The End Of The GAME?

So, looks like GAME are in deep do-dos. Just a few days ago, GAME Group made the dramatic announcement that it’s up for sale, and their share price plunged to 0.83p (it was 296.75p in May 2008). I knew that GAME was in trouble, but it was shocking to read just how dire their financial straits really are. Over the last couple of months an extraordinary situation has developed where major games publishers have refused to supply GAME with new releases, basically because they’re worried they won’t get paid. In the words of Electronic Arts, “the financial condition of one of our major European retail partners … could lead to both increased bad debt and lost sales.”

So for the past few weeks, GAME hasn’t stocked any of the new releases from Nintendo, Capcom, Ubisoft and Electronic Arts, which leads to the question: what on earth are they selling? And how on earth could the management let the situation dissolve to the point where the major publishers don’t actually trust the store to sell their games? If anything, it seems like the sale notice has come way too late: who in their right mind would want to buy a company that can’t even afford to buy new stock?

I haven’t been to a GAME store for ages, as like pretty much everyone else I know, I started buying my games online some time ago and haven’t looked back. Why schlep all the way to a game store when you can buy the same game for a fraction of the price online? And trading in games is frankly a mug’s game – why flog your games for the absolute pittance they inevitably offer you in the shop when there’s the chance to cut out the middle man and sell them yourself on eBay?

For the first time in what seems like years, I went to check out my local GAME store to see what was going on. It seemed like business as usual at first, until I noticed that the newly released Mass Effect 3 was noticeable by its absence… as were pretty much all of the new games for the past couple of months. The front bay was taken up by Modern Warfare 3 (released last November), and I suddenly realised that there were hardly any new games at all in the store – almost every shelf was taken up with preowned games, all at huge discounts. As part of GAME’s ‘Spring Clean’ sales campaign, almost everything in the shop had been reduced, with some games down to just a couple of pounds. Considering the circumstances, it felt more like a fire sale than a sales promotion.

Sadly, I have no idea when I'll find the time to play this.

I have to admit I went a little crazy. Despite vowing to avoid buying any new games until I’ve finished the games already stacked up on The Mantelpiece, I ended up coming away with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Crysis 2, Vanquish, Trauma Center: New Blood, Child of Eden, L.A. Noire and Metro 2033. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a bargain. That little lot cost me just under £45 (including a brand new Child of Eden for the astonishing price of £2.98), so despite my considerable guilt at ‘falling off the wagon’ of games abstinence, I’m pretty damn pleased with my haul. OK, I have absolutely no idea when I’m going to find the time to play them, especially seeing as I’m playing fewer games these days to concentrate more on my writing, but hey, what the hell. Let’s just say I’m saving them for my retirement.

£2.98 you say? Don't mind if I do!

I’ve got mixed feelings about GAME’s current financial straits. I did my time as an employee during and just after university, and it was an enjoyable job for the most part. I particularly enjoyed helping out the many confused mothers who seemed to make up about half of the customers – usually they were looking for a birthday or Christmas present for their son or daughter, but they had absolutely no idea where to start, so it was a good feeling to be able to help them out. If GAME goes belly up, I can’t see those confused mothers getting much help from the checkout staff in Tesco, but without GAME, supermarkets will be pretty much the only place on the high street to buy video games (unless you count HMV, who also seem to be in pretty bad financial shape).

However, GAME’s main market is still the hardcore gamers, but it seems to have done everything it can to alienate them over the years. The switch to a bright, clean look no doubt appealed to confused mothers, but I’ve heard gamers describe it as ‘sterilised’ and ‘loveless’. Indeed, Sir Gaulian recently composed an ode to the wonders of cave-like, independent game stores, which are “dark, dank and chock-full of treasures and curios that are often shoved in a corner in no particular order”. I’m not so bothered about the bright layout of GAME stores myself, and indeed I much prefer them to the slightly seedy and indeed menacing appearance of ‘hardcore’ gamer shops like CEX, which seem to resemble pawn shops more than anything else. However, I hate the way that GAME dramatically reduced the back catalogue of games it stocks and instead focused almost solely on new releases, with the front half of the store often given over to just one or two titles. Like book shops, one of the joys of visiting game stores is thumbing through all of the older titles, hoping you’ll come across a real ‘find’, so if that’s taken away, the reason for visiting the store rather than buying online is gone.

GAME’s management practices leave a lot to be desired too. When I was there, there was huge pressure to drive up sales of loyalty cards and to pressure customers into using them as often as possible and, similarly, staff were coached into encouraging buyers to purchase as many games and accessories with their consoles as possible. I suppose this is fairly typical business strategy for a high street store, but towards the end it really felt like the whole idea of providing a service to customers was going out of the window in favour of just shaking them down for as much money as possible. The worst example of this was trading in preowned games – managers would often give a very low trade-in price for a game and then slap a huge mark-up on it, often well over 100%. At least now they’ve brought in standardised prices for trade-ins, but no doubt that lust for lucre drove away many core customers, myself included.

Will I miss GAME if it goes? Perhaps on the odd occasions when I find myself at a loose end in a shopping centre with nothing more pressing to do than browse the latest games. But when all’s said and done, what’s the point of shelling out full price for a game in a shop when you could get it for a massive discount online? And looking ahead, it seems the days of games existing as an actual physical product are numbered – in a few years time, the only game shops left will be those selling them as curios for retro collectors.

In the meantime though, as this article points out, the lack of competition from GAME means that game prices are set to skyrocket across the board. It seems there are dark days ahead for the games-buying public…