Of all the enormous changes that have swept over the games industry since the mid-Aughts, one of the most significant is the method by which we actually obtain our games. While console owners would almost exclusively buy their games at retail, the advent of digital marketplaces like Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and the Wii Shop Channel allow us to supplement our physical purchases with digital fare–and we are only too happy to oblige. What’s more, game streaming services like Gaikai and OnLive are working very hard to woo console and PC gamers alike.
“Retail is dead,” we say with easy confidence, “or dying, at least.” But while retail has had to learn to share space and revenue with digital downloads, it’ll be a long time before GameStop and its ilk fade from shopping malls around the world, if ever. Here are five reasons why retail will continue to co-exist with the digital marketplace:
The retail model is what console games are most familiar with — Steam is far and away the most popular game distributor for the PC (and perhaps someday, EA’s Origin will compete–hey who knows?). In fact, if you look for a PC game in a game store, you’re probably going to find it on a high, lonely shelf. We can assume that console games will someday share the same fate at retail, but it’s not as likely.
PC gamers were quick to latch onto digital distribution and social networks, but PC gamers are generally comfortable navigating the inner workings of their computers, and of the Internet. Even seemingly simple concepts like hard drive space and bandwidth–concepts that are not applicable if you buy a CD and pop it in your console–can be intimidating to someone who uses their computer within specific boundaries.
In other words, if downloadable console games become more commonplace, mom and dad are going to end up wondering what “bandwidth” is, and they’re going to want to know why they’re paying an astronomical amount of money on their internet bill because they let Little Johnny download ten (seemingly cheap) games.
Retail stores are currently educating Mom and Dad about downloads and streaming — This ties nicely into our previous point. Stores like GameStop and Wal-Mart are on top of the digital wave, and they have plans for streaming games and demos. Even if Little Johnny takes to downloading with ease, his game-illiterate parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends will want to know what he’s buying, how he’s buying it, and what they can do if they want to give him a gift. For the next five years or so, Wal-Mart and GameStop will serve as a classroom of sorts for anyone who wants to know about game streaming. The process will take time for people to learn, and it’ll take even longer for consumers to wean themselves off old habits. You can also bet that GameStop and Wal-Mart won’t simply say, “Hey, forget about our physical merchandise, just stay at home and stream the games.” Most likely we’ll see a compromise, like streaming demos and subsequent discounts on the physical copy.
GameStop is a haven for impulse shoppers — Sure, nothing cries “impulse buy” like online shopping, or picking up a low-priced app or a ten-dollar game on XBox Live Arcade. But at the same time, there’s something special about capping a shopping trip with a visit to GameStop and picking up a title that looks interesting to you. Having at least one such experience is part of a complete childhood–and let’s face it, it’s a fun experience when you’re an adult, too.
The bandwidth/internet provider situation in North America still sucks — Europe and Asia are light-years ahead of North America as far as high speed internet access goes. Many parts of rural North America are still without high-speed internet, which can’t be helped because of the way our population is staggered, but a lack of competition between internet service providers means we also pay comparatively high fees for service and bandwidth. Until we change the very structure of our internet service providers, downloading or streaming our video games will remain troublesome.
Some people are collectors — Finally, there’s no substitute for holding a game in your hand and shelving it when you’re done. It’s also nice to be able to tell a friend, “Hey, I’ll lend this game to you, it’s really cool.” Some people take great pride in their physical game collections, the same way others are proud of their vinyl and/or CD collections. For that reason, even if game retail’s presence fades over the remainder of the decade, it’ll never go away entirely.