verge of going into receivership. Despite all of these things, the console gaming industry and the Industry Defense Force both insist that $60 is not that much money. The Industry Defense Force will cite pointless inflation comparisons and mention that we’ve been “due” for a price hike. Really? Now? Despite economic reality? The same economic reality that’s sent the industry into its first bonafide downturn in over a decade?

2. “It’s only a $5 difference. Don’t be cheap.”

No… not really. Depending on the retailer, that difference can be $10 or more if certain conditions are fulfilled. That’s enough for a quick lunch, a bit of gas for your vehicle, or extra cash in your pocket that can be spent elsewhere. In tough economic times, it’s not the amount of the savings that is important– it’s the fact that you’re saving any money at all that’s the key. Sometimes you have to wonder how many of these commenters have actual bills or financial obligations, because the value of money seems to escape them. Try this math: Even if you do only save $5 for each game and buy one per month for a full year, you save enough to buy an extra game each year… or two if you partake in discount programs from GameStop or Play ‘n Trade. It adds up, and the bottom line is what matters the most to consumers in times like these. Consumers will continue to be cheap, and they frankly don’t care if the Industry Defense Force calls them out for being that way.

3. “Better for the developers to get money when you buy new than for GameStop to get all of your money.”

Ah, the new version of The Crusades. Let’s forget the fact that the developers got their money for games sold already. Let’s also forget that GameStop isn’t the only source for used games around. Do developers get any money when you trade used games on Goozex? Nope. How about eBay? Nope. What if you see a game at a yard sale or flea market? Negative. Developers and publishers stopped getting their money’s worth of a rented title after a few rentals at GameFly or Blockbuster. Besides, why should gaming consumers care about the industry and how much money it makes when the industry has made it abundantly clear that it doesn’t care about consumers? As for the GameStop stigma, it’s downright laughable how commenters hang onto silly memes and attack a retail chain based on hearsay and the “cool to hate” factor. GameStop, like any other retail chain, has its share of problems and business policies that make consumers cringe… but it’s still a video game store, and there just aren’t very many of them left. The used games problem seems to have GameStop at its core, but there are many other retailers who deal with pre-owned games, both in online and brick-and-mortar spaces.

4. “Servers cost money to maintain. They aren’t free, you know.”

Oh, I know they’re not free. The problem is that the same number of people who own the game have the ability to play it online. In order for a game to be pre-owned, somebody had to buy it first before selling it or trading it in. The seller no longer plays the game online; the new owner does. There’s no additional stress on the server. With the Online Pass program, the $10 is basically free money for the publisher, and it’s not at all guaranteed to go towards server maintenance or upgrades. It’s like a gas tax in some states; ideally, this money should be going to road repair, but it usually goes into a different government fund. This is a shallow and impossible-to-defend argument.

5. “People who buy used games deserve to get a lesser experience.”

Since when? Consumers have been buying pre-owned games for decades, but only now do we vilify them? I don’t think so. Contrary to prior belief or notion, buying used games isn’t a crime, it isn’t a new fad, and it should not be a punitive situation. I’ll agree that, if you buy used, you should expect certain possibilities… like missing instruction manuals, cracked or missing cases, and possible physical damage to the media… but the games are still expected to work like they should. This business of locking content away as a deterrent from buying used in order to generate “a lesser experience” is a cash grab from publishers who decided that used games are the reason for the current business downturn.

Having said all of this, I’m going to step away from the matter once again as I’m trying not get back to writing basics rather than continuing to harp on the same topics. I will say that this issue isn’t going away and is going to likely worsen in the coming months. What will be interesting to see if how consumers respond and whether there will be any pushback– or if  they’re just resigned to their fate of having to pay more to play what they want. In the meantime, I’ll be back to writing impressions and reviews soon.

Consoleation Opinion: The Gloves Are Off

August 23, 2010 2 comments

Some things are better left unsaid.

For example, most gaming consumers know that the industry doesn’t care about them. The disconnect between the industry and the consumer has never been more evident than it’s been during this console generation, as I’ve mentioned more than a few times before. We’ve known that the industry treats used game purchasers as second-class citizens– or worse– and this well-publicized “war on used games” has devolved into taking basic gameplay modes away from those looking to not pay $60 apiece for games that may or may not be worth their asking prices.

Cory Ledesma, who has been working on THQ‘s WWE games for years now, finally took the gloves off and said what has assuredly been on the minds of many publishers and developers since this war on used games really began in earnest– he doesn’t care about used game purchasers.

Let’s look at his quote, pulled from a CVG article:

I don’t think we really care whether used game buyers are upset because new game buyers get everything. So if used game buyers are upset they don’t get the online feature set I don’t really have much sympathy for them. That’s a little blunt but we hope it doesn’t disappoint people. We hope people understand that when the game’s bought used we get cheated. I don’t think anyone wants that so in order for us to make strong, high-quality WWE games we need loyal fans that are interested in purchasing the game. We want to award those fans with additional content.

Let’s break down this piece of honesty– and attempted backtracking– from Mr. Ledesma here.

Ledesma has chosen to, with this quote, be the mouthpiece of THQ– if not the industry– and say “they” don’t care about used game buyers. We know that; in fact, they don’t care about consumers, period. It’s business. The “don’t care” part has been magnified during this console generation because, for the first time in many years, the industry is not thriving and a scapegoat has to be sought. It’s easy to pinpoint used games as a problem, considering that publishers and developers don’t make ANY MORE money from sales of their games. Note the capitalized words here: ANY MORE. The fact is that the publisher and developer already made their money from the game when it was bought by the retailer that originally sold the game as new. Want to cite online server fees? Those were factored into the original sale; there aren’t any extra people playing the game online… just different people.

After backtracking a bit by claiming that he doesn’t want to disappoint people, Ledesma really lets the cat out of the bag and uses the “C” word: Cheated.

When the game’s bought used, we get cheated, he says. Oh… so he doesn’t care about used game buyers, except when they buy the game used. Then he– and the industry– gets cheated. If you don’t care about used game buyers, then why should they care about you when they’re trying to buy a game as cheaply as possible? Sure, it’s all about the bottom line for the industry, but the consumer’s bottom line doesn’t count for anything? Since when? Consumers have other fiscal responsibilities than gaming… that includes people who work within the industry, too. Especially when it comes to Q4 and new games swell into retailers like a software tsunami, paying $60 for each game means that you are forced to limit what you can buy. I have a sinking suspicion that not too many consumers have $200 per month to drop on new releases. Then you’re either forced to play pick-and-choose or to try and buy the game you want as cheaply as possible. If cheap means that retailers are putting certain games on sale, great… but with the profit margin on new games being so thin for retailers, that rarely happens. The other options are either renting– which THQ’s Online Pass program doesn’t account for– or buying used, which can be significantly cheaper than $60 in certain instances.

The last part of Ledesma’s quote is priceless, because he equates the Online Pass with being an “award” for “loyal fans”. Not really. Considering that the online component of a game used to be an expectation and not a right– as it has apparently become– this isn’t an “award” or an incentive for new purchasers. It’s legalized extortion. Holding online play for ransom, especially when Xbox 360 users are already paying a fee for the ability to play online, is another stop along the industry’s slippery slope of descent. Incentives are adding things to the game… like extra levels, extra characters or weapons, and other things designed to make the game more enjoyable. Locking features is punitive.

The industry has lost sight of one major part of the used game formula. There are many consumers that trade their games in towards new games, and this happens a lot. That $60 price tag is a little more attractive if you trade games in for store credit towards new games, or if you sell games to friends or online for cash. For all of the outcry against GameStop, trading sites like Goozex and auction sites like eBay are just as involved in this issue that the Online Pass program is trying to put down. The industry, quite frankly, refuses to admit that games cost too much to sell in large and consistent quantities given the current economic climate. By holding online play for ransom, publishers are forcing trade-in and resale values down and this is counter-productive to game trades or resales in the first place: Game consumers need that buffer to be able to keep up with the latest games.

I’ve said this time and time again, and yet nobody listens. This is why software sales have been consistently off on a year-on-year comparison. This is why publishers are struggling to find answers and are quick to blame used games. The industry demands that consumers to foot a constantly increasing bill for entertainment and consumers have been indirectly telling the industry that they no longer have the money, by way of decreasing revenues. Rather than accept any kind of responsibility or acknowledge that there’s a problem, Cory Ledesma has taken the gloves off and spoken his mind.

In response, I will assume the role of the consumer base. Here’s our response to Mr. Ledesma and the rest of the industry:

I don’t think that we, as gaming consumers, really care whether the industry is upset because we’re just trying to afford to buy games without having to take out a second mortgage on our homes or work a third job. So if the industry is upset that they’re not getting any more money from us, then we really don’t have much sympathy for them. That’s a little blunt, but we hope that it doesn’t disappoint anyone in the industry. We hope the industry understands that game prices need to come down and that we need better incentives in order for us to continue spending our money on a consistent basis on your products. We want to reward companies that recognize and acknowledge the issue of high prices with our loyalty.

I think that’s about right.

Consoleation Special: The War on Used Games – Proof and Consequences

June 28, 2010 2 comments

It’s almost as if someone noteworthy in the console gaming industry has been reading my blogs about this War on Used Games and decided to try and get some analysts out there to try and prive prove that, in fact, used games are gradually killing this once invulnerable activity. An article on Gamasutra talks about a study performed by Cowen Group that basically blames GameStop and the “dramatic” growth of used games for the industry’s woes. In the article, Cowen analyst Doug Creutz not only understands the recent popularity of Online Pass-like DLC in games currently, but actually thinks that more– and more aggressive– restrictions can be placed on software to dissuade consumers from buying used and “recapture value” from the used game market.

This is going to get ugly.

Publishers and developers can cry all they want about how expensive that game development is, and how used games take food off of somebody’s table, but they are far from innocent when it comes to this division in economics. The industry has decided what is best for its consumer base, which then is valiantly used as a reason why video games are $60 apiece.

In a recession.

Haven’t we gone over this before? Haven’t we talked about how an extra $10 per game means fewer games purchased per year? Need I mention that the economic climate is starkly different now than it was three years ago? If you want more people to buy more games, then you have to make them affordable. You know… drop prices. High-definition televisions and Blu-ray players are finding their way into more households because the technology and the media have both come down in price. The only entertainment expenses that have increased are movie tickets, including 3D and IMAX events. Everything else is coming down but console games, and nobody in the industry cares to mention that.

Doesn’t anyone remember when console gaming really picked up steam during the 1990s? Sony burst onto the scene with an affordable new platform with reasonably-priced games and a mentality to get everyone involved, including core gamers from the Nintendo and SEGA stables and new consumers who might not have been into gaming before. Video games started to become more inclusive, and aside from Nintendo’s misstep on media for the Nintendo 64 ($70 per game? No.), we saw the popularity of video games begin to skyrocket. Nobody wanted to price anybody out of the market; despite new technology, we saw platform prices hovering at $300 or less. The consoles that broke this rule– 3DO, CD-i, Neo Geo, Saturn– all sold minor amounts and faded into obscurity. Even into the early 2000s, prices remained the same for both hardware and software despite technological advances and rising development costs.

Let’s also not forget that used games existed during the same period.

Now, let’s review what this generation has brought us:

  • Two of the three gaming platforms in this generation launched for over $300, with software prices at $60 for the first time in over a decade.
  • Features and functionality that previously had been included with a software purchase have been eliminated or held back for later distribution as downloadable content, mostly of the paid variety.
  • Some games require a constant internet connection to work, despite being paid for… so if your internet service goes down, some games don’t work at all.

Higher prices. Less functionality. Fewer features. And somehow the consumer is to blame when they decide that $60 is too much?

Creutz and other analysts like him who share this punitive vision are in for some surprises. Creutz may believe that consumers will conform:

We believe that consumers are likely to grudgingly accept a revised and evolving pricing strategy that reflects the value they receive outside of and in addition to the traditional single-player offline experience.

Note his verbiage here. See the word grudgingly? That means that consumers aren’t going to like it. There’s only so far that you can push a consumer base before people realize that the console gaming industry has completely lost touch with reality and that it’s just an expensive fad that’s managed to outlast most. Perhaps they’ll move on to free online gaming. Maybe they’ll go back to older games. Maybe they’ll just leave video gaming behind and find less expensive hobbies.

I know that I move closer and closer to going full-on retrogaming with every story like this that I read and comment on. Playing games like Final Fantasy IV Advance or Virtua Tennis on my Game Boy Micro remind me of a time when the industry that I love wasn’t out to drain me of every penny I make in order to enjoy myself and stay current. Playing games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night on my PlayStation reminds me of simpler times, too. Maybe I’m just getting older or more cynical, but there’s a part of me that genuinely believes that these recent events and the widening divide between the console gaming industry and its consumer base is going to lead to irreparable damage.

No continues, my friends.

Consoleation Eulogy: Game Crazy (1999 – 2010)

After several bouts of restructuring and trying to stay afloat, Game Crazy stores– and their parent, Hollywood Video– are being pulled from life support and will be liquidated within the next few weeks, followed by total closure. It’s been a wild ride for the chain, which grew dramatically during the early part of the last console generation, but the proliferation of online commerce, the rise to power of GameStop, and several other factors all have contributed to the chain’s ultimate fate.

Game Crazy was born in 1999, which was before GameStop came into existence. FuncoLand, Babbage’s, and Electronics Boutique were all still separate entities. Gamers were about to be introduced to the Dreamcast and were still actively playing Nintendo 64 and PlayStation games. It was a great time for the console gaming industry, and there wasn’t a clear-cut leader in gaming retail at the time… so it only made sense for Hollywood Video to spawn their “store within a store” idea and try to get their piece of the action. Initially, many of Game Crazy’s ideas were very similar to those of FuncoLand. There were to be plenty of demo kiosks with many of the current consoles, along with a few of the “older” ones. Customers were encouraged to try games before they bought; even if the games were new. Although Game Crazy’s pricing scheme was higher than the competition, the stores by and large felt like destinations for gamers. There were periodic tournaments to foster community, and everywhere you looked, you saw games.

Game Crazy saw its biggest success during last console generation, between 2001-2006. By the end of 2006, over 630 Game Crazy locations were open and doing business, and it made sense as the PlayStation 2 was a juggernaut and the new Xbox from Microsoft were powering console gaming to new heights of popularity. Despite the appearance and subsequent growth of GameStop– which was the result of mergers and takeovers including many of the other major gaming retail chains of the late 1990s and early 2000s– Game Crazy was managing to expand and exist. There were changes that came into play that were unpopular; for example, Game Crazy instituted their MVP program, which mimicked GameStop’s similar EDGE card. Sales of these cards were a primary responsibility of Game Crazy employees, along with disc cleaning packages and preorders. Many employees engaged in similar aggressive sales tactics that GameStop used, leading to a more negative shopping experience.

As GameStop continued to expand in the late 2000s, Game Crazy was starting to see signs of trouble. Business wasn’t great, the Great Recession was taking its toll, and online shopping started to accelerate. Game Crazy, in adopting many traits and sales methods of its competition, had become a less-significant factor. In 2009, Game Crazy stores began closing, starting in September. October of 2009 saw over 40% of Game Crazy locations shuttered. There was some hope that things would improve with a lower bottom line, but Game Crazy parent Hollywood Video was suffering too, thanks to Netflix and Redbox.

Now, all Hollywood Video locations and Game Crazy locations will be shuttered within the next few weeks, marking the end of an era.

It really is unfortunate to see this happen. Personally, I generally had good experiences shopping at Game Crazy locations. I even worked for the company for a spell. They were the last major gaming retail chain to deal with “classic” consoles like the NES and SEGA Genesis. I enjoyed the tournaments. I liked being able to try games out before buying them. It felt like an alternative to GameStop, which is nice every now and again. Unfortunately, Game Crazy copied its competition too closely and became almost indistinguishable from GameStop in a lot of ways. Even regular tournaments began to be less frequent and as Game Crazy did finally move away from non-current games and consoles, it lost almost all of its advantages. As recently as the middle of 2009, I had visited locations that were unkempt and looked almost defeated inside. It was almost like they knew the end was inevitable.

As it stands, video gaming specialty retail is in flux. It’s tough to compete with “big box” locations like WalMart or Target. Online commerce is becoming more accepted and a gradual move towards digital distribution is ongoing. It’s also a giant challenge to compete with GameStop, as it’s the dominant chain in this area of commerce and pretty much everyone knows who they are. Play ‘N Trade is making a valiant attempt to compete, and reminds me a lot of Game Crazy in its earlier days, but it’s a distant runner to GameStop and major general retailers. Aside from small and independently-owned game shops, video game retail has become big business with success coming for only a chosen few entities. There’s no real money in gaming-centric retail unless there’s a pre-owned sales component to it. Big box stores rely on other items to make money. GameStop’s pre-owned business and lucrative in-store advertising deals make it profitable, plus it’s the most visible and recognized gaming chain out there.

Hopefully, the soon-to-be displaced employees and managers will be able to land on their feet soon despite the challenging employment environment.

As video game consumers, we also lose out here as our choices have just become a bit more limited. I don’t have a problem at all going to my local GameStop store– as the staff is awesome and earned my business– but I like the idea of going to different stores and seeing what’s out there. GameStop rarely does tournaments to promote community– this is done via waiting outside for midnight launches. Demo stations are few and far between at GameStop, and you can’t try games out before you buy them. There’s little invitation to go to a game store these days and look around or get involved like there was during the FuncoLand days. Gaming retail has degraded from being enthusiastic about what’s being sold to making it all a speedy business transaction.

Some of the best gaming memories I have are from my tours in gaming retail, believe it or not. I used to be the one to organize and run tournaments. I ran a Madden tournament for GameStop one year and it was a blast. I organized and ran a Soul Calibur event for a smaller independent store I worked at back in 2000. I love just talking to people about gaming– like I do here with this blog– and if I can help to make a good buying decision without pressure, it’s an awesome feeling. As an enthusiast, I want to go to a location where I can play a bit, talk a bit, and buy without having to be inundated with options that I don’t want or need. I was never great at selling cleaning kits for FuncoLand. I was never great at getting people to preorder or buy EDGE cards at GameStop. I was, however, good at being approachable and knowledgeable. I can talk almost anyone under the table when it comes to console gaming, and I love every minute of it.

Game Crazy’s rise and fall is a symbol of where video game retail has succeeded and failed in the last 15 years. When Game Crazy began, it was all about the customer. It was about making a shopping destination for video game fans and giving them a place to go that was generally for them. FuncoLand was generally the same way. Then, as time went on and video games soared in popularity, enthusiasm was replaced by big business and importance of upsells. Game Crazy did what GameStop did; they engaged in pushy sales tactics because jobs depended on these upsell items. In the end, Game Crazy became exactly the opposite of what they intended… and without any advantages, the end was certain.

This is not a victory for GameStop; it’s a unfortunate milestone that reminds us of the fact that video games are more of a business than they have ever been, and we, as consumers, are merely pawns on an ever-shrinking chess board.

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