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.”
“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.
“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."
"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!'"