Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My days of geek queuing has come to a end

Spinksville asked a few days ago if the availability of a digital download version of Cataclysm will put an end to the pc retail market.

While I don't think the end will be as brutal and dramatic, hanging on the distribution on one single game, I do agree that we're in the middle of a shift. The bulk of the sales of books, music and videos has already moved to the Internet and it's just a matter of time before the remaining game shops will go the same way.

Even if the narrow margins probably keeps WoW from being a huge cash cow for the game stores, it's still important for their own marketing. Blizzard's decision to bypass the retailers won't wipe them out, but it might speed up a process that already has started.

Waiting for a signal
Until now I've been on a fence about what to do, if I would download it from Blizzard or buy a traditional box in the shop.

Yesterday Blizzard made a statement, saying that the online version definitely would include the in-game cinematics, which they previously had been unclear about.

This was the signal I had been waiting for. It was time to buy my Cataclysm upgrade. But for a short moment I hesitated, asking myself: exactly what would I miss by picking the download version of Cataclysm rather than the box from the game store?

One more time I went through the things that were at stake:

1. The collector's edition
The collector's edition is only available in stores, so I couldn’t get that, unless I decided to buy the game twice. This meant that I wouldn't have any art book, behind-the-scenes cd, mouse pad, music record or special pet this time.

I recalled the collector's edition I had bought for Wrath. How many of the items had I ever used? Well, certainly not the mouse pad; I stick to the single coloured one that works best for my mouse. I had watched the behind-the-scenes movie but couldn't recall a thing from it; as far as I could remember it was just the ordinary super-short cut scene style, like any promotion video they make when they release new movies. I had browsed the art book once. I hadn't listened to the music. Ever. And while I had equipped the pet on all my characters, dutifully, I normally preferred other pets to display. The item I had used most in the box was probably the loot card that gave me the 100 pet cookies. I had only a few left now.

Was it worth hours in a queue and an essentially more expensive game? Probably not. I could live without it.

2. The geek gathering
I didn't go to Blizzcon and I don't know any WoW players from real life. As a matter of fact it has only been a couple of times over the years that I've met another player face to face. The release night provides us with a natural opportunity to meet up with other geeks in the midnight queue.

In theory this could be quite an event. I could make some new acquaintances, getting to know other players from where I live, talking about the passion we have in common for hours without anyone frowning at it or not getting what we're all over about. A homecoming. What could possibly be more fun?

But then I thought back at the two hours I spent in a queue waiting to buy WotLK, which I wrote about in a post. I was clearly underwhelmed at the experience.

Sure, there were a lot of geeks around, but most of them were so young that I probably was about the same age as their mothers. I never saw any spontaneous small talk going on in the queue. I overheard some conversations but the festive mood and the sense of belonging to a bunch of enthusiastic geeks just wouldn't appear. It was freezing cold and all the time I just wished that the queuing would be over soon so I could come home and get a cup of hot tea and install the game.

This year, the queuing would even be colder, since it would be one month later into the year. And when I came home with my copy, I would still have the work left to do to install it, while I could have logged in at midnight sharp if I just had bought it digitally.

No, the geek queuing was overrated.

3. My money
Then I looked at the price tag for the download. It certainly wouldn't be any cheaper than the retail box version. Blizzard must have made quite a profit, cutting out the distribution chain, not producing any physical objects that needed to be transported and handled. All of this went into their own pockets. If anything, the download might even be a little bit more expensive than the box, depending on what price my local store eventually would settle for.

On the other side, how much wouldn't it cost in time and effort to head into the city, wasting two hours waiting in the queue?

If you agree on that time is money, the download version is probably a better bargain.

4. The future of the local game shop
Finally there was the issue brought up by Spinks: the effect that my choice will have on the market.

Do I want there to be a shop in the city where I live where I can buy pc games? Would I miss it if it wasn’t there?

In theory: yes, I want it to be there and I’d miss it if it wasn’t. I like the idea of a place where I physically can hold the boxes and look at them, not just read about them on a computer screen. If I one day would get the impulse to try out some other game, it would be wonderful to have somewhere to go where there are knowledgeable people around, who can give me advice on what to buy and answer any questions I have.

But again: this is all in my dreams. In reality I don’t even think about going there. If I’ll grow tired of WoW one day, I already have LOTRO (digital download ftw). The last time I put my foot in the store was at the release of WotLK and once I had gotten inside, I don’t think I spent more than 30 seconds in the room, the time it took for me to get out my wallet and the girl to hand over the box and give me my change.

It isn’t as if my shop is small and independent, run by a handful of enthusiasts, giving it a personal touch or even a soul, if a store can have such a thing.
My shop is just another GameStop, one out of thousands all over the world. I don’t know the people who run it and they don’t know me. And for all I know of they might even be better off working somewhere else, at least judging from the four part series “Confessions of a GameStop Employee”, which I’ve recently been following over at The Escapist.

In case you’ve missed it I recommend you to check it out. It’s quite amusing and revealing, full of observations like this one on the topic of manuals:
“99.999999 percent of our stock of used games no longer had their instruction manuals. Let's take a moment for a brief digression here. What exactly are people doing with these missing game manuals? What happens to them? Where do they go? Why is it so fucking hard for people to hang onto them? Like elephants, is there some kind of mysterious game manual graveyard, a place that none of us knows about, where they all go to die? And is the game manual graveyard the same place where the missing dryer socks go?”

But to get back to the topic, the author at The Escapist concludes that the shops are bound to die and that they won’t be missed:

“Being a gamer, I still have to go into GameStop once in awhile. I hate it. I try to avoid it at all costs. But the end is near for GameStop. Digital distribution is already chipping away at their business model. A day will come when the lights go out on GameStops everywhere. It will happen. It's inevitable. Might be next year. Might be in 10 years. But make no mistake, it's coming.

And, as strange as it is for us to imagine using a Telegram to send a message to someone, a hundred years from now people will recall a quaint time when we used to have to actually get off our couches and go to a place to purchase actual physical copies of our videogames.”
Even if I would care about my game shop, which I don't, it seems to be a lost cause.

Whispering “I’m sorry”, I clicked the “buy” button. Then I launched the game and began the download.

I might find another geek queue to join one day. But it won’t lead to a game shop.


Tam said...

I suppose I should really catch up with this digital revolution, huh? For ages, I persisted in clinging to the notion that books should be bought from book *shops* for the tactile experience, you know of wandering through the shelves, browsing the spines, picking books up and putting them down again, listening to the delicate rustle of paper as you thumb through a book, reading paragraphs at random, the scent of fresh printing hanging in the air ... you know, all the sensual things. And then, apart from academic texts for which I still need Blackwells, I moved to Amazon and have never looked back. It's a different *way* of shopping, of course, less browsing, more knowing what you want. But I discovered that getting exciting packages through the post more than makes up for the pleasure of instant gratification.

I'm still in the "no, no, I must go a physical place and handle the physical object" space with games. I bought something off Steam once and felt faintly dirty, and also like I didn't really "own" the thing. Weird I know, because a digital copy of the game is no "more" a copy of the game than a strange shiny disc.

Also, unlike random bookshops, I actually have ... sort of ... a relationship with some of the employees in my local branch of game. There is a cute girl who uses her feminine wiles to make me buy Fable...I would miss that interaction, but then I don't get much opportunity to talk about games since I'm really the only person I know who plays them. And probably they think I'm a sad loser. But *shrug*

Shintar said...

I don't mind ordering from an online store like Amazon, but otherwise I'm still staunchly resisting this "digital revolution". I just need to own a box or something, or else it won't feel quite real. I'd also be worried that if I ever had to redownload for some reason, the service might have been discontinued by then, because providers are notoriously lax about things like that once they've got your money. But my box and CD are mine! Yes, they could still break or be made obsolete eventually, but I'm honestly a lot less worried about that.

thenoisyrogue said...

I wrote about my experience with CIV V the other week that is on the same topic. I ordered my copy from Amazon specifically so I would have the cool 100 page manual that has always come with CIV. After waiting 5 days for my copy to arrive after the game release when it came there was no manual and the only thing on the game disk was a direction to download the game from Steam. So I would say that not only are gameshops going to be very dead very soon, but amazon will be out of the videogame loop as well.

Bronte said...

While I too don't agree with Spinks analysis, I do agree that Blizzard's games may be more susceptible to this phenomenon than other platforms.

Consider Steam. Not everyone uses Steam, and as such Steam, alone, has not been able to create a massive dent in the retail PC store prices.

Wow players, however, are used to digital downloads in the form of patches all the time, and they are already connected to the Blizzard servers. It makes it quite convenient if you don't even have to leave your room to play Cataclysm come December.

From that point of view, I can see how Blizzard offering digital download will significantly impact WoW Retail store sales, and the effect will be more pronounced than purported by other online digital distributions platform. But it won't kill brick and mortar store, not for a long time methinks.

Dwism said...

At least you can pre-download the game before launch day, and still get a box now.
Blizz has given the "go for it", for pre-downloading the game, and then use your box-code to upgrade your account.

So i can still get my box, but do not need to have the hassle of installing the damned disc :D

Campitor said...

Things change all the time and with it goes some form of art or "magic" of the old way. Consider books which were once hand written and beautifully illustrated. If you have ever seen such a book its truly a work of art:

But then the printing press arrived and it was more cost effective to make mass printings without all the ornate calligraphy:

Until the advent of more advanced printing techniques, the beautifully illustrated book was a lost art. The advantage was the ability for common people to afford books. Massed produced books were the PC/internet of the day when they were introduced in the 1400's in Europe.

Technology has advantages and disadvantages and something is always lost and gained with its use. Consider the visceral difference between riding a horse and riding a car. But then muscle car convertibles were invented and the fun was put back into driving.

I imagine the digital experience will be somewhat the same one day. The internet is still struggling to find its way despite it being around for more than a decade. Technologies, no matter how sophisticated, are still in their infancy. One day we will look back at this decade and laugh at how primative the technology is as we play our favorite books and games in some kind of holodeck or virtual brain cage that allows us to physically feel and act out or gaming fantasies with our fellow players. Geekdom will reach new heights. Something lost...something gained...

Redbeard said...

Is there digital distribution for console games yet? If that's not the case, then the GameStops of the world will continue to hang on.

Saga said...

I live in a small, rural town with no local game store at all. This means that in the past I've had to rely on online game stores to send me my copy of the game on time. So no midnight playing for me, but rather after work on the day of release.

So for me, Blizzard giving us the download version is great news. I can actually start playing just past midnight like the other people!

Admittedly though, I'm a sucker for pretty things and matching things and I've ordered the box too. I figured I might use it for my spare account or give it to a friend/family member. I just want the box standing there next to the others.

Speaking of online versions of things I order books online these days (cause I read them in English and even with the shipping costs ordering them from Amazon in UK is cheaper than buying the imported ones in bookstores in my country), but I'd never get an e-book. I love physical books too much. Same with wanting the actual game box I guess. It looks nice in my bookshelf ;)

Kurnak said...

While I'm up for digital distribution I'll go for the disc-in-a-box version for two reasons mainly:
1. Price. Digital download means less money for the company to spend in producing something tangible, storing it, distributing it, etc. BUT this cut in the costs doesn't reflect in the final consumer. So basically companies are just scamming you. The infrastructure to deliver digitally a game, book or music disc needs less investment than a real hardcopy and until that doesn't reflect in the price of the goods I don't want to make a greedy company even richer. If producing something takes 20% of the cost and digital distribution means only 2% (I'm just guessing the numbers, but probably they're close to reality), digital version should be 18% cheaper.
2. I still feel the need of having a physical disc just in case something goes nuts and I need to reinstall. My DSL connection isn't that great and leaving the computer downloading all the needed data (which has grown a lot during these years) is not really fun.
Still I could try doing as Dwism: pre-downloading the game and then getting the box and using the code (normal retail version, not the collector's, as you and Dwism pointed out too, the contents are just "bleh!" for the price you're charged.

Daergel said...

I pre-ordered my game from Amazon and it cost me £17.99. I'm not really bothered about getting it on release day as the likelihood of being able to do much in the new/starting areas is probably quite low, especially since my ISP is lagging wow horribly at the moment (someone on SAN said it was because they are treating the packets as P2P and throttling them back).

Plus I like to have a physical disc, and because I'm a tight git as it's like £7 cheaper that way than anything else I have seen (even Amazon have it up for £24.99 - pre-order ftw - mwahahahaha!!!)

Anexxia said...

Interesting experience you had with Amazon -- I pre-order games from them pretty regularly and always purchase (and receive) a game CD in its case. I didn't know that they were also selling Steam games as well, or allowing affiliates to do so.

The primary reason I'm not sold on digital for my game downloads is my experience with iTunes over the years. Their authorization process rarely works as intended. I have a number of songs I love, and paid for, that my computer will not allow me to play thanks to iTunes always barfing on my system/password/whatever. I'm not interested in renting music. And thus won't be giving them further dollars.

For me, buying digital game downloads is the same. If I buy a new computer I don't want to re-download my games again to play them. As long as my time machine backups work properly I'm OK in that regard, but what if that failed? I like the security of having my own master disc.

Wola said...

Even being an oldtimer who has always appreciated the feel in your hands and a nice manufacturing, I see the vast advantages of digital distribution. The main advantage for me is the huge gain in home storage space; I have small children and the flat has suddenly got so small, to the point of having to get rid of old books to buy new ones. Digital material was a huge relief for me and spared me countless negotiations with my wife!

However, I have not ordered digital Cata yet for the reason Anexxia points out: I am not computer genious and from time to time I find myself reinstalling/resetting programs and computer itself; would rather have a stored copy in case I need it, and Blizzard has not clarified this yet. In fact, I find information on the digital upgrade way too scarce and shady.

Regarding the local game shops, I live in a mid-size city and they have never given me a truly satisfactory service; they are slaved to distribution channels and from my point of view his primary market is hiring and second hand market. Honestly, I get a lot more support (even geeky chat!) from the closer Media Mart.

Nice thread and comments.

Oestrus said...

The only reason I was kind of opposesd to the digital download thing is b/c Blizzard stated it would be available at midnight, Pacific time. I live in the Central standard time zone, which would be 2am for me. I could just as easily get to GameStop, mingle with the other geeks like me and be home with my copy of the game by 2am.

Now, that time frame or information could have changed and if it has, I may change my mind. If it hasn't, I stick with my original game plan.


Nikodhemus said...

I think something like WoW is held out from this sort of speculation as we get regular downloads all the time from them. I have all 3 hard discs, but I've never once used BC or WotLK, because the content was already installed when I started the game for the first time on a new computer. I will definately go for the pre-order download tho I likely won't even play the first day or two just due to the timing.

Gamestop will do ok until Xbox and PS3 start offering full versions of games for download. Which will happen, but not for awhile. Even then, places like Gamestop and Buybacks will still have business for used games, which is really the bread and butter of such places. Whereas you really can't sell a used copy of virtually any PC game because of the registrations required.

On a sidenote, I hate Gamestop, give me Bob's Video Game Exchange, you get so much better deals and the hometown feel as well!

Bebee said...

In truth when I think about my own local gamestores I have a choice of either Game or Gamestation. Both these stores hold a minimal amount of PC games, usually just the top 10 games they have to hold. Using the digital download is the option for me, why else do we have the 20+mb broadband?

Id feel sorry if there was a small local store to go to, and chances are I would feel more inclined to acually use the store if it existed instead of the impersonal mass produced stores who generally don't much care about the actual games.

Len said...

On a practical note, the main reason I went for the digital download is because I received one of the dodgy copies of WotLK - my DVD didn't work. After 12 hours of attempted installs, attempted fixes, restarting, reinstalling, trawling the forums and then another 12 hours of giving up and downloading it from the website, I'm skipping to the end this time!

Larísa said...

@Tam: I feel the way you do about book stores. I can't imagine a world without them, or rather without the smaller, non-franchised ones, run by love and a genuine interest. Antiquarian shops are of course a special species; they speak to the senses with the special smell and the air that is filled with dust, sorry I mean history. Still... I cheat on them too. But I feel horrible when I do it and I try to at least make some support buying from the local shops I really care about. To be fair I'm not such a frequent customer that they know me there but still... It would break my heart to see them go. Amazon and the Swedish equivalences is neat in so many ways but it can never replace the feeling of a bookshop to me.

Gameshops on the other hand mean nothing to me. But then I never truly felt like a gamer; I'm more of a tourist.

@Shintar: To me the boxes are honestly mostly something that I just can't find a place for. My shelves are already cramped with books and I have no idea of where to put it. So that's another reason to go digital.

: That really sucks. It sounds like just another pocket to put money into.

@Bronte: well, I suppose the digital download can establish a habit? More players will try it the first time and realize it works decently well perhaps.

@Dwism: That's a solution too.

: Actually I think riding a horse is a ton more fun than driving a car. And is there anything more beautiful than an old handwritten book with the painted first letters? But yeah, I get what you mean. I'm also into that holodeck vision. Geekdom will reach new heights, yay!

: I honestly don't have any idea if it is. But isn't it just a matter of time?

@Saga: Oh, yes, I love physical books as well! I suppose I'll eventually give into some modern e-book device, but it doesn't come easily to me.

@Kurnak: Well, but on the other hand as long as the profit they make is reinvested into the game I really don't mind. Better there than in the pockets of a number of distributors who don't really contribute to the game development?

I might be naïve, but I just count on that the download will work.

@Dargel: I just couldn't make myself trust Amazon, not knowing exactly what date it would reach Sweden.

@Anexxia: Well reinstalling from disc isn't altogether fun either. I suppose keeping a copy on an external drive is the best thing to do.

@Wola: I agree wholeheartedly about storage. My family definitely doesn't appreciate chunky boxes like the one that comes with the CE edition. And I recognize the feeling about technology as well. I can't as much as install an addon without fearing that the computer will break and that I'll be clueless about how to fix it. I do it nevertheless, but I'm constantly weary about tech stuff.

: Oh, the used games market, that's true. But while used-records-shops exist, they're few and far between. Is this market enough to make a living on?

@Bebee: It's hard to feel anything about big chains. It's the same book stores. It's the last few independent enthusiasts that I want to support. Not the streamlined, impersonal ones.

@Len: Ouch. That must have been so frustrating. I can absolutely understand why you go for the digital right away.

Leah said...

I've been buying pretty much everything online for years. call me antisocial or lazy or what not, but the convenience of clicking a button just cannot be missed. and that's coming from someone who for some time used to be an employee of EB games.

My collectors edition of Wrath was pre-ordered from Amazon. Any new books (and vast bulk of used ones) I have purchased recently was online. I even buy my shoes online, not to mention vitamins and other goodies. the reason I don't buy groceries online is because I'm picky and want to select every vegetable/cut of meat I'm paying for. if I could reliable do that online - I'd do that as well.

recently, my dogs murdered (and I mean that quite literally) my computer, so when we bought me a new one, I wanted to reinstall WoW from the discs we still had. For whatever reason - it didn't work, so I ended up getting it through a digital download (its available to both digital shoppers and those who originally bought hard copy)

when I saw that digital download would be something playable the moment servers came online, I didn't even hesitate - I ordered it from blizzard, despite overpaying (oh yes, we're overpaying if we buy it direct) because of convenience

Rohan said...

However, I have not ordered digital Cata yet for the reason Anexxia points out: I am not computer genious and from time to time I find myself reinstalling/resetting programs and computer itself; would rather have a stored copy in case I need it, and Blizzard has not clarified this yet. In fact, I find information on the digital upgrade way too scarce and shady.

Wola, you can actually download the regular WoW client right now. If you log into your account on, it's an option in there.

So you don't need discs to reinstall. You can download the client whenever you want.

Pascal said...

Our best local retailer is purely on-line after a few years of having a nice little brick and mortar store wedged inbetween a dentists and a cheesecake shop.

Now all purchases from them are online with the goods delivered on release day to your front door.

I prefer this to a digital download. When I sink into my gaming chair, enjoying that softness and wiggle my toes into the carpet there is this wonderful feeling when there are stacks of game boxes around me. Almost like a wizard with his arcane tomes scattered about.

That physical presence and the fact that I can run my fingers over the embossing of the Wrath box; or that rediscovery as you thumb through an art book and find the desire to play an old game again ... those are all part of the experience for me.

I like my boxes.

midnightcarnival said...

I think I will be going the route of digital upgrade, simply so I don't have to stand outside for an hour or two on a cold New York night in December.

That said, I am a huge supporter of digital distribution. Pretty much every single PC game I buy these days is through Valve's Steam service. The only exceptions are games I am unsure of how would interact with mods if they're through Steam (I have yet to encounter this problem.)

It really is a huge convenience to have nearly my entire PC library on my Steam account. The amount of boxes and discs that I would have accumulated over the years would have been enormous and I would have to box them up and throw them in a closet somewhere. On that same token, if I ever wanted to play one of those games again, I would have to go through the trouble of fishing it out of the closet.

It just really is infinitely more convenient for the subscriber to deal with digital distribution. I think as the process gets more and more streamlined, and the more people that try it out, the most we'll see digital distribution take over the market. Not just for the PC, but for consoles as well.

As for geek gamer culture, well, the majority of that is already online. I'm not exactly sure I'd want to mingle with random WoW players IRL anyway...