2012 is the Beginning of the End for Game Stores

A little over five years ago I worked for Gamestop, formerly EB Games, formerly Electronics Boutique.  While eventually the soul-crushing nature of failing to pretend to care about Madden or flavor-of-the-week FPS burned me out to a cinder, I still loved when the new games came in.  Just because I didn’t care didn’t mean the big game of the week wasn’t making someone else happy.  All I had to do was wait a week or two and something to catch my attention was bound to be along.  Retail was the only real distribution method, and if you wanted a game you were going to visit the store and go home with a physical copy.   There had been a few success stories for download-only, of course, but it was still early days.

In the last month, I’ve bought Botanicula from the current Humble Bundle, Lone Survivor is sitting on my desktop wondering why I haven’t given it the time it deserves, I’ve gotten one evening’s gaming in with Fez, The Pinball Arcade has been an incredible distraction, and even pinball has fallen to the sheer addictive might of Trials Evolution.  The original Silent Hill is free to PSN+ subscribers this month, and it joins last month’s Um Jammer Lammy freebie on the PS3’s hard drive.  Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP needs a bit more of my time, although I think I’ve given Realm of the Mad God as much attention as it deserves.  Minecraft, on the other hand, will probably never stop getting me to poke away at discovering or creating just one more thing.

That’s a lot of gaming, quality across the board, and not one single title on the list comes from a store.  It’s not that there haven’t been one or two tempting games, like Xenoblade Chronicles and Ridge Racer Unbounded, but my time is booked by things I’m more excited about.  A new Cave shooter, Akai Katana, comes out in May, and I’ll admit to a weakness for Lollipop Chainsaw in June, but from March through June that’s four games I’d consider buying.  The AAA release list is full of things that fill the shelves and utterly fail to do more than be mildly interesting.  I’ll admit, I’m not the average consumer, but even adjusting for that retail gaming is looking more and more like a wasteland.

That’s perfectly fine, honestly.  Things change and evolve, and the gaming market is more robust than ever.  Smaller studios are doing bigger things, Kickstarter is helping old creators revive cherished properties or create whole new ones, and every week something new and creative is there to look forward to.  Issues with Day-1 DLC, rumors of next gen consoles locking out used games and requiring always-on connections, online passes, and the lot are significantly less worrying when the good stuff has nothing to do with the distribution method that enforces them.  Barring next-gen PSN/XBLA, of course, but that’s an issue for an entirely separate article.

If there’s a point to this ramble (and there is, I swear!) it’s that the move to digital distribution is no longer something in the future.  The majority of gaming dollars being spent on non-physical things is what’s going on today, right now.  Somehow, retail has gone from being an indispensable gaming hub to a secondary feature that’s not quite as quaint a leftover from earlier time as, for example, newspapers, but moving strongly in that direction.  Going to the mall, chatting with the salespeople (assuming you’ve got a good store with decent staff), browsing the manual on the way home, and then popping a disk in the drive has become a rare sensation.  It was nice while it lasted, and it’s still kind of fun today, but at this point it’s a process reserved for special occasions.  If I wasn’t being buried under huge piles of ridiculously high quality gaming taking up the hard drives of multiple gaming platforms, I might have time to miss it.