Is this the end of the PC retail market?

There has been a lot of speculation this year about how F2P is the future of MMOs, and maybe of all PC Gaming.

But where exactly do bricks and mortar retailers fit into this model? The answer is that they don’t really. Cataclysm – likely to be the biggest PC release of the year – being downloadable directly from Blizzard on pre-order, is just the icing on the cake.

Sure, there will be many people who:

  • like boxes
  • trust the post office
  • have amazon/etc vouchers to spend
  • like saving money
  • don’t mind if their copy is a few days late
  • are being bought the game as a present so have to wait for the present-giver to turn up with it
  • aren’t able to take time off to play at launch anyway due to that pesky college/ work thing
  • want a collector’s edition
  • like standing around at midnight in a queue for hours dressed as a night elf because it’s social or something

But for everyone else, the ability to just download the new expansion in advance and be ready to go on the stroke of midnight is going to be hugely appealing. Especially in a genre like MMOs where getting to max level quickly is important for hardcore players. Those extra hours count (if you believe that the servers will be stable).

Clearly Activision-Blizzard will make out like bandits from being able to sell their game directly to players without having to pay a cut to retailers and distributors. Yes, the retail market is important for advertising but increasingly, that trend is diminishing.

Game Shop Nostalgia

And yet, I remember a time  …. a time when we would eagerly trek out to the specialist computer gaming shop to find out what was new on the shelves.

I remember one shop in particular, because it was near where my boyfriend (now husband) lived, somewhere in the great expanse of South-West London (“south west london nice part” as he likes to describe it, or “south west london miles from civilisation” as I would put it). The shop was down a narrow alley and consisted of one small room with white-painted walls which was full of shelves.

The shelves carried boxed PC programs. They weren’t stacked tightly so that all you could see were the titles, many were placed proudly so that the front of the box was on display. And boxes back then were quite large. Many of boxes contained games – some were years old, others new imports from the US – but there were also operating systems and various utilities or bits of business software. PC software at the time was very all-encompassing. When we went to the shop, it was a little, limited piece of geek heaven.

It closed many years ago. And the world has moved on.

Anyone else have memories to share about buying games in gaming shops?

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26 thoughts on “Is this the end of the PC retail market?

  1. My favourite was the Games Exchange just off Oxford Street. They sold mostly second hand games. It was a grungy tatty shop staffed by refugees from Spinal Tap. Games were dirt cheap and buying titles 3 months after release I generally paid about £10 for a title that released at £30.

    The PC section was in the basement and was oddly huge. In a kind of Tardis like way. A rather small shopfront hid this vast cornucopia of games.

  2. Has there been any word regarding Australian release?

    We’re quite a long way ahead of the US here, so I imagine buying the game at 8am Dec7th when shops open would still be faster than waiting until midnight PST.

    5am PST on a Tuesday for maintenance is approximately 11pm server time on the same Tuesday on an Oceanic server, so midnight PST would be 6pm in the evening.

    Are we really going to be in the game world nearly 12 hours ahead of the US?

  3. There was a fantastic little shop by our local mall that sold new and used PC games. I found a lot of older and forgotten games there. That market is now found on eBay, but for a while, it was awesome to have a shop to just go peruse. Saving on shipping was icing on the cake.

    Finding a classic Sierra Adventure game (Conquests of the Longbow) for cheap was the sweet, sweet cake itself… never mind that it was in a ziplock bag and on 5 1/4″ floppies. I miss that shop.

    Then again, I’m always perusing the bargain bins of shops that still do exist. If those ever give way entirely for Steam sales, I’ll make do, but I’ll miss being able to pick up diamonds in the rough for cheap. I still prefer the physical media a lot of the time. Spotty, expensive internet access isn’t ideal, and that $50+/month could buy a lot of games on sale.

  4. The boxed version has the advantage of being useful for a reinstall as the Blizzard downloader is slow as shit. At least for me.

  5. I seriously doubt Blizzard selling their expansion spells the end of the PC Retail industry….STEAM however already doomed the PC Retail industry long before Blizzard woke up to the notion of selling their games digitally and directly.

    I distinctly remember having to copy the WoW client from a friend and buying a Key from a dodgy online shop [because blizzard was fast asleep with the concept of allowing you to upgrade your account directly] .

    So all i can say about Blizzard selling Starcraft 2 and WoW online with an easy ability to upgrade your account is : “What took you so long?!!” .

    I will still however be a little annoyed that Blizzard continues to be a little island of arrogance and not sell their products on Steam and the likes. [just like they continuously ignore bigger conventions in favor of their own personal convention] .

    • You’re right, this trend has been a long time coming. But I do think this year marks a point at which (non Valve) AAA releases like Civ 5, Sims 3 and Blizzard games have been available as downloads at the same time as they went on sale in shops.

      Cataclysm is going to be the biggest of those by a long way (I predict). And as for selling it on Steam, while it would be convenient in some ways, why would they do that? What’s the point in paying a fee to Steam when they have their own battle.net system all online.

    • Steam is horrible. Some unpleasant virus-like programme that means you don’t own the game, but simple have access to a portal that you need to play your game through.

      Ugh.

      Tried it once – never again.

      • Based on the license agreements, we don’t own much software at all, Steam just makes it more obvious. And convenient, since you aren’t out of luck the moment a CD gets scratched or lost.

  6. When I was a child our country was ruled by a communist regime. We didn’t have computer stores that sells software. What we had was a network of friends that were passionate about games and we exchanged games (100% pirated). There was no localization, there was no manual, there was no Internet to ask. We had hundreds of floppy diskettes and we carried them to one another to exchange games.

    Ok – that was in the past. What we have now is access to torrent sites that have the latest games at release or a few days after. The speed of our local Internet is 20-30 Mbit/s for a home user. There are places in the Internet where you can check for the latest patches or trainers etc. I can donwload and play anything I could imagine (including some retro-packs with thousands of old games that are impossible to buy).

    For me, the PC retail marked was born dead and remained dead. The interesting part is that I DO BUY games. Most of my purchases are MMO games and their subscriptions and what is left is Steam purchased games. I own 1-2 games that do not fit in those categoires but they are presents and not my purchase. If there was no online shops I wouldn’t have bought those games.

  7. I remember, fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, the little shop next to the TV repair shop that my brother and I use to ride our bikes to as young boys (5 mile ride one way – WOOT! Too bad society is so nasty now that I would feel uncomfortable letting my kids ride that far alone today).

    We would walk in, a little bell would jingle on the door and all you would see is dust motes flying ’round. As you walked towards the back, the shelves were all littered with various D&D packs, various war book games – Luftwaffe was a favorite of ours although, honestly, my brother being 13 and me only being 9 resulted in some serious pwnage by him! Anywho, as you approached the back there was one seriously long glass case which we checked every week for any new games. Keep in mind, this is the late 1970s and the Atari 2600 had just come out, so there would be weeks, nay MONTHS, when there would be no new games. Yet, my brother and I would faithfully ride our bikes (banana seats for the WIN!) to that shop just to check them out – most often to be disappointed that no new games had been produced.

    Sorry for my digression into nostalgia there, but I guess it’s pretty apparent that I was raised as a box shopper and will always remain so. In fact, now that my son is older (11 and a very good level-capped pally tank, if I say so myself), I love taking him to the electronic store to shop for games. And, although Best Buy is a long way from that little shop of years ago, when he and I go it never fails to evoke memories of my youth and those bike rides with my brother that I don’t ever want to replace with an online click. Hopefully, when my son is older he will look back and have those same kind of memories of his childhood spent “shopping” with his Dad.

    • Spiritus: Society is no nastier than it ever was. People haven’t changed that much in the last 10 years.

      What HAS changed is that the public perception and awareness of such horrible things has increased thousandfold, largely due to the ridiculous growth of global media.

      I’m not saying horrible things don’t happen, and I agree that crime rates appear to be on the rise, but when you take into account population rates, crime rate in most developed nations has actually been falling for some time now.

      Though I’m sure if I I had kids I’d be equally as protective.

  8. Ah Truro Micro how I miss you.

    It was a little Mom and Pop store (lit) that stocked kit built machines and then software and eventually games. Eventualy whent he local Hobby Store manager decided to stop stocking paper and pen RPG’s they stepped into the breach.
    They knew their customers tastes and I recall finding some product that I had to have so badley, looking at the price and finding it had my name written on the tag…..

    Joyce and Ben passed to the store on to the gamer geek son who eventually sold out to Gamesworkshop (for a ton of cash, I dont blame him) and I never crossed its threshold again. Happy days.

    But those days are gone. And really why would you deal with the spotty arogant idiots in Game or whereever when you can get a better choice, cheaper online or via the likes of Amazon and co. Untill bandwidth catches up I’ll still buy the odd bit of physical media and have it shipped but really. Launch parties for Cata are likely to be smaller than before ;)

  9. I was going to defend game shops and say they will never die but then last night I found myself cancelling my Cataclysm pre-order from GAME and buying the digital version direct from Blizzard. The thing that swayed me was the fact they are offering it as a pre-download so I will get it as I play in the run up to release and don’t have to bother with a big download or install on launch date.

    I will say though I dislike distribution methods such as Steam and much prefer the simpler ones like Direct2Drive which just let me download the installer and don’t require me to run their application in the background for authentication when I play.

  10. “The shelves carried boxed PC programs. They weren’t stacked tightly so that all you could see were the titles, many were placed proudly so that the front of the box was on display.”

    We had two in a town of about 40-50k, though not at the same time. I remember buying Elite at one and thinking the price was insanely high, and at the other being able to play G.I. Joe before buying — something that, during the C=64 years, was pretty much unheard off. They pulled the shrinkwrap (or sticker) off of the box in front of me to let me try.

    What I really miss are the manuals. I enjoying having three WoW boxes up on the shelf beside my desk with my books, but it looks like manuals have gone the way of WoWHead, Thott, and WOWWiki. Elite even came with a novella, for heaven’s sake.

    Don’t you still need to install vanilla, BC, and LK to install Cat? Wouldn’t that be easier on a new box if you have the discs? Or are updates just as big as downloading from scratch after a certain point?

    • I had to do a new install of Wrath recently because the last patch corrupted mine. And although I have the disks I decided to download it from battle.net just to see how it went and to save fussing with patches.

      (btw, this is one of the really nice things about battle.net. You don’t have to have bought your original copy from them to be able to download, as long as you registered. So from that pov it’s better than Steam.)

      It was all very hassle free. Took an overnight stint to get the data, but no need to install any extra patches.

      • You could also just insert the Wrath DVD and install it from there and apply just the most recent patch. The Wrath DVD is cumulative.

        And the DVD even let’s you select all the languages you like to have and installs them all. You no longer have to install language packs. (Probably of less importance for an English native :).

      • Both are changes from BC, right? Or was I just dumb enough to think I needed to start with vanilla?

        In any event, that’s good news. Hopefully Cat will be as easy… though I’m still scared I’m going to give in a little early to see if there are any in-game pre-Cat events.

  11. Am I the only one using DSL here or something? I hate downloading games because the DSL connection isn’t the fastest and it take forever for large multi-gig games to download. I almost always buy retail whenever possible, and ignore games that are direct download.

    • I use DSL, and on a spotty connection. When the Blizzard downloader craps out at 97% thanks to a disconnect, then has to start over again at 0%, I find myself less than pleased. That’s one definite reason I prefer physical media much of the time.

      • The downloader doesn’t download it again. It just checks the consistency of the already downloaded patch. That’s why the progress bar starts back at 0% after a restart. On a slower CPU this check can also take some time.

  12. Digital Downloads will make a difference for a lot of people, and will take a sizeable amount of sales. Don’t think that they’ll be the death knell of game stores, just as Amazon hasn’t killed off bookstores.

    First up, many people in the US and Canada have download caps on their broadband. Word is that these caps are on their way to markets like the UK and Australia too. People with limited/slow broadband connections will prefer to buy a DVD with the game on instead of a direct download.

    Secondly, shelf space is a huge advertising opportunity for games. The amount of people who walk in, see a title they like and buy on impulse is still pretty high, especially for gamers outside the “hardcore” market (read: anyone with more than a casual interest in videogames).

    Thirdly, games are more than just PCs. Console markets are still doing well, and stores like Game see them as their primary focus. PC games have shrunk from dominating an entire wall to just having a couple of shelf units at the back. Chances are that they’ll keep PC stuff in the store purely because of the buying discounts they get from multiplatform publishers like EA and Activision. It’s only when PC makes no money for them that they’ll consider trashing it.

    • I think that with the caps, unless you download a lot of stuff regularly, you’re unlikely to cap on a single game download. YMMV.

      And although games are more than just PCs, there’s also an increasing move towards downloading stuff for consoles too. I know my PS3 now offers various ways to stream video (via lovefilm or the iplayer) and it’s easy enough to buy games via the online store too. I could see this market also moving further towards digital distribution in future.

      Also, the title of this post is about PC games which – as you say – have been relegated to a couple of shelves in shops these days. But PC gaming isn’t dead yet in the way this would imply.

      Bottom line for me is that if downloading gets cheaper or more convenient than buying boxes, then I’ll download. At the moment, I get a good discount from pre-orders which is the only reason I haven’t cancelled my Cata pre-order.

      And of course, the other side is trading used games. This is why console developers will probably try to encourage downloads over retail too.

      • I think it’s difficult. I’ve heard reports from Canadians that really struggle with this – the Cataclysm download can eat half their monthly allocation on it’s own. Of course, it depends on how many games you buy per month etc.

        I guess part of my argument was that we are all internet savvy people who do our research on a game, maybe download a demo, compare prices and then buy. But we’re not all people, or even all PC gamers.

        That said, you do have a point – we probably skew digital. Out of all gamers (PC, console and handheld) we are probably more likely to try downloads. Whether that’s a symptom of the download market becoming more popular or just a result of the reduced focus on PC gaming by videogame stores etc is probably a bit trickier to calculate.

    • Digital Downloads killed the retail PC market, for one. Thing is, it is killing the Bookstores. I used to work for Borders, and digital downloading destroyed their CD section. They also heavily discount product to Wal-mart levels and many independent bookstores and smaller chains have been absorbed or died.

      The e-reader phenomena has the ability to kill it. Its going to kill the college textbook market very soon, as well as re-releases of legacy works in the public domain. Why re-release dracula when you can get it free from Project Gutenberg? How will authors compete against a flood of free or ultra low-cost vanity publishing?

      Look at the flash game market for an example. Or the portal movement, and how many games are moving under them and offering themselves for free or for tips.

      It’s difficult times.

  13. People will always want to get out of the house and shop, and shops will always exist to offer the goods that cannot be downloaded virtually.

    So next time when you stroll in to pick up a mouse, PSU whatever that you simply must have that day, or that you just feel like shopping for your next game purchase might be advertising itself to you.

    That’s at least why I’m playing EQ2, originally I started with Guild wars, moved onto WoW but got bored. While at the time I didn’t have a PC I still remembered the Everquest 1 display at the local game store (it was like a mini shrine once a year, which with hindsight was the expansion launch months).

    So the advertising worked well for me, its also a great place to buy time cards too for those who have no credit cards. I think Blizzard might just be shooting themselves in the foot with this move, but longterm that probably is a good thing for the rest of the gaming industry.

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