Playing the GAME – Thoughts

It is perhaps perplexing that today’s amazing PR fail was provoked not by a publisher, or by Steam or other retail outlets. It wasn’t provoked by Trading Standards, and it wasn’t instigated by any deep, meaningful investigative journalism.

All it took was one disgruntled Steam user, questioning why he can’t pre-order certain games on Steam.

That said, this isn’t the first time that The Game Group – who own GAME, Gamestation and Gameplay in the UK (three of the largest video game retail specialists) – have had accusations of unfair practices leveled at them.

But it does seem to be the first time they have responded to it – and truthfully, they may wish they hadn’t, based on how badly it backfired on them today.

Question is, is there any truth to it?

This probably isn’t my forte, but I’d say there is rarely any smoke without fire, and it isn’t the first time that The Game Group have been accused of somewhat underhanded tactics.

For those not quite in the know, The Game Group didn’t start out with any of their three big names – GAME was an acquisition on their part, then they took over Electronics Boutique. Some would say aggressively so, but it secured them a big slice of the consumer market. Then came Gamestation – and later, Gameplay, a business that was once upon a time founded via The Princes Trust Foundation.

Be under no illusions of the reasons of this – they dominate the majority of the gaming retail sector. They have presences in pretty much every major town and city across the land. It is a massive company that has huge powers over retail.

But they’ve always failed at the PC Market. And it is this that has started to unravel them somewhat.

PC Gamers are very tech-savvy. They often know what they want, when they want it. But the retail sector couldn’t make profit on the games and apparel they were selling – at the time, PC Games were often a tenner less than their console counterparts. This left them in a quandry – and the solution, rather than upping the prices on their PC stock, was to stock less of it.

By and large, the PC Gamer was driven out of these retail stores. And into the arms of online retailers – which was why the acquisition of Gameplay was a brilliant, if callous, tactical move. And it was brilliant. For a while, that was buoyant.

But now, of course, PC Gamers have found a new home.

Steam.

The Game Group have thrown accusations at many companies in the past for their anti-competitive practices, but this isn’t a case of the pot calling the kettle black – the pot and kettle have got married, eloped and now have five beautiful children. The Game Group have systematically been seen to dominate their retail space, and Steam – run by a developer, for developers, is seen as the latest threat to their dominance.

Steam isn’t perfect – it has rules on DLC and patching, preferring the Steam client automate it all. That is a little questionable, sure. But it’s nothing compared to what The Game Group have done over the years.

And so to their suspicious little outburst – where they contacted developers to back them up. Be under no illusions of the power of The Game Group. Sure, THQ and Bethesda may lose a couple hundred thousand sales on Steam. But The Game Group, with their retail coverage, refusing to stock their game could mean a loss of a couple MILLION sales. It would also mean they get less coverage on our high streets, and therefore – since no publicity is bad publicity – they feel more of an onus to keep the retail sector happy over the PC gaming market, which has in recent years drifted away from this.

And that is before you get to second hand sales – which has seen publishers revolt quietly with online passes, DRM and other extreme tactics to ensure their game sales are left intact. This is bad for the consumer – but brilliant for GAME, who get to offer far less for trade ins, and make more profit from resales. It’s a deeply dark, very unscrupulous sort of behaviour – but it is behaviour that doesn’t shock or surprise anyone. It’s a twisted dance of ethics and exclusivity deals that hurts everyone but The Game Group – which is the point of it all, of course.

GAME themselves now run a Direct Download service. But of course, Steam is already hugely dominant in this space. It’s hardly a surprise, for a company that has been ruthlessly aggressive in their quest to dominate games sales, that it has targeted another major competitor for extermination. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them start swallowing up other smaller download retailers in order to conquer the market from under the feet of Steam.

It should be said, however, that PC Gamers are fairly aware of these practices – and despite very poor denials from The Game Group, the simple fact there is smoke there suggests a fire may be inside the building, one that The Game Group themselves have started and are hoping we won’t notice, or are hoping to explain when they are done burning and pillaging the remains. People are asking questions, people are curious as to why it is only the UK version of Steam being affected by the denial of pre-orders and purchases of certain publishers.

People, simply, want the truth. They don’t like shady organisations – it was the downfall of EA in the past, it’s been bringing Activision down for ages and made them the most reviled publisher in the world, it backfired on IGN and Gamespy in the past… people simply prefer honesty where possible, and are turned off by shady backdoor¬†shenanigans.

And they don’t really come more shady these days than The Game Group. With more and more gamers going online, and the high-street retail sector starting to post losses and a dwindling market share, the internet is where most gaming business is being done, now and in the future.

The Game Group would clearly like to keep themselves as the dominant force in this market… and be it Steam, Direct2Drive, Good Old Games or anyone else, I doubt they’re going to pull their punches in their quest to dominate every inch of the download market too. This is a battle that has silently raged for a while – but it is a battle that many gamers would prefer to see waged more publicly, if only that it means that they have more information when they make their purchases.

Let us hope it is a battle they are destined to lose.

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