Opinion: Game should have dared to go digital

Industry can learn lessons from chain's demise

Opinion: Game should have dared to go digital

For the thousands of Game employees who lost their jobs yesterday, hindsight is a painful, terrible thing, yet you'd be hard pressed to find a games journalist who doesn't have a theory about what went wrong at the chain.

On that score, I'm no different.

Indeed, while Game is already being cited in the mainstream media as evidence of what can go wrong if you're too ambitious with your business, I think many attempting to cast light on the demise of the retailer are missing the point.

Game hasn't entered administration because the company saw fit to expand. Nor have outlets closed up and down the land because the chain's reliance on the pre-owned market annoyed publishers the world over.

In truth, the company's various moves to both branch out and secure its business at pace didn't bring its role on the high street (in its current form) to an end. Both ideals were spot on. It simply went about achieving them the wrong way.

The growth game

Back in July 2010, US games retail chain GameStop acquired browser-based games portal Kongregate.

It was a purchase that didn't make many headlines outside of the tech press, and certainly wasn't as attention grabbing as Game's £74 million purchase of its closest rival GameStation three years previous.

Speaking as the ashes from Game's burnout fall all around, however, we can undoubtedly say GameStop's quiet acquisition of Kongregate was undoubtedly the wiser purchase of the two.

That's not to say that the US chain is in any way positioned to challenge Apple's App Store, Google Play, Steam or even Xbox or PS3's digital marketplaces in the years to come. Nevertheless, the firm's move for Kongregate was at least evidence that the top bods at GameStop recognised the threat digital stores represented to its business.

Game's purchase of GameStation was comparatively pointless.

It was a merger of two companies that ultimately already did the same thing, and while it allowed the chain to dominate the UK high street for almost five years, in the end, the high street hasn't served up the greatest challenge to Game's business.

Physically speaking

And this is the point that seems to cause most controversy when discussing the fallout at Game amongst those working within the industry.

In my view, boxed games are nearing the end of their shelf life.

Speculation that Microsoft and Sony's next consoles will be digital download only is just one of many signals that the way we buy games is changing. PS Vita is another, with the handheld sporting more games on its digital marketplace than you can buy in store.

Adding to all of this, however, has been the continued rise of smartphones and tablets, as previously cited by Pocket Gamer editor-in-chief Kristan Reed.

These devices have disrupted the entire purchase process. Consumers want to be able to buy games while browsing in bed, sitting on the toilet, or riding the bus. They want to trial a game and, within seconds, switch to the full purchase if they like it.

They don't want to trudge down to the shops and, in many cases, blindly pay £40 for a game that, chances are, they won't like.

Indeed, it's important that was see Game's demise as part of the bigger picture of the changing nature of games retail. We all have views on the mistakes the company's management undoubtedly made in recent years, but for me, it was always a question of 'when' Game would disappear from the high street, not 'if'.

A change will do you good

For many publishers, developers or even platform holders reading this piece, there's a sound lesson for you to take away from the Game story: the business models you currently think of as solid and stable can and will change in the years to come.

Everything about the way we interact with consumers in this industry, from mobile to console and PC, is changing shape, shifting form and moving at 100mph.

The App Store is dominant now, but when HTML5 ups its game and browser-based releases become a genuine contender, everything will change. Even before then, it's likely the monetisation models we're only now getting used to will move on again before the year is out.

No-one operating in this industry and afford to stand still. It's what makes writing about this sector as interesting as it is unpredictable, and why you can bet other big players who fail to keep pace – whether manufacturers, carriers, publishers, and indie developers aplenty – will also fall away in the years ahead.

As dramatic as it sounds, if we are to do the 'death' of Game any justice, we have to learn from the way the company failed to react to the changes happening all around it. If not, Game's end will just be the start.

Keith Andrew
Keith Andrew
With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font. He's also Pocket Gamer's resident football gaming expert and, thanks to his work on PG.biz, monitors the market share of all mobile OSes on a daily basis.