The Future of Brick and Mortar: How the Decline of Physical Media will Transform — not destroy — the Retail Video Game Store

Generation Y: I Can’t Touch any of My Favorite Things Anymore!

Being born in the late 1988, I grew up in the tame 90’s. With the fall of Communist Russia, Presidential sex scandals, and a healthy economy, it doesn’t fill up many history books. While my parents’ grew up in an era of tumultuous race relations and the transition to equal rights, I grew up in an era of technological and economical innovation and change. Technology has begun to emulate anything we want to see or hear, but has made little innovation in simulating touch or smell.

I remember going to Blockbuster every Friday and renting a couple new releases and a Super Nintendo game. Walking through the shelves of a video store as a kid, I would haphazardly look at the grisly VHS artwork in the horror section. I remember shopping at Best Buy and Tower Records and scouring the shelves like a Paleontologist for the new release from my favorite Christian hardcore band. My family had one computer and we only got decent internet connection in 2003. I remember carrying my case full of CDs and a walkman one school year and a iPod that replaced everything the next year. It is astonishing to think that a 13-year old today has probably never used a CD Walkman. While my parents’ generation have 30+ years of memories of physical media and brick and mortar stores, my generation may be the first to truly experience the transition to purely digital media.

A Series of Wishful Thoughts

Videodrome- The last remaining video rental store in Atlanta, GA

I grew up wanting to be a business owner. No, I didn’t want to become the next Bill Gates or even own a chain of pizza buffets, I wanted to own a record store, then a video rental store, and now a video game store. I would be told time and time again how unfeasible physical media retail is in this era of technological breakthroughs in media consumption. I held onto my dreams until I started seeing Hollywood Video, Blockbuster, Tower Records, and Circuit City start disappearing left and right. The very small and unique stores thrived as their competition dwindled, Videodrome and Criminal Records here in Atlanta are extremely popular with film buffs and record enthusiasts. Even with the convenience of movies, music, and game streaming with Netflix, Spotify, and Steam, there is still a demand for independent retail. There was still hope for me yet, albeit as a very niche business opportunist. I have always been a lover of music and movies, but my love of retro gaming has proven to be more than a fledgling hobby.

You Just Can’t Put it in a Box

While CD, record, and video rental stores can only thrive in the right environments now, video game stores can be found everywhere, though they mostly belong to the GameStop conglomerate. GameStop still operates around 6,700 stores worldwide, while Blockbuster recently closed its last 300 stores just recently. It may be an unfair comparison, but why is it that consumers are so quick to accept a RedBox in a gas station as their alternative to a video rental store, while buying video games is still seen as a worthy trip to a brick and mortar store? Is it the customer service, the large variety of games, or the ability to trade in your old games for a new one? the answer is quite simple, video rental machines have a flat rate for their service and a lower variety of movies, perfect for the average customer that needs a kids movie after buying groceries. Strangely enough, I remember when Blockbusters were attached to grocery stores just for this convenience — I think mine was turned into a pharmacy. Customers can rent games as well, but due to the length and replayability of games, renting them is just not worth it sometimes. A video game vending machine just wouldn’t work; no one would want to put $60 in a box and hope for the best. For all intents and purposes, GameStop is a glorified pawn shop. It is the quickest and easiest way to liquidate your disappointing games and systems and trade them in for a great experience. Though you can most definitely do the same and get more money through eBay and Amazon, the convenience GameStop offers is unbeatable.

Give me Convenience or Give me Death

Just doesn’t have that metallic tin can taste.

Convenience is what will keep small businesses around for our lifetimes. Even with 3-D printers, lightning fast internet, and cloud streaming, people will still generally be drawn to shopping outside their home. Even in Star Trek, humans and aliens alike will complain about the artificiality of replicators and the Holo-suites. Full disclosure: I have Netflix, Spotify, and Steam, and I use the first two for television, movies, and music enjoyment; the last time i bought a CD or DVD was in 2007. I never saw the appeal of buying movies and CDs, because when i did buy them, they ended up sitting on my shelf after watching or listening to them once or twice. I like Netflix and Spotify because I don’t have to invest in expensive DVD collections or feather dusters. Gaming, however, is something I almost never emulate and always search for the original hardware and software. When I do play an emulated game, it is because it is incredibly expensive or rare. I would argue that emulating games is less convenient because the amount of effort to accurately emulate a game (control scheme, graphics, experience) can be daunting. Although audiophiles will swear by vinyl’s sound quality (i do too) and cinemaphiles by 35mm, the average consumer will be content with the quality of audio and video streaming. With streaming media comes questions of true ownership, and for gamers this is of the utmost importance.

Do I really own this? The Digital Grey Area of Ownership

Although I love the convenience of Netflix Instant and Spotify, I can’t help but feel really bummed out when my favorite album or TV show disappears completely from the service! It’s almost like paying $50 a month for a gym membership only to come in one day and find all the treadmills gone. I suppose this is to be expected from monthly services like Netflix and Spotify, but it shouldn’t feel so restricted. Although you can buy games, music, and movies online and own them permanently, what happens when they stop selling them? If DRM only allows you to play media on your computer, how will the obscure, underrated games, movies, and artists survive past their prime? Many video games have this problem, but have physical forms that can preserve them. Earthbound, Little Samson, Panzer Dragoon Saga, and others have reached exorbitant prices on eBay because  developers have neglected to re-release them or emulate them (Earthbound being the exception). In a world without physical media, will games like these disappear forever?

How the Brick and Mortar Game Store can Survive the Physical Media Apocalypse

When Microsoft announced that their Xbone games could not be sold used, gamers everywhere erupted in outrage. Claims that this would kill independent and chain game stores were heard across the media, eventually leading Microsoft to change their decision and allow for multiple use games. If you don’t know already, game stores only make about $5 on every new game they sell, but make large profits on used games. This isn’t new to the gaming world, PC games have come with unique keys since the early 2000’s (I remember trying to lend The Sims to a very dismayed friend). But for console gamers, sharing, renting, and buying used games is intrinsic to the culture. The game store is part of the overall culture as well, though this is changing. With the rise of broadband internet,affordable computers, and smartphones,  gaming is becoming popular among both genders and all age groups. The modern game store, as epitomized in GameStop, will eventually come to an end. With shelves filled with the latest games and hardware, modern game stores are going to be less appealing, as an average consumer can just buy all their games at Target along with their shampoo and school clothes. Vintage game stores are making a comeback by supplying the demand for older systems and used games. Game collecting, once niche and unassuming, is now a growing and sustainable hobby among Generation Y. Independent game stores not only feed collectors demand for retro games, but also provide a community with affordable ways to game. However, many small game stores are unready for the physical media apocalypse.

Where Game Stores Are and Where they Need to Be

There are two types of game stores owners: Pawnbrokers and Hobbyists. Pawnbrokers have no interest in games, can’t recommend a good game for you, and only care about their net profit. If they stopped selling games and started selling TVs, they wouldn’t notice a difference. Hobbyists know everything about games, old and new, can recommend games, and offer fair prices on their inventory according to market values. If you’ve read my previous post, you’ll know I’m a staunch supporter of good game stores. I make an effort to visit a game store in every state I visit (Michigan, South Carolina, Georgia, California) and can instantly tell how long before a store goes kerplunk. A good store knows its old games are not instant gold; they price according to average retail and internet values. A bad store has piles of defective junk behind the counter, believing defective video game accessories have some value (I’ve been to this store). A good store has knowledgeable staff, testing stations, and experience in restoring older games to working condition. A bad store will have overpriced items, messy shelves, unplayable games, and a staff that has no interest in gaming. I believe game stores will eventually turn into hobby shops, the same way comic books left chain bookstores and became their own enterprises. A successful game store will have an online presence (Click and Mortar), large variety of games, and a large customer base.

Generation Y Me? 

If you imagine the Cloud as a giant asteroid hurtling toward earth intent on causing physical media to become extinct, you’re probably taking too much cough medicine, go to sleep. When dinosaurs went extinct, mammals thrived and prospered and eventually we came along some 65 million years later. Dinosaurs may have died, but we still have their descendants, birds (man, that emu really looks like a raptor). Brick and mortar stores (CD, rental, video games) will continue to survive while our generation becomes wealthier and more nostalgic for the past (They just aren’t as ferocious as they used to be). Game collecting will take the place of comic book collecting of our parents’ generation and thrive in an environment becoming increasingly less tangible.

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