The-Scrambled-Column:-Rethinking-Retail The Scrambled Column: Rethinking Retail

   17/12/2010 at 11:54       Derek Littlewood       14 COMMENTS.
 - The Scrambled Column, Eggbox Interactive, Derek Littlewood, Industry Insider, Rethinking Retail

If you're one of the many advocates of the opinion that the recorder, as played by small children whose appreciation of music largely begins and ends with the X-Factor, is one of the most ear-rendingly unpleasant noises it's ever possible to endure, then allow me to politely disagree.  For I have experienced compelling evidence that it's a veritable lullaby in comparison to a recorder being played for the entire duration of a bus journey on a cold, wet morning in Coventry.

The particular bus journey in question was one of many Friday-morning pilgrimages I've made in my time to the local branch of GAME to pick up a newly-released game. I still have a surprisingly (and foolishly) fond recollection of these mornings: the freshly unpacked game boxes just settled onto the shelves; the alarmingly large number of crisp bank notes handed over to secure your copy; the feel of the cellophane against clammy hands on the journey home and the scramble to tear it open to deliver the game cartridge to the waiting console on arrival home.

It's just not the same today. No, it is in fact a lot better. For instance, I can entirely skirt round such needless hassles as leaving the house, riding the bus, enduring errant children ruining my eardrums, and best of all, any human interaction whatsoever. Plus it usually ends up costing me less too. With just a few mouse clicks I can have any game I want dropped through the letterbox just a day or two later (unless, admittedly, there's anything remotely resembling snow nearby in which case any and all deliveries will grind to a halt for weeks, but even then I can just have it funnelled through my local internet tubes to my hard drive due to the wonders of digital distribution).

All of which is part of the reason why the GAME retail group currently finds itself in financial circumstances that are best described as (to borrow that euphemism so beloved of economists) 'challenging', which itself was preceded just a few months ago with news of their disappointing performance earlier in the year. It's an over-simplifcation to suggest that competition from online shopping and digital distribution are the entire cause of these problems, especially given the increasingly aggressive stance taken by the larger supermarkets and the prevailing economic conditions, but it does beg the question: just what is the point of the modern, specialist high-street games retailer?

As the BBC's recent Turn Back Time rather clumsily attempted to demonstrate, the inexorable drain of commercial activity from the high street is something that can be traced back to the first half of the twentieth century, as convenience and price steadily took precedence over service and community, with larger out-of-town retail parks and supermarkets, and more recently, online shopping being the main drivers (and benefactors) of this shift. Obviously the challenges facing games retail can't quite be followed back that far (although you can imagine that Activision would have been vigorously pedalling Call of Duty: The Boer War Edition to all and sundry back then if they'd had the chance), but they are rooted in the same cause.

When you can buy the exact same game from the comfort of your armchair as you can from your local high street store (with all the inconvenience that visiting that store entails), it's simply not enough to be competitive on price - and due to higher margins many high street stores don't even manage this. In the face of this unavoidable fact, the high street retailer needs to demonstrably provide something that online stores and non-specialist retailers cannot.

For one thing, in spite of the heavy-handedness, Turn Back Time did show the timeless way in which people have always and will always enjoy interacting with people (and no, swearing at teenagers over XBox Live doesn't count).  The shop assistants in GAME and other specialist retailers have the potential to be invaluable and passionate ambassadors for the medium, enthusiastic and knowledgeable enough to match anyone to their ideal game, whether they be a wizened gaming veteran or a fresh 'I've played Wii Tennis and now I'm ready for anything' casual gamer. 

The one question I get asked more than any other by friends who know I'm a games developer isn't  "Can I have a free game?" or "Why wasn't there an invert look option in Second Sight?" (although I do get asked them quite often), but rather "Can you recommend me a game for my son/daughter/neice/nephew/cousin?".  I take two things from this: one, they should probably clarify their relationship with the person in question before buying them a card, and two, for all the internet can provide us with an opinion on whatever subject we might desire - and usually a great deal that we don't - much of the time people don't want five thousand differing opinions; they just want the recommendation of a single, trusted expert.

Another unique facet of the high-street store is the simple fact of space. It's always baffled me that given the success with which record shops have for decades drawn droves of music fans through their doors with live appearances from bands, why gaming stores so rarely do the same. For instance, even today Nottingham has a wealth of development talent on its doorstep - Crytek UKMonumental and Outso to name just a few - and it seems incredible that retailers and developers would not choose to take advantage of this proximity to host demo events, round table discussions and more for their mutual benefit, especially as Nottingham's own GameCity events have so clearly demonstrated the appetite for bringing the gaming community into the city.

Or why not take advantage of the popularity of clan gaming amongst many gamers and build a clan around the store that could meet for evening gaming sessions, perhaps get a pizza or two in, and enjoy some member-only discounts as well as a night of gaming?

All of these suggestions have a single theme in common - that of building a community around the store. All things being equal, people will naturally choose price and convenience over all other factors but that innate draw we have for interacting with a community of like-minded people (the same draw, incidentally, that creates the loyal communities at sites such as this) can play a significant role in modifying these behaviours.  The suggestions I've made alone wouldn't be enough to guarantee the future of the specialist game retailer but they do represent the sort of thinking that might help do so. Community was the biggest loser when retail moved out of the high street, but it's also the most likely way of bringing it back again.


What are your thoughts? Do we need the specialist game shops or are they just too full of those funny-looking, odd-smelling 'people'-shaped things for your liking? If you've got a comment then why not post it below, and if you enjoyed the column then please share it via Facebook, Digg, or write it in the snow (via whichever method you prefer).

Derek Littlewood is an experienced game designer and producer, and runs Eggbox Interactive, providing freelance design, consultancy and production support for games and interactive applications. Discover more at http://www.eggboxinteractive.com.

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