Yesterday marked a landmark in British gaming consumer history. On the one hand, we've had the release of the biggest game of the year so far, Mass Effect 3, which is receiving glowing reviews in all corners of the media. The downhearted and quite frankly bewildering side of the story is that Britain's biggest (ie pretty much only) specialist gaming retailer of note, the Game Group, isn't stocking a single copy, a situation that could cost the company £2.5m in profit. Regardless of your thoughts on Game/Gamestation's business practices over the last few years, that's pretty seismic.
It's not just Mass Effect 3 either, as things stand Game won't be stocking any of EA's imminent game releases including the latest Sims and Tiger Woods games. Both parties are apparently looking for a solution, but EA would seem to be holding all the aces - after all, they still managed to ship 3.5m copies of Mass Effect 3 worldwide. One thing that is certainly clear is that the vultures are clearly circling above Game Group on the back of this announcement. EA's output is the biggest in the industry, and perhaps more crucially, the broadest. Game Group made a point when the acquired Gamestation of trying to segment the two in order to appeal more to the traditional hardcore audience or to the newer casual one depending on which franchise you walked in to. If we were in a pitch to investors right now, you might see a slide containing this:
Tell me when you've ever seen a grandparent in Gamestation? Thought not. So it's not just the Mass Effect audience that are being forced to go elsewhere, it's the younger audience that tend to be fans of the Sims, and the more casual sports fans who might pick up FIFA Street/Tiger Woods as well. If things carry on it will be EA's inevitable Sudoku release for the 3DS as well. Not stocking this range of different titles puts the entire operation in jeopardy even more so perhaps than not stocking 2012's biggest game so far. Any retailer is going to have to rely on it's impulse buyers and in gaming that means either the younger, casual audience picking up Cats & Dogs 3D or the seasoned hardcore who don't mind having a punt on Tropico 4. If the problem becomes more widespread, less and les people will trust that Game will stock the best range, and will simply go elsewhere. There's evidence already of this with the trouble they've had stocking Nintendo's Mario Party 9 and Ubisoft's PS Vita launch titles. Ultimately, any dent in a publisher's profits in the short term will surely pale in comparison to the potential brand and profit damage this can cause to Game the longer it goes on. It's like having a war of attrition against an enemy that's bunkered up in a supermarket.
Robert Purchase has written an excellent feature on what a consumer future would look like without Game on the high street that makes for fascinating reading. It portrays a bleak vision in which the supermarkets are free to cast off their gaming sections as soon as a dip occurs in the market occurs, which sounds mighty hard to swallow if we view it through the lens of the consumer landscape of today. However, the optimistic closing paragraph does point to a future where, if digital distribution can make the difference, then the games below the AAA bracket of this world may find modest success of their own, with a larger split of the money going to the creators and less to the distributors and middle men. That's the reason indie developers are moving into developing for iOS and Android, because the margins are far greater.
Let's be honest, the most important thing that needs to be safeguarded in this industry really is the talent and creativity of the people out there designing and coding games. Rather than having to compete for actual physical space and high impact marketing pushes with the likes of Call of Duty, a battle so many great titles can never hope to win due to aspects nothing to do with thier creative worth, the industry can again focus on broadening it's output and getting back to being truly innovative again.
In the meantime, it's going to be interesting to see how the Game story develops. The news that they have two weeks to turn their fortunes around sounds deeply ominous, although to their credit they've launched a 'Spring Clean' campaign (read: firesale) that should at least help them clear the bucket loads of preowned stock they carry that they could never have hoped to sell anyway, while giving us gamers the best incentive we're likely to get to pick up some of those 'maybe' titles. F1 2011 here I come!
There's a touch of irony to all of this in that like Commander Shepard, they too face a seemingly impossible task of saving the world as they know it against the relentless onslaught more well stocked adversaries.
When all's said and done, here's my definitive conclusion: