A Dying Breed – The PC Shelf

February 6, 2012 § 4 Comments

I was in GameStation today. Not a particularly unusual thing, in itself, but I was looking for a copy of F1 2010 for the PC and I was somewhat reluctant to spend £20 on a copy from Steam. “It’ll be cheaper than that in the shops” I assured my girlfriend as we drove along. She nodded, although clearly absorbed in trying to decide what she wanted from the McDonalds I had offered as compensation for her company.

I was in for a sad afternoon.

Of course, the problem with GameStation, other than the window trying its best to sell me a Playstation Vita (piss off, and no thanks), is that silly feeling you have as you walk in. Brushing past the numerous teenagers that seem to call the place home, I always feel somewhat… out of place. At 28 years old, I freely admit I’m hardly old, but game-shops have always seemed to be far too primary and brutal in its imagery. Adverts that seem to want to punch you in the eye; sales stickers that would be more at home as a tattoo on a large chap with a motor-cycle; and staff that, to my eye, really shouldn’t be working… they should be outside, playing.

Of course, all of the above can easily be pointed as my own personal problems, but the PC shelves… that’s all their fault.

Okay, so PC games sales (retail) have been falling for a number of years. We all know that, and I’m sure Gabe Newell feels very proud of himself for the role he played in that particular event. But, as a rule, I have never struggled to buy a boxed copy of any popular game – ever. What I saw in that store was, frankly, a joke. A shelf of World of Warcraft and its expansions (Cataclysm is still 30 quid, for some reason); a shelf of nonsense – Starcraft 2, Crysis 2, and a Star Wars: The Old Republic time-card, that’s it; and a shelf of The Sims 3 and it’s expansions. Three shelves of new games. Three. One more yielded a glut of ancient trade-ins, none of which even merits a mention. Well, maybe Delta Force, but jeeze – that’s an old one.

And? Well, that’s about it. A small beady-eyed chap asked me if he could help me, and all I could do was mutter “No, no-one can…” and try desperately not to cry.

Yes, I know. I knew this was going to happen, I knew it a long time ago. But am I the only one who sees a fundamental flaw in this situation? We constantly bang on about the woes of DRM, the unfairness of digital-EULAs and how services like Steam will eat all our games the instant we displease the mighty Mr Newell… and yet we have pretty much systematically killed our only alternative. As gaming on the PC becomes more and more entwined with the complexities of the internet, and the ever-changing rules that describe it – our already tenuous hold on the games we purchase is slowly dissolving. And the day you can no longer buy a disc, in a box, with a receipt, we lose it all. That day has apparently arrived.

To give you an example of what I mean, lets roll back a few days. Last week, I bought Race Driver: GRID from GetGames – a pleasant digital retail store with some cracking deals. Unlike Steam, it also offers DRM-free direct downloads, allowing a certain amount of control over your purchase… which is nice too. I bought it, and downloaded it. And it wouldn’t work – complaining of a corrupt file.

So I downloaded it again. And it still wouldn’t work.

I downloaded it a third time, and it continued not working. I then decided to have a root around in the download folder, found the installer and messed about with it until it worked. No problem. Unfortunately, I later discovered the game install had been the un-patched, vanilla-version and it wouldn’t work online – I was using GameRanger, if you’re interested. As this was the sole reason for the purchase, I promptly downloaded the patches and installed them.

Then it gave me the error “Wrong disc inserted, please insert the GRID disc”… Ah, Secu-ROM, I remember you…

Long story short, I had to crack the game I had paid for, in order to play it. The point of all this whining is thus: if I had bought the game from a retail store, such as GameStation, I could have returned it for a working copy, or some alternative. As I bought it online, I was stuck, effectively, with an imaginary piece of software that needed to be technically broken in to to get to work. Even Steam, in its epic popularity, suffers from the same sort of problems – I dare you to try and get a refund for a game that simply wont work on your hardware. The same thing goes for those rare, but still brutally real, gamers who have lost EVERY game in their Steam account due to problems with purchases or simple bad luck. Rock Paper Shotgun did a marvelous article on this a while back, read it here.

This is the world we have created, the popularity of digital-distribution has effectively nailed the doors shut on gaming stores across the world. Their profits now come from console sales, and that has become the focus – leaving the PC section to die a slow, and embarrassing death in a dark corner. None of this would worry me much if not for the sheer cliff-face of issues surrounding digital-distribution, from a disregard for the consumer, dubious rights-management (I refer you to the clause EA have popped into their EULA on Origin, trying to block users from making class-action lawsuits against them), all the way to entire gaming-lives being stricken from existence by un-feeling download services, due to one small Pay-Pal error…

Stores like GameStation may have been our last hope… the last place you could actually go, browse and buy a boxed game with all the rights and privileges that come from having a disc in your hands… a place you could return it to if it didn’t work, or to trade it in against a new game, saving those precious pennies a recession-bitten world has forced us all into counting. And it’s now lost.

Incidentally, she decided on a Crispy Chicken & Bacon wrap and a strawberry milkshake. The day wasn’t all bad…

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§ 4 Responses to A Dying Breed – The PC Shelf

  • fateamenable says:

    Well put; I was browsing the PC section in my local GAME today, and thinking the same thing. I fear for the loss of good shops selling good games on actual shelves!

  • Absolutely, where I live we don’t even have a game shop nearby without a ten mile drive! So for me if I want a game downloading it digitally goes without saying most of the time. Not mentioning Pc clients like Steam which has some seriously competitive prices, especially during the sales. I think given the choice though I would like to buy a hard copy even if its just to feel as though I was getting something physically.

    • Steve Fulton says:

      It’s the comfort of actually owning something physical. All you can get from a download is a vague sense of paying for thin air, while praying furiously that the game/software works. And, as Tabula Rasa showed us: nothing lasts forever on the internet, no matter how much money is pumped into it.

      One day, however distant, we WILL lose our games. And that worries me.

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