A report surfaced earlier this week on MCV saying that if indie developers were to package up their games in proper boxes, like their triple-A counterparts, the big stores would be happy to stock them.
On the face of it, this seems like an awesome idea – big stores like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and GAME stocking the unsung heroes of videogames and giving them much needed exposure and retail floorspace. Sales of indie games could skyrocket and there could be a boat load of money for fledgling studios to re-invest in their upcoming projects right?
Well, once again, our friends and colleagues around the Twinstick Gaming offices (ok, one office… more a broom cupboard… that we share with Ed the Duck) could not reach a consensus on whether this would actually be a good thing. We thought we’d present to you, our readers, some of the thoughts and arguments we’ve heard from either side to see if we can’t push this debate forward.
On one side, we have the pros:
There are, undoubtedly, some good points to this idea. The big stores lining their shelves with indie games, gives these games a legitimacy that isn’t always seen by the mass market. We know that the indie games that have been released this console generation are some of the best experiences out there, but if you or your kids only shop in GAME and only hear about new games on TV, you’re not going to have any idea of the quality of these titles – because you’re not going to know they exist.
Having them on the shelves in Tesco, right next to Fifa 16, Batman Arkam Knight or Halo 5 immediately puts them into the conversation. Moreover, putting them in a proper retail box, with brightly coloured art work AND a significantly cheaper price point than a triple-A release may see them being bought alongside other games.
You know how you sometimes go to buy a bottle of Irn Bru and on the way to the checkout, somehow end up with a Yorkie too? Well, imagine a world were you go to buy Metal Gear Solid 5 – and come out with Shovel Knight as an accompanying chaser! Surely this is a world we all want to live in?
It doesn’t end there either. It would also be a helping hand in putting an end to the videogame hipster. You know the ones, they tell you they played some unpronounceable Japanese game on early access before you even knew it existed. They already backed the Castlevania’s spiritual successor, Bloodstained, 2 years before Koji Igarashi left Konami. THOSE guys.
Well, it becomes much more difficult to sound ‘hipster cool’ when you can ask your mum to pick up ‘Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night’ along with a new toothbrush, toilet roll and a 6-pack of Hula-Hoops. They’re a breed we’d all like to see the back of – and this could definitely help.
More importantly, giving a greater variety of games in retail stores could help keep these stores doors open. I’m not talking about Tesco or Sainsbury’s here. They’ll get by on cheap towels and Brussels sprouts even if their gaming department closes completely. However, GAME stores Ltd. along with a whole host of smaller chains and independent videogame stores are definitely under fire from the digital revolution that’s happening right now.
Aside from selling the actual hardware and still shifting the lions share of the BIG triple-A titles, video game retail stores are struggling for business – and it’s only going to get worse. We’re already seeing them diversify. Mobile phones and tablets are being given much more floorspace and are even starting to take a greater proportion of shop windows in these stores.
The availability of indie games would help these stores from devolving into generic ‘electrical goods’ stores and keep proper video games stores on the high street. Given a choice between seeing GAME stores selling toasters or selling a full, boxed retail version of ‘Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’ – I know what most would choose!
On the flip side of that coin, the cons:
Well, perhaps the most obvious downside is cost. In this instance, cost to developers. As it stands, guys like Tom Happ can produce an entire game completely independently. Axiom Verge was developed solely by Happ, the only time he really required help was showcasing the game at various panels and conventions around the US, and then digital distribution on Playstation Network. Sony supported Tom Happ through all of this, giving him – as he put it ‘the red carpet treatment.’
Switch to retail release and now smaller studios and guys like Happ have got to worry about sourcing the manufacturing cost of materials for packaging; creating or commissioning box art; making deals with publishers or distributors; there is also the cost of whatever media they load the game onto (be it disc or card, they’ll need something other than a card with a code on it); sinking money into advertising because they can’t just rely on walk in sales to push the extra units they’ll need to sell in order to cover the now spiraling additional costs… the list goes on. When the support from the likes of Sony is so good, what real advantage is there to change this?
Ultimately, all the extra money they are forced to spend to give their games the best chance of hitting it big can only go one of three ways. Either they DO hit it big and everybody’s happy, they don’t hit it big and the extra costs sink the company, OR they try to protect themselves against this by increasing the price for us – the consumers. As no company can guarantee a hit, the price of indies would likely increase anyway – even on very successful titles.
Further to this is the fact that, for the big gaming stores, this is an experiment. A business experiment. This is not an altruistic act, GAME and Tesco are not looking at the struggling indies and, with tears in their eyes, offering a helping hand. Quite the contrary, they are seeing the success of indie titles and scrambling for a slice of that pie.
Perhaps if the big stores were also willing to take on some of the advertising or distribution costs, the full retail experiment might seem more worthwhile? However, the thing driving this announcement is much more likely to be the fact that retail stores are struggling to shift enough games and they need something else to try and help buoy them.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to seem more like an all encompassing, legitimate video game store, but when you think back to the likes of GAME and their attitude to consumers, this is even more confounding. When GAME took over from GameStation, absorbing their stores – but not their attitude to gamers, the first thing they did was to get rid of all the old machines and retro games. They had gaming diversity, they had things no-one else could offer and they squandered it in favor of 3-year warranties and profit margins.
I’m not saying: they’ve made their bed, now they should lie in it. I’m just suggesting that there is plenty of evidence to doubt this act as anything other than a hopeful business venture. If the profits of stocking fully boxed, retail versions of indie titles don’t match the projections, you can bet that within a couple of years, they’ll become landfill and Microsoft will start planning another documentary.
The bottom line:
I’m yet to be convinced of the advantages for indie companies taking their games to a mainstream audience through physical sales in high street stores. Like it or not, the whole gaming industry is heading towards a digital distribution model. Ask anyone who’s been involved in games for a decade or more and they will tell you that this is the way things are shifting – and the speed of this shift has increased with the new generation of consoles.
In addition, they’ll tell you that the indie titles of this new generation have been some of the most inventive, innovative, imaginative and ultimately, enjoyable experiences so far. If anything, it’s the triple-A titles that need to catch up – both in terms of quality and distribution.
The desperate pleas from gaming stores may or may not be heard by the indie crowd, but I’d be surprised to see any meteoric shift back to the high street. Video games are primed to push forward into the future and putting indie games on shelves in stores is starting to look more and more like leaving a foot in the past.
It could be, before long, GAME stores are left behind, like forgotten retro titles, while Tesco and Sainsbury’s go back to selling you a £1 bag of Starbursts along with your broccoli. On the other hand, were I an indie developer, I might be tempted to say: Ok, big stores – YOU package up our games in ‘proper boxes’ and we’ll LET you sell them.
Richard is a father, teacher, gamer and writer. He believes that The Last of Us and Olli Olli 2 are the finest games ever made, feels that the StarWars Saga should only be watched in ‘the Machete order’ and once cleared Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in one sitting. Took him 20 hours, four cups of tea and a sausage roll. You can follow him on twitter @TLOUFactionsMP or @VigilanteSanta and view his occasional twitch outbursts on twitch.tv/spooklebeans.