With the abundance of good (and not so good) ideas floating about, it appears just about anyone with enough willingness and a little bit of money can make a game these days. But then how does that game get to the shelf you see in GameStop or Target or Wal-Mart? Who makes that decision? As it turns out, the answer is not as complicated as you might think.

According to one of the managers I spoke to at “a larger game store chain,” all the decisions regarding what gets put on the shelf are made at the store’s corporate level, and trickled down to each of the stores.

The first personal observation the anonymous store manager shared with me about the process is that game developers have no control what happens to that game in the retail world. This, not surprisingly, is in direct opposition to the publishers who have a lot of say. Anyone who has read Costikyan’s “Death to the Games Industry” is keenly aware of the pressures on developers to create a title that will attract the attention of a large-scale publisher. He describes a common decision process,

“When a developer goes to a publisher to pitch a title, the publisher does not greenlight it because they play it and say “what a great game!” […] Glitz, not gameplay, is what sells the publisher.”

This same lesson can often be applied to the retail space as well. The two main influences on the retail channel are pre-orders (which determine consumer desire for a particular game) and money, specifically how much of a publisher’s money is being spent to push a particular title. When it comes to getting a title onto the retail shelf, “the more the merrier” is a good rule of thumb – especially when the “more” part comes as marketing and publicity funds.

Strong, proven brands also tend to have priority from a publisher standpoint, and the marketing funds of the publisher are skewed to reflect this. It is no surprise that the retail chain follows right along. After all, everyone is in the process to make money – the publisher needs to recoup what they’ve already spent on the developers, and the retail side wants to generate as much revenue as possible to stay in business.

What is a mild surprise is the employees most connected with the customer have no say in the process. “I just get an email with what to sell and what to push,” the store manager mentioned emphatically. She further revealed this extends to the quantity of units per store. So despite the fact Store E in City D may not have a grand history of success in selling the “Triple Sports XXXtreme” series, it doesn’t get a choice. It has to do what it can with what it gets.

Inevitably some games get left behind in the stampede to and fight for attention on the tightly packed retail shelf. Within a month or two of release, “Triple Sports XXXtreme” 2006 sits languishing in the bargain bin while employees hail the praises of another title, which is the “flavor of the week.” Did you want “Triple Sports XXXtreme 2005?” That’s so “last week” – here is a different title you should spend your money on. If you want something different, don’t bother with brushing them off; just let them get through the speech and flash them a sympathetic smile as you pick up something else.

Like the much touted homogeneous experience at Starbucks, where a mocha here is going to be pretty much the same as a mocha 1000 miles from home, the only thing that looks different from one retail game store or department to another is the face of the employee who cheerfully greets you as you enter. The delivery of the “Hi! Is there anything I can help you with?” is the same every single time, even down to the pitch. The recommendations are also similar, whether you’re picking up The Sims or Halo 2. Even the shelves look the same, but the fun is supposed to be inside the package, not in the retail experience getting it – right? The store is really a means to an end.

There are alternatives for developers who do not wish to go through the traditional retail method for whatever reason, such as self publishing using digital distribution. Valve Software’s Steam “content delivery system” is one of the more noted attempts to move content directly to the consumer – and revenues directly to the developer – as opposed to through publishers. The problem there is one of getting attention – conventional releases secure that attention by being there in the consumer’s face, through widespread mass marketing. Gamers still assume that a game that doesn’t have a retail presence must be an inferior product.

Also, there are a few stores – hobbyist game stores, cybercafes and comic book stores – that aren’t affiliated with chains. These are the roads off the beaten path and take a more personal touch to get into. While not likely to be as profitable, they do help build a loyal fanbase or are ideal for more “niche” products.

There are other steps between the publisher and the retail shelf: the packaging, the wholesalers who sell those CDs to burn upon, the paper to print manuals and the shippers to get the product from here to there. These are logistics generally handled on the publisher’s side before even reaching the retailers’ radar. But these roles, both those of the retailers and publishers, will get a little more interesting with the rise of some of the newer alternatives for distribution and it will certainly be interesting to see how it plays out for us, as consumers.

Nova Barlow is the Research Manager for The Escapist and Playerbase Solutions. She is also a regular contributor to WarCry.

Mainstream Shopping, Mainstream Gaming

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