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The Other Game Shop

Reading Joseph’s comment on the GAME group’s chance of surviving last week got me thinking. There is a similar “niche” hobby that he and I share more than a passing interest in that has a high street presence spanning the length and breadth of the country. It too appeals to mostly men, but unlike videogames it is unlikely that Tesco and ASDA are likely to start stocking large quantities of it on their shelves any time soon. I speak of Games Workshop.

Whatever you may think of it as a pastime, the Nottingham based company has managed to survive for many years selling a product that is only going to appeal to a small fraction of the population. Throughout that period it has seen its presence on the High Street grow, slowly edging from town to town until it is more curious for a town not to have a GW shop than to have one.

The same could have been said about the GAME group up until recent events, but the differences in the pair’s fortune is both obvious and subtle.

The first is that GAME expanded far too quickly and aggressively. Taking over Gamestation may have seemed a shrewd move, taking on an edgier bedfellow and instantly gaining itself more highstreet footfall, but it did not consolidate its advances. With a Gamestation and a GAME existing side by side cannibalising each other’s sales whilst offering very little in difference yet twice the rent, the foolishness was clear to all but the business’ hierarchy.

By comparison Games Workshop have rolled out stores slowly but steadily, cherry picking areas most suitable and filling in the void store by store. In comparison to GAME’s 610 stores at its peak, the modellers have less than a quarter of that and yet still seem to supply their hobbyists adequately.

Secondly, location. In the centre of Birmingham there sat Gamestation’s flagship store, a mecca to the realms of digital gaming and proof of the bullish insistence that gaming warranted such a lavish and large footprint on one of the country’s busiest shopping centres. The fact it was too large again seemed evident to all but those at the top. Sparse shelves filled out with large cardboard boxes advertising future wares and second-hand consoles attempted to make up for quality stock and GAME’s insistence of bulking out stores with pre-owned games.

Even a swift glance at the shop stocking Space Marines will tell you of a completely different attitude. Usually capable of operating with just one or two employees on a typical day, they’re small, heavily stocked and crucially not on the main thoroughfare. The advantages here at that they know their target audience will come to them so as long as they keep well supplied then they will save on rent by being on the fringes of main shopping districts. The savings made by moving a couple of streets away can be astronomic, and with enough brand loyalty the extra wear on boot leather is negligible to your customers.

Finally, GAME has moved away from being a niche. Its group’s stores used to offer something relatively unique but the move into stocking only the latest games and dedicating the majority of their store to second-hand sales caused them to lose their edge. No longer offering anything unique, the supermarkets were equally able to stock new releases but what about the harder to find releases of even just six months ago?

GW know they’re niche and play to it. There’s never ever a thought to expand out to stock other minatures, creep into other board games or even adding videogames to their shelves. They have carved out their place in the world and are content at doing that to the best of their ability. It still may be down to profit at the end of the day, but those black-red-and-yellow stores are dedicated to providing for the needs of their customers. That’s why they have freely available gameboards in them; a slight difference to the locked down pods of Skylanders in GAME.

In hindsight some of the mistakes are all too clear, but caught up in the boom that this generation of consoles initially brought the money men were too busy dreaming of swimming in bank notes. Games Workshop may not necessarily be the most financially successful company in the hobby space but as a flagship British store its seems the tortoise has outdone the hare.

How I Came To Own A Vita

Sitting before me now is a Vita. It is very shiny. Two weeks ago I didn’t know I even wanted one, but then the GAME Group’s little financial problem happened.

You see over the course of the last two years I’ve been saving up in preparation for the next generation of consoles, whenever they may be. This saving hasn’t taken the form of a mattress stuffed with used notes however, mine has been in the form of a Gamestation trade-in card. Every time I was done with a game, I’d trot down to the store, trade it in for whatever I could get for it, and keep it stashed away on their loyalty card hoping that when the Xbox Next and PlayStation 4 arrived I’d have enough for one or the other.

As of Saturday morning, I had £250 sitting on that Gamestation card. Not an inconsiderable amount. And not a stable one, if you heed talk of the Administrators being called in as appeared on MCV’s website late on Friday afternoon.

At this point they became my Northern Rock: I needed to get my cash out whilst I could.

I’m not the kind of man who can have a pile of games sitting there waiting to be played – I just don’t have the time – so getting half-a-dozen or more new releases wasn’t a financially sound way to go. I have all the home consoles, it didn’t look like they were going to stock the iPad 3 any time soon and so only one viable avenue was left open to me.

Around the office I have actively pooh-poohed the Vita in recent weeks, ridiculing Sony’s latest over-priced memory cards, the kitchen sink approach to input devices and the lack of eye catching software. And yet there I was in the middle of Birmingham trying to figure out how to get the best for my cash.

After a large amount of (hasty) research and digesting all the permutations of offers Gamestation had up, I not only ended up walking out of the store with a Vita (complete with FIFA and Uncharted) but with a surprising sense of glee. Whether or not this is my subconscious trying to reassure me that what I was doing was right, I feel I had actually been sold on what I was getting. This was no longer a desperate purchase to get something for those dozens of trade ins over the last couple of years, but a device I was actually looking forward to embracing.

It’s been in my possession less than a day and, to reiterate my opening line, it’s very shiny. And I mean that in a Firefly sort of way. The graphics are stunning, the input responsive and it just feels so nice; and best of all they’ve gotten rid of that ridiculous cross-media bar that leads me to hate my PS3 so.

Of course it comes down to the games and merely peaking at what is on the PlayStation Network Store has me hopeful; Sony’s online marketplace has to me always provided greater variety and quality than Microsoft’s solid but generally uninspiring offerings. If the likes of Escape Plan and Super Stardust Delta can be backed up by output from studios in the vein of Pixel Junk and ThatGameCompany then I’m going to be a very happy panic purchaser.

GAME over?

In my youth the High Street had an abundance of shops trying to sell you videogame wares. WH Smiths, Woolworths, ePlay, Dixons, the supermarkets, Curry’s, and probably more that the passing of time has caused to fade from memory. Today, with many having closed their doors forever, others refocusing their lines, and those remaining moving to out of town retail parks, the centre of town is usually left with a GAME or Gamestation as the flagships for our hobby.

Though both may be owned by the same company, each has their own distinct image. Adverts for Gamestation feature the alternative, cooler young men and women, decked out in black with a smattering of tattoos and piercings. GAME, on the other hand, have those lovely, smartly dressed people in their pinky-purple uniforms; non-threatening and perfect for apprehensive parents and grandparents alike as they seek out the perfect game for Little Johnny’s Christmas present. Strip away this veneer and all may be identical, from range through to price, but the two vastly contrasting aspirational audiences is something that is good for us all in the long run.

Most people, savvy with the pounds in their pockets, will no doubt shop online, knowing that the discounts offered by Amazon, Play and alike cannot generally be matched by brick and mortar stores. Their mere presence on the High Street adding overheads that are easily lost by working out of a large warehouse somewhere in Guildford. But there’s always something to be said for browsing, and I always fall into that cliché of being drawn to Gamestation over GAME. Subconsciously I somehow feel somewhat more at home surrounded by the darker colours and staff that just because they’re wearing similar dark hues must know more than those donned in that ridiculous purple just down the road.

Conversely however knowing that clueless relatives can feel confident about wandering into GAME and be taken through just what you need to hook up a PlayStation 3 to a telly, or quite what this new Pokemonster thing is their son was whittering on about, is a reassuring state of affairs.

Both are two halves of a company that is currently seeing that our pastime still has a very evident footprint in the shopping centres of our nations towns, and one of the main reasons, to my mind, that the industry has seen such a growth over the last decade. Without such visibility it is questionable whether we would have the level of acceptance that we do – discounting the Daily Mail – and why we all should worry for the long term implications if the GAME group’s financial difficulties become terminal.

Anyone thinking the online sector will simply pick up the slack I believe is fooling themselves. If the brightly coloured shutters slam down on GAME for a final time, overnight the second-hand market will be vastly reduced and those unsure of the world of Nintendo won’t have an easy one stop shop to unravel what can only be a confusing world for the outsider. To you and I they may seem moot points, but think that we’ve all had to start somewhere. Either with a kindly grandparent buying you your first console for Christmas, or you scraping together your pocket money and tired old games to trade-in for the latest and greatest.

You may be able to do without GAME now. But what will we do without GAME in the future?

Getting rid of the dead wood

When the takeover of Gamestation by Game was inked, there were assurances that the two brands would be kept separate in order to preserve the differences that made each of the two successful in their own way. One of these differences was Gamestation’s stock of retro games, stocking most platforms back to the mid-eighties and the NES.

For a few weeks now the internet has been making noises about how Gamestation are destroying their stock of all but the rarest retro games. Slightly concerned about where my impulse N64 buys would come from if this were true, I headed into their flagship store in Birmingham to take a look for myself and maybe stock up one last time.

I was too late, however. The only pre-PS2 games to be found were a hat-trick of the Megadrive’s Phantasy Star and five copies of Link’s Adventure for the NES. Even the Gamecube had been reduced to a mere handful of titles, whilst the Dreamcast was conspicuous by its absence. After having a word with the assistant behind the desk he confirmed that everything had been moved on and there had been indeed been a clearout. He also hinted heavily at the timing of this and Game’s acquisition.

The amount of money I may have sunk into Gamestation’s retro corner may not have been vast but they have always received a trickle of my income as my strategy has always been to trade in games once I’m done and buy them back once their cheap. Cheeky, I know, but I like to spin it as I get more money for my next first-hand purchase and someone else can try the game I’ve just discarded at second-hand prices.

Whatever you may think of my “tactic”, hopefully most you will agree that the possible destruction of hundreds if not thousands of old games cannot be a good thing. I’m sure if Gamestation had announced this was the last chance before they got the gaming equivalent of pulped many would have given a last concerted effort to save an orphaned copy of Sonic the Hedgehog from its fate, but now it appears that it is too late. Their online store is equally thinly stocked as everything on it seems to be “out of stock.”

And so to eBay we must turn. I am truly disappointed about this development because to wipe out such a large part of what made the Gamestation Gamestation, and one of the reasons I kept returning, is a drastic step indeed.