Playing The GAME: When Retailers And Publishers Collide

Yesterday we went where no games journalist has gone before — behind the scenes of the annual GAME Manager's Conference. What resulted was an intriguing look at the dynamic between retail and video game publishing . . .

We enter. Survey the scene. It’s a bit like E3, only smaller. Streamlined.

There are booths, like E3. Screens blasting upcoming releases, like E3. Important looking suits circling the floor like caged animals, like E3. Exasperated folks doing demo after demo, like E3.

A thought suddenly occurs — can we just save time, money and heartache by coming here every year instead of flying to E3?

This is the GAME Manager’s Conference: an event designed for store managers to go hands on/hands off with all of the big releases scheduled for this holiday season. There are some incredible exclusives here: Max Payne 3 is being shown for the first time, Halo Anniversary is playable in the corner, never-before-seen sections of Modern Warfare 3 are being . . . seen. It’s not what we expected.

We had always imagined the meeting of retail and publishing to play out in some drab grey battleground, an empty dearth of space obscured by fog where deals are signed in the blood of thine enemy. This is more like a celebration. People are being friendly.

WILLY WONKA’S CHOCOLATE FACTORY “For the guys who have never been to something like this before,” begins Ben Grant, Marketing Director for GAME Australia, “this is like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory.”

The purpose of the GAME Manager’s Conference is two-fold – firstly it’s a chance for GAME’s store managers to network, receive training and drain the open bar dry, but it’s also designed to inform GAME's managers regarding the big hitters on the Christmas release schedule.

“One purpose of this event is to help store managers to meet and greet their peers,” says Ben, “to get them informed about the strategies we have for the holiday period, to get them motivated. But also they’re gamers - they don’t often get the chance to see the games. There’s no better way to sell Call of Duty or Battlefield 3 to customers than to be able to go back into the store and say ‘I’ve played it’.”

In short, it’s part shindig, part practical meeting of minds, part training exercise. We were completely mistaken – we thought conferences like this were designed for retailers to get wind of what games were worth stocking, buying in on bulk, and ergo was a far cagier affair. Turns out we were completely wrong.

“This event is completely for the store managers,” states Ben. “It’s a completely different pitch for the buyers.”

‘Buyers’ is a short hand term for those in retail who decide which games are worth stocking in stores – and meetings between publishers and retailers in this arena are notoriously difficult. The manager’s conference is different. A completely different pitch.

“It’s interesting how each publisher is slightly different in how they actually sell the game,” mentions Ben. “Some of them will pitch the same presentation to the buyers as they do to the managers, which is wrong – our view is it’s best to just let them play so they can become experts and inform the consumers.”

THE END GOAL Mark Aubrey is the Group Marketing Director at Warner Bros. For him, as part of a major publisher, the benefits of attending an event like this are clear.

“With a specialist retailer like GAME it’s important for the staff in the store to be as educated about the games as we are,” he says. “With, say, Arkham City, the opportunity to inform key store staff and show them an overview of how the game is coming together, it’s of enormous value to the publisher.”

For Mark, this is more about discussing key features of the game, and spreading the word.

“It’s a different pitch for the buyers,” claims Mark. “Every game has some commercial potential – there’s a market for every type of product. Not everyone is looking for a 90+ rated core game, so from a buying perspective we are selling in that commercial potential, the viability of it – this is the market we’re after, this is who will buy this game.

“But when we talk to the store managers we get into the details of the game itself – these are the key features, this is what you need to now. It’s a different proposition. When we’re talking to buyers we are talking about the money-making capabilities of the product instead of the game itself.”

Ultimately the end goal is, of course, profit. Knowledgeable staff equals better customer service, equals more pre-orders, equals more secure buy in, equals more dollars in the hand of the publisher and the retailer.

Easy!

THE BALANCE Ben Collins is the GAME Area Manager for North Sydney, and despite being keen to emphasize the fun everyone seems to be having, he is happy to accept that there is a unique balance here.

“From my perspective this event is partly a ‘good on you guys, this is something we know you’re going to love,’” says Ben, “but it’s also about being able to sell, and being able to pass on information along to our customers.”

Publishers like Warner Bros are all too aware of the sway store managers often have over purchasing decisions, and events like the GAME Manager's Conference are the perfect opportunity to hold court.

“There are key features on products regardless of what they are,” begins Mark Aubrey, “regardless of whether it’s a core game like Arkham City or something like Once Upon A Monster.

“You want the consumer to know about your game and you have multiple avenues with which to dothat. One of them is through media and the other is through retail — but you want that aligned. This event allows us to spread that message. So it doesn’t matter if someone is reading something in a specialist magazine or website, or whether they’re walking into a video game store.”

The sheer volume of consumers walking through the doors of specialist retailers like GAME or EB is frightening, and we’re talking about a very targeted, niche group of consumers – all of whom are interested in buying video games.

"You know," begins Ben Grant, "we get roughly 160,000 people coming through our doors on a weekly basis. And our managers are the ones that are speaking to them."

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM Events like the GAME Manager's Conference help give the games industry as a whole a small shot of adrenaline, but it comes at a fairly significant cost.

"It costs us around $400,000 to put this event on for three days," claims Ben Grant. "You’ve got to fly the managers in, pay for their hotels, you’ve got to feed and water them for three days, hire the venue – they charge you a fortune. . ."

But for a retailer attempting to push their brand and establish themselves as a specialist retailer with top customer service, the investment is a wise one - almost essential - but it's offset by the fact that publishers themselves pay for the privilege of access to GAME's managers.

Ben was quick to point out, however, that GAME don't profit from the event.

"We do sell to publishers, but we don’t actually make any profit," he claims."And when I say sell, there's really no selling involved - it’s easy! The publishers immediately say ‘we’ll be there’, because we’ve done it for years.

"EB also sell booths for their show and, particularly this year, it's very expensive for publishers. I'm not too sure how expensive, but someone told me it costs $100,000 just to have a stand there."

EB - the proverbial elephant in the room. We're glad Ben brought it up. EB also has its own version of the GAME manager's conference which, this year, has evolved into a different beast entirely - an event which is now open to the public. We ask Ben: has GAME ever considered opening their show to a broader audience?

"Well," he begins, "we actually wanted to open our event to the public this year, but it’s very difficult. The main challenge, and I know this because GAME in the UK have just done it, is that publishers will want to take some of the games out – they won’t be allowed to show everything. So then you sometimes get a public show where there isn’t too much to check out. But GAME UK got it across the line, and EB seem to have gotten a lot across the line as well."

By selling tickets to a public hungry for early access to upcoming video games, EB is essentially doubling up on revenue. Publishers will pay for the chance to push product to managers, and possibly pay even more for a direct audience with consumers, and that's not even counting the ticket revenue, which will most likely be sizeable.

But for Ben Grant and his team, the GAME Manager's Conference isn't really about making money - not directly at least. It's a chance to exchange strategies, get a handle on upcoming releases and reward staff for a year of hard work.

"It's all about the games for us," claims Travis Hynes, Area Manager for GAME in Melbourne, "it helps get the guys excited about the games, which helps secure more pre-orders in store - and it helps the store staff feel nice and special."

Ben Collins, his Sydney counterpart, agrees.

"I think what changes, and the point of this whole event, is that we can simply say to our customers 'we’ve played it. We know it’s good. That rumour you heard on the internet? It’s not true!'"


Comments

    Nice to know my boss is off having fun while we try to keep the fort up >:I

      +1

        Cry me a river. Perks of management. Work your way to management and enjoy said perks too.

      Holding the fort......or browsing the Internet at work, posting comments on Kotaku?

    after reading this, all i can see is "blah-blah-blah punish the customer blah-blah-blah".

    It's a positive way of doing things and generating good word of mouth marketing. Almost makes me wish I still went to game stores.

    Unfortunately I'm more than happy to buy a game online for $40 less the Game/EB shelf price and wait two weeks by the mail box. Which is the much bigger elephant in the room.

      Precisely. I thought the elephant in the room section was finally going to delve into the real issue - pricing. But no, seeing as thy spent nearly half a mil on their extravagant early look/pissup I guess we won't be seeing a reduction in prices anytime soon. Back to zavvi I go...

        I think we've covered pricing fairly heavily elsewhere, so I thought I'd leave it out of this one. :)

          Fair enough, the title made me think that the retailers and publishers colliding bit would inevitably be over pricing. Was just drunken collisions at the free bar?

    So is this included in the cost of the advertising Game already runs on Kotaku, or did they pay extra?

      I don't care if it was an ad or not, it was a great read :)

        Thanks man - not an ad. I just thought it was an interesting thing to check out.

          I like to imagine that if you were ever forced into doing an ad as an article that it would end up reading something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgv7U3GYlDY

          Man, I can see what happened the other month now.

          Even with bad phrasing and approach, I had a point. In this case, you go behind closed doors of a manager's event, interview some people, write up an awesome article, and give us a bit of insight into what's going on.

          And then you get accused of stuff by a dick.

          That sucks. Balls, even.

          Keep up the awesome articles, and glad to see you back!

            Thanks mate - really appreciate it!

              It's definitely a well-written piece, and I think you're by far a much better, more open editor than David Wildgoose was. But surely you can see the connection between a current advertiser and articles supporting that advertiser.

              If it were recent breaking news it'd be different, obviously. But it's difficult to look at an extended feature without a hint of suspicion.

              I'm pretty sure you see where I'm coming from.

    You know, the more I think about this, the more I have to call bullshit. How many people will actually be swayed by the opinion of a game store manager? Any gamer worth their salt will have been tracking the big releases mentioned here for months on the net. They'll have read the articles and watched the footage. They'll already know if they want to buy it. And they'll probably get it cheaper online anyway.

    Will they really ever tell people "yeah I played it at the Game manager conference, it was rubbish, although that could have been the fifteen bundys I had beforehand, man, you should have seen Dave, he was mortalled!" They'll just do what they always do, tell you it's great so you buy it.

    They're like those magazines in blockbuster that tell you every movie is great "with hilarious results!" They'd probably tell you vampire rain was great. In fact, I might do a sting operation based on that assumption and then write an article on it.

      I think you make some good points. I don't think their opinion is necessarily for folks like us, who track games throughout the year, scanning sites for news. We're a niche audience really - I think these things are more for folks walking in saying 'should I get BF3 or MW3' - a less core group of gamers.

        Hi, my son was after the game where he gets to headshot something called 'noobs', or something like that... do you have that game?
        Apparently, it's really popular... all his friends are playing it.

          Hi Parent, I think the game your son/daughter/sonaughter is wanting is Tabula Rasa! Not only do you get to pwn noobs, you totally get to play online!

          AND it's on sale!

        Correct. Hardcore gamers are only a tiny percentage of the customer base. 'Hardcore' being a harder label to define these days. Especially with the rise of casual gaming. I think a lot of gamers would be surprised at how many hours some of my retired and 'parent' customers spend playing hidden object games.

      Sure, they are going to try and sell you a game even if they do not like it. But I think that knowing things about the game is going to help them do just that.

      They might not think that a game is all that good, but they can still tell you the highlights. They will also be able to point the differences between titles, which might help them sell Space Marine to someone who is getting tired of playing Gears of War. And if someone comes into the store, but doesn't know exactly what they want, the store manager will be able to point them in a direction based on what they like.

      This is probably not particularly helpful to you or me, but I'm certain that it could help store managers sell games to the general public.

      You underestimate the power of genuinely excited salesperson at a game store. And the people you describe are in the minority of a game retailer's customers.

        Possibly, I'll admit I don't spend much time interacting with the staff of games shops. But the patents that make up most of this customer base will be pressured into buying the game by their kids no matter what the staff have to say.

      On quite a few occasions I've seen what we would probably describe as the broader audience of gaming really talking it up to EB Games / GAME staff about, what would you know, current games and their upcoming sequels.

      The customers doing the talking in this scenario always seem to be mid-late teenagers but not really appearing older than their mid twenties and have always seemed to be interested in one thing in-particular: Shooting other people online. And who best to be able to tell those people that the next best game for shooting people online is MW3 of BF3 than the store manager, or the staff he's given vital information to?

      If they hadn't pre-ordered it by then, they surely have a higher likelihood after being schmoozed!

        I think I'd actually respect them more if they just came out and said "yeah, we took the rogues from selling overpriced games, had a three day party witha stocked up bar and got to play games you won't see for months, net net neg net ner

          Hahaha, the perils of posting from a phone! That was supposed to be profit not rogues, and ner ner ner ner, not whatever that was!

      A friend of mine works at a video game retail store, and there's apparently still plenty of people who listen to their advice. *shrug*

      I actually am always honest about a game or products quality when i am selling because i feel if i lie and it doesnt live up to its expectations u will not shop with me again. Can't count how many times ive got "Hey man u were so right bout that said game/product"

    It's ridiculous that the industry panders to individual retailer events. It costs the distributors a fortune, which of course if paid by us, the consumers in the form of higher prices for games.

    There should be only one event a year, run by the iGEA, and all the retailers should attend that. the iGEA should have some balls and stand up to the likes of GAME, EB and JB and say "no more"...

      Hear hear!

      This made me laugh because you make the assumption if distributors weren't paying for shows to industry conferences, they wouldn't have prices so high. The prices are only so high because it awareness of their price gouging based entirely on region hasn't reached critical mass yet.

      Distributors pay for tv ads and billboards, these shows are just another budgeted-for piece of the marketing pie.

    As long as GAME dont try and pull the same bullshit that they pulled over in the UK im happy.

    I used to run a games dept at JB Hi Fi for about 3 years and went to a couple of their games conferences.
    They were pretty similar to this and they were great fun. Got to check out heaps of new games, got a few freebies and got a couple of nights in a hotel. All in all it was pretty sweet. (but it didn't make up for the rest of the years worth of shit that was heaped on you when you worked there!)

      And i heard the muff was off the hook!

      Imagine going to a vacuum cleaner vendor show... "This new model really sucks!"

      Goodnight everybody!

    "a 90+ rated core game"

    *head explodes*

    The dirty side of the industry, or the elephant in the room, is the obsession with profit, ommercialisation and marketability. Not to mention the blind faith in Metacritic.

    /grumpy

      The metacritic thing will be the death of me. I'll have a stroke one day.

        I can image if metacritic had a way of measuring the critiquing your death, it would go like this:
        1 = No one should die like this
        100 = Everyone should die like this

        Death:
        Died by auto asphyxiation in a cheap Thailand hotel during an orgy of full of black, jewish midgets covered in rose scented body lotion.

        Score: 98
        Reason: Everyone should die with the smell of roses in the room.

    The other elephant in the room is "Hey, come to our all expenses paid conference with free booze and videogames while we shower you with gifts so you will plug our products." It's fine for a retail manager I suppose, but it doesn't inspire must trust in their opinions. There appears to be a lot of elephants in the room! I'm all for store employees having more knowledge, but I pretty much never get to experience it as they're often chained behind registers. EB tends to be the worst for this I've found.

      But I must say it is an interesting article on the working of Australia's videogame industry, so kudos to Mark.

    Ben Grant in that pic is like "Welcome to my underground lair.... some of you I know, some of you I'm meeting for the first time..."

    "I’m not too sure how expensive, but someone told me it costs $100,000 just to have a stand there.”

    What an absolute lie. As someone who has worked with many conferences in the past (one or two at a similar scale to EB's Expo), there is no way in hell EB would be charging a publisher $100,000 to hold a booth over a weekend.

    What I can imagine a publisher spending $100k on the creation and manufacture of their booth, especially if it's something that needs to be designed and can be reused if made out of durable equipment. I can even predict a publisher spending $100k on the booth, rental, power, HEAVY advertising, staff wages (for the Expo and EB conference before-hand) and the transport of guests from overseas if they're doing a talk.

    However, the way he makes it sound is that EB is charging $100k just for space rental, which is complete and utter bullshit.

    I don't shop at EB (online all the way!), and I'm all for a bit of friendly competition. However, this really does read like a puff-piece for Game by stating how EB does it for the cold hard cash but Game does it for "the love of gaming!". Descriptions of the event are great, but as soon as you start publishing hear-say from an opposing store, I'd expect you to at least attempt to get EB's version of that, if for nothing but accuracy's sake.

    Poor form.

      I work for a games publisher, and I can confirm that we have paid around the quoted $100k mark for the EB conference.

      You have to remember that the 5 day EB conference would have cost them circa $1.5m to put on.....

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