Where ya Buying, Stranger?
"Video game retail has changed. It's an endless series of price battles, fought by supermarkets and Amazon. War, and its consumption of the high street....." Old Snake, retail analyst
Last week, HMV, one of the last remaining high street retailers of music, games and movies here in the UK, went into administration. Although stores remain open, their website has been shut down and until yesterday they had been refusing to honour gift vouchers. While HMV's future may be uncertain, it's clear that the shopping centre with two or three entertainment stores and duplicate video game specialists is a thing of the past. The GAME group may have survived administration last year, but it remains the same clueless peddler of used games and overpriced new titles, and you wonder how long it can survive in its current form. If shops like HMV and GAME were to vanish, then there would be little choice for consumers outside of online retailers and supermarkets.
This predictable shift in retail got me thinking about my purchasing habits, past and present. The Ninja on the Master System, bought from the now defunct high street retailer, Woolworths, is the first game that I remember buying. Perusing Gameboy boxes in plastic shells at Toys R Us is another early memory of games in shops, shops with games, as is paying £44.99 for Desert Strike on the Mega Drive at Future Zone, which became Electronics Boutique, which was taken over by GAME. Back in the days when our family PC was strictly an Encarta machine and 24 hour news came via Teletext - what I'm trying to say is that we didn't have the internet – I would regularly call up local retailers to badger them for release dates. NBA Live '97 for the Sega Saturn was my favourite topic of conversation, but unfortunately every shop I spoke to was convinced that it did not and would not exist. They must have felt really stupid when I eventually found and bought a copy in HMV for the best part of fifty quid. Idiots.
Back when online shopping was reserved for sex toys and credit card fraud, I would buy games by mail order, via magazine listings. Retailers would post their entire catalogue, printed in tiny lettering, in the monthly gaming press. This was how I first discovered import games, as I tried to fill in the gaps in my Square RPG collection with titles that were unavailable in England. I bought one of those load-up discs, fitted the spring and sticky tag in my PS1 and enjoyed games that would otherwise have been out of reach, including Final Fantasy Tactics, Final Fantasy V and VI, Xenogears and Chrono Cross. They cost me a small fortune, around £50-60 a pop, but it was worth it. I was less than amused when Final Fantasy V and VI were released in the UK as budget, classic collections shortly after my costly import.
While my love of Final Fantasy survived into the PS2-Gamecube-Dreamcast generation, I was buying far fewer games overall. Online shopping became the norm; when I bought a game it was either online through Amazon or Play, or if it were on the high street, GAME or HMV. It was at this time that my interest in film grew, which alongside my CD habit left little time for games. Relocation to Japan in late 2005 proved the cure, as I went about building a collection of retro games and started buying new titles at a rate far greater than ever before.
Akihabara, the epicentre of all things otaku, sold me back onto the retail experience. I do not buy used games in England, but in Japan I was comfortable purchasing both second-hand retro and contemporary games, as they were almost always "as new". Whether it was Japanese, import, retro or modern, scarcely a week would go by where I wouldn't pick up at least one or two games from the shops on and around Chuo Dori (see my 2010 guide for more details on Akihabara, Tokyo). Shopping for games became a treat in of itself, regardless of whether or not I actually bought anything. My experience in Tokyo made British video game retail seem abhorrent in comparison, with its senseless price structure, bland shops and smelly customers.
While the high street contracts, other forms of retail continue to grow. It has been a great month for Amazon UK, who look set to profit most from recent developments. As well as HMV's struggles, Blockbuster UK has gone into administration and Amazon's biggest online competitor, Play.com, is changing their business model to something more akin to eBay, which means the online giant has less competition than ever before. Soon Amazon will be running amok, building warehouses the size of counties, filling them to the brim with big-titted bikini torsos and offering “whenever we can be arsed” as a standard delivery estimate.
It's been a long time since I bought a video game on the high street, as prices are uncompetitive, the selection too limited and the online shopping experience far too convenient. These days, I do all my video game shopping online - physical copies bought from a handful of trusted websites. While HMV is no longer a part of my retail experience, it concerns me that the high street of the near future could be without an entertainment store, a place where I may browse before returning home and ordering online.