(Retail) Anarchy in the UK

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The declaration of “digital is the future!” squawked with hideous glee by those who stand to profit from such a possibility is met with a variety of reactions by us, the cash-toting consumers. Everybody I know personally (myself included), as well as what seems to be a majority of forum crawlers, find such a future too depressing to contemplate. If you live in the UK as I do, you could be forgiven for feeling that the last few years have given you reason to believe that some sort of evil corporate god is dragging the industry, and us with it, to just such a terrible conclusion. We long ago said goodbye to Woolworths (RIP), an almost omnipresent piece of British shopping life, where it was all too easy – and tempting – to pop in and grab one of the latest games. Of course, our high streets have only become emptier and gloomier since.

Many of the retailers who have since fallen foul of the miserable whirlpool cast by the world’s bankers had little to no relevance to the videogames industry. It looked like curtains for GAME last year, but it was GameStation which was killed off in the end, the sacrificial lamb to save GAME in the name of corporate blandness. In all honesty, that wasn’t so much of a loss as it would have been five-plus years ago. Since being bought out by the big purple G, Gamestation quickly deteriorated into a caricature of itself, ending up like… well, like what Gamestation would have looked like with a huge corporate backer that never understood the store’s appeal. The staff were quickly forced to wear t shirts achingly self-aware of how cool they and the store were. Adverts soon wilted all over websites and magazines, achingly self-aware of how cool the stores and their staff were. A loyalty scheme was introduced that rewarded customers with “XP”, a concept so devastatingly cringe-inducing at least three people in the South West of England imploded upon receiving their cards. While all this was going on prices skyrocketed at an alarming rate, while trade-in prices plummeted. Incidentally, did you know that GAME are having a bit of a sale on at the moment? I popped in to my nearest store to take a look, and found that the Wii U version of Black Ops II had been reduced to the bargainriffic price of just £49.99 (from £54.99).

But I digress.

Comet joined the ranks of the fallen at the end of 2012 (refusing to offer customers a bargain till its last breath) and, while never a major player in terms of the public games fans’ consciousness, was nonetheless another welcome option for physical games purchases. More worryingly, UK high streets were hit by a double whammy of both HMV and Blockbuster Entertainment entering administration before the first month of 2013 had even pulled its proverbial trousers on. In truth, neither of these announcements should have come as much of a surprise. HMV had been fighting negative press regarding its finances for months, and Blockbuster UK had always been looking a little dodgy ever since the US arm went bankrupt (and was subsequently saved) in 2011. Still, for both chains to fall literally within hours of one another was a huge blow, and both had been regular destinations for many UK games shoppers; especially as their options became narrower and narrower over the years. Neither HMV nor Blockbuster have closed completely at time of writing, and there’s always a chance they could make a GAME-style recovery. Mass store closures, at the very least, are inevitable.

Simply put, UK gamers will very soon have less places than ever selling them physical copies of videogames.

There’s always online retailers though, right? After all, many pundits largely attribute the fall of retail giants in general to the popularity and success of online stores. Tax-evading scumbags Amazon, for one, truly do look like giants too big to fall. Yet another surprise 2013 announcement, however, came in the form of Play’s (very) near future as an online marketplace, with the company no longer selling products itself. This, it seems, is a direct result of the UK government cracking down on tax loopholes allowing certain internet sites based offshore to increase profits and offer customers (slightly) lower prices than the high street. Some might say that the words ‘bolted’, ‘horse’ and ‘door’ could be appropriate here, though not necessarily in that order. At any rate, the lesson to be learned here is that when it comes to a crippled world economy hunting retailers – assisted by a far right “coalition” with utter contempt for anybody with a salary under five figures – anybody is fair game.

To recap: shops selling videogames in the UK are falling from grace with more rapidity and in greater numbers than BBC stars of the seventies and, much like those adored in the times of brown-and-beige living rooms, you can’t be sure who’ll be in the news for all the wrong reasons next. However, while no man is an island, the United Kingdom is – which is why a future of games no more possible to grasp than your dreams of fame and fortune is still far from inevitable. It’s a big ol’ world out there, and we’re just a small part of it (as the industry is still keen to remind us when it comes to comparable prices and release dates). It’s well worth remembering, too, that many of those who slobber after the capitalist utopia of a digital-only market aren’t doing themselves a lot of favours.

There’s not much point poring over the issue of prices; partly because it already has been, is being, and will be discussed by people much wiser than myself. Also because, well… it’s flippin’ obvious. We’ve all seen the difference in price for the latest releases when it comes to disc vs PSN/Xbox Live, haven’t we? It’s worrying that this trend of overpricing downloads of retail titles hasn’t stopped, though. Surely the only sort of person happy to pay £54.99 for a copy of the latest FIFA – a copy that you can’t lend out or sell on, no less (and will have its servers switched off after a year or two) – drags their knuckles across the floor, unable to lift their paws high enough to scrape at the magic talky box?

Though their being locked to one person per purchase is one of the most common criticisms hurled at digital games, the same can be said for a great many of today’s PC retail titles. Even worse, games with such online DRM systems (such as anything requiring Steam) tend to demand the presence of an internet connection whenever you wish to play them. Though this is something that PC gamers have long been accustomed to, it still seems absurd to many console-only players. One question that has never been satisfactorily answered (while I’ve been listening) is: Why are PC versions of multiformat releases always so much cheaper than their console counterparts? In today’s gaming landscape, I can’t help but think that the bunny-boiler possessiveness displayed by publishers over their computer products plays a not inconsiderable role in this.

I may choose to bore you with my expectations for the next console generation in another piece. A theme I expect to prove central to the designs of both the next PlayStation and Xbox machines, however, is control; as in their control of the content you pay them for. For this very reason, in fact, I don’t expect the extent to which they will extend their reach to become immediately apparent. Six months after the second of these machines has hit shelves, I fully expect to be able to scream “”I told you so!” at the internet. Possibly whilst sat on my sofa, and almost certainly whilst in the middle of eating a Pot Noodle. For now, though, let’s enjoy the games and the machines we have. Cheer up, it might never happen!

It will, though.

Mind you, all this talk of one potential downside to the next generation of consoles could be something of a moot point for us in the UK. By the time these things are ready to be released into the arms of the affluent young, it’s alarmingly possible that we won’t have any shops left likely to stock them. UK high streets will be barren, desolate places. People across the country will pray for a re-enactment of the London riots; partly for entertainment, partly to smarten the high street up, but mostly for warmth after we’ve all been turfed out of our homes for failing to pay the rent because there’s nowhere to work any more and benefits have been outlawed.

Best hurry and beef up your CoD kill/death ratio while you can, eh?

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Written by Luke K

Luke plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He’s the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. Chances are, if you pick up a copy of the latest Official PlayStation Magazine or GamesMaster, you’ll find something he’s written in there.

Luke doesn’t have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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