My first-hand experience in the retail half of the gaming industry has left me with something to say about the state of things today.
I’d like to start with a little bit of a disclaimer. You may already know what chain I’m referring to. You may work there, in fact I have many friends that do. I’m in no way meaning this as a slight to anyone that works in that chain. This is a commentary regarding what I have seen in the gaming industry… The good, the bad, and the ugly (cliche, I know). With that out of the way, please continue.
Where Do I Begin?
I enjoyed my time working in gaming retail for the most part. Being surrounded by video games every day, talking about them, being around others that were passionate about them, and helping those that needed help finding something cool was deeply satisfying for me. I have a deep desire to help others anyway; it’s the reason I do Paragon playthroughs in Mass Effect first, why I usually play role playing games as a tank or healer, and currently play D&D (5th Edition) as a Protection Paladin (Order of the Crown, baby!).
Sure, sometimes the job sucked. For various reasons. Some examples:
Some customers wouldn’t shut the hell up. No, I don’t want to hear you rant about why X platform/game sucks. No, I don’t believe you when you say you beat every quest in Skyrim in less than 48 hours. No, don’t have time to listen to you detail your playthrough of Demon Souls and why it’s better than Dark Souls. I have work to do and the person behind you in line is plotting the best way to kill you so he can buy his game and go home to play it.
Sometimes I felt like I was being worked to death. The thing is that working retail in general makes you feel this way, regardless of what type. You feel this way especially if you’re a salaried employee. Being a store manager, I spent so much time at work that I felt that I lived there… and it got worse the closer it got to the holidays. This in combination with a severe lack in hours for my employees and the (sometimes seemingly insane) demands of corporate led to my eventual decision to leave work there to finish college.
The barrage of required training was daunting. Many jobs require you to know quite a bit. The company I worked for though had some intense demands regarding things they felt we needed to know. Every promotion, every new game coming out, what preorder bonuses were available… You name it. What’s more is that training was required to be done on the clock while simultaneously helping customers. Just imagine a chicken running around with its head cut off.
And most importantly, the focus was: Sell, sell, sell… I can’t adequately express how draining this was. As I said earlier, I like to help people and there were things that my store could do for customers that legitimately helped them in my opinion.
In some cases, preordering a game was the best move. Sometimes the customer just needed some more information on a game or console to convince them that they should go ahead and buy it. Seeing someone leaving the store with a PS4, Xbox One, or Wii U with a smile on their face was awesome. Some people were genuinely happy to learn that they didn’t need to pay every cent out of their own pocket for a game or controller.
The problem with the above is that the line wasn’t drawn at simply helping the customer. The methods that we were… encouraged… to employ were shady at best and predatory at worst. The conflict in me became too much to ignore. This is where it became obvious what is wrong with the games industry.
I’m way late to the argument against preordering games. Bigger personalities than me, like Joe Vargas from the Angry Joe Show and Jim Sterling from The Jimquisition, have been calling out companies that both produce and sell video games on pushing preorders to potential customers. The inclusion of preorder DLC, some of which is exclusive to specific retailers (Batman: Arkhan Knight is a notable example), has been on the rise for some time.
The problem here is that the bonuses are presented as incentives to fork cash over for a game that is unproven… a game with an unknown level of quality. The odd thing is that for as reprehensible as retail preordering is, with almost predatory tactics being used on customers, digital preordering has become far more risky and heavily incentivized. You now have the ability to predownload a game prior to release, but at the cost of not being able to change your mind. Furthermore, once the game releases, you’re stuck with it. Unless of course you download the title on your PC via Steam.
Now don’t get me wrong, there are great games that have come out that blew my mind, some of which I preordered even, but I’ve been burned by quite a few as well, like Alpha Protocol. I gave into my excitement and bought a copy on Day One of release, and I paid the price.
The key thing to remember is that the publisher doesn’t give a shit if you don’t like the game as long as they got your money and the same goes for the retailer if you bought a copy there. I remember many cases of my employer pushing us to hype up games coming out, and quite a few that came back to bite us in the ass. What stuck with me the most is that the company didn’t care if the games looked like they were going to trip out of the gate; they wanted their employees to sell, sell, sell.
The Love Of Money
Now here was my company’s love of revenue more evident than during the rise of the DLC season pass. If it wasn’t bad enough that we were coerced into badgering customers to reserve a copy of Call of Duty “X” Warfare, we were expected to also maintain a certain attach rate of season passes on top of the copies we had reserved. We would repeatedly be reminded in the days leading up to and following release of a game of the statistics of other stores in our group.
This information would be distributed through email or conference calls, and failure to comply in the pushing of reserves would result in verbal reprimands. Further punishment came in the form of being required to participate in conference calls with other low performance stores. If you performed too poorly for long enough, you could guarantee that you’d never see a raise the next year or possibly even be out of work.
Now I understand that my employer was running a business and businesses are there to make money. That is something that I am perfectly fine with. However, it was the manner in which we were told to behave towards our customers that didn’t sit well with me. Despite the changes to the way we treated our customers, like calling them visitors instead, the underlying idea remained the same: try to do whatever you can to separate them from their money.
I remember when I first started and my boss at the time told me that he wanted us to remember to not behave like used car salesmen. What he meant was that he didn’t want us doing whatever we could to sell to someone. That request of his was something that earned him a great deal of respect from me. In contrast, my own personal experience with that company as a customer left me with a poor opinion of it. The previous manager would do whatever it took to get his customers to help him meet his goals. This involved practically holding customers hostage at the register, berating those that weren’t store members, or even adding items to their purchases without their knowledge. He remains in my mind the perfect example of how to lose your customer’s trust and drive away business.
In retrospect, I can see how that company hasn’t really changed much from the days of that old manager manipulating his customers. Up to the point of my departure, they had been in the middle of a transformation into a business that mimicked the likes of cell phone service providers. The idea was to engage every visitor on the sales floor and treat them like a friend. In theory, it sounded like a godsend to me… I could operate my store the way I wanted to all along.
The truth turned out to be that we were just rebranding the same old approach. We were told that we wouldn’t monitor sales metrics anymore, but we did anyway. Credit card applications wouldn’t be tracked, but they were. We wouldn’t push preorders and memberships, unless numbers dipped.
We were to treat each visitor as if they were family, unless they weren’t buying something…
The issue lies in the fact that the games industry is just that: an industry. The products we consume are mass produced and need to sell. It has become such an issue in game sales that even a title that is critically acclaimed and sell well can still be considered a commercial failure. The problem is that budgets from the production of video games have become so monumental that the only way for shareholders to be happy with a new release is if it sells millions of copies immediately.
One of the ways that publishers have found to aid in this pursuit is to create incentives to purchase a copy as soon as possible. Hence, the massive push for preorders, season passes for DLC, and preorder bonuses. Every AAA title needs to be a massive success, every DLC needs to sell, and those AAA publishers want your money up front so you can’t change your mind.
What Does This Have To Do With Game Stores?
Don’t worry, I am going to tell you.
Video game retailers are part of the problem that plagues the games industry because they enable the AAA publishers’ behavior and are victim to the same death grip of shareholders. They rely on preorder numbers to assess how many copies of upcoming titles to distribute so that product can be distributed effectively and sold as soon as possible. Is this in itself an issue? No, not really.
The problem is that game retailer companies treat every game coming out as if it is going to be a rousing success before it even makes it into the hands of the general public. This wouldn’t be an issue if every game was guaranteed to be of high quality, both technically and creatively. Instead, for every Bloodborne, there are games like Mad Max, The Order: 1886, Assassin’s Creed Unity, Evolve, Destiny, and Watch_Dogs.
So in the end, those visitors that sales staff are encouraged to treat like family are driven to purchase games on the promise that they’ll be worth every penny. When the game and DLC that cost between $60-$110 almost inevitably fails to deliver, the customer and employee are left with the fallout. The customer realizes they’ve been duped, and the employee has to do everything they can to earn that person’s trust again. Meanwhile the higher-ups only see the sales numbers and are left wondering why the revenue collected on a launch day wasn’t higher.
Don’t say that. All is not lost. There is hope after all.
The industry has been shifting gradually away from the support of massive AAA publishers towards an acceptance of independent developers and the so-called AA games. These games don’t have the massive overhead of AAA games and as a result, don’t have nearly the same sales targets to hit in order to succeed. If you couple this with the vociferous rejection of game retailer practices (like pushing credit cards on people), there is definitely hope. Publishers and retailers just need to learn that predatory practices aren’t okay.
The only way this can be accomplished is if consumers take off their blinders and realize that they should be informed consumers. I’m certainly not saying that you should treat retail staff like garbage, their job is already hard enough considering that they have to explain that Super Mario isn’t on the PS4. I’m only saying that you shouldn’t buy into every game they tell you about, and try to inform as many others as possible to be just as cautious.
So stop preordering games… Unless it’s a sure thing… Like Forza Horizon 3.
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