Street Date Breaks allow us to buy the games we want early — by default this should be a good thing, right? But what about the far reaching implications for the local games industry as a whole? And what will be the consequences of retailers consistently breaking street dates? Kotaku regular 'Choc' works on the publishing side of the games industry and, in this guest blog, discusses the far reaching implications of Street Breaks for both consumers and the local sector.
For those of you reading this who don’t know, yesterday Battlefield 3 broke street date in Australia. Ok quick go out and buy it then come back. Done? Good.
Now you’ve managed to obtain this game a little under 24 hours before you are supposed to be able to and, whilst you might think this is fantastic, if this street date break addiction we have in Australia continues it could be harmful to not only the industry but gamers as a whole and I will explain why below.
First of all street dates exist to level the playing field in the retail market. Giants such as EB Games, JB Hifi and GAME have distribution centres that get games to their stores faster than anywhere else. If we had no street dates you would see these three most likely having games on shelves three or four days before anyone else leaving the smaller retailers who have to go through middle distributors a bit out of pocket and at a completely unfair disadvantage because they can’t afford to have a major warehouse with huge logistic operations.
The second reason street dates exist is for marketing purposes — there is no doubt of this. But how happy are gamers now that they can simply read a date in a magazine, or see it on television, walk into a shop and buy it without generally worrying if it will be in stock or not. Marketing teams spend months preparing for a game launch, buying television time, magazine ads and radio ads and these must be all pre-planned months in advance and at great expense. That is a huge burden to the industry if retailers keep ignoring street dates and releasing early.
So why do street date breaks mean bad things for gamers in the long run? If they continue the publishers will become less trusting of the retail sector and start to ship games in a different manner. Generally street dated games are in the hands of shops on the monday of the week of release ready to go later in the week. What street breaks may lead to is publishers shipping the game on a Wednesday to the retailers for a Thursday launch and you walk in 9am on launch day and you can’t buy the game as it has not arrived yet. Very annoying indeed and this generally costs that store a sale. I used to think street date breaks were awesome, I got to see the game early. Then I started to work on the other side of the fence in the industry and in the media, and saw the effect that street date breaks have on the industry. It’s not good.
And why is this only happening in the games industry? DVDs and Blu Rays regularly have street dates on their products and they are generally kept by stores and the stores respect them. Do the stores have a lack of respect for the gaming industry, thinking the industry needs them more than they need the industry? In this age of digital downloads retailers should be doing everything they can to keep the publishers happy. It is after all the publishers who are copping the heat from gamers because digital download prices match retail prices, but it's the retailers who are forcing this.
According to unverified sources the two stores which sold early were informed by EA and the distributor All Interactive Distribution to stop selling the game. When only two have broken nationwide its very easy to reverse the trend but JB HiFi allegedly flat out refused and not only sent out word to the Chatswood store to maintain selling, but sent a memo to their stores nationwide to start selling. Inevitably GAME and EB followed suit.
This breaks a number of rules around the retail agreements between JB and game publishers but I cannot go into details. Generally the way the retailers work is that if a break occurs and it's within the same suburb they will sell. EB has followed this rule for many years and in many ways publishers accept this because EB is losing sales because of a breaking store. What is not acceptable is what JB HiFi allegedly did today and that is break nationally based on one store in a shopping centre in NSW breaking. For the future of street date integrity JB HiFi needs to be dealt with harshly by the publisher if this turns out to be true. Or else what's to stop EB or GAME breaking as soon as they get a game saying, 'well it's going to happen anyway'.
And why is this such an Australian only thing? It is rare that the UK features a street date break and even rarer in New Zealand. In Australia, however, it seems every AAA game breaks street date. The reason, generally, is that Australia is a wide, large country and distribution of titles takes a very long time. Much longer than NZ and UK, and publishers take the risk of sending games early to ensure everyone can play day 1. This is no doubt under threat. Just look at the past six months and how many games broken — Batman: Arkham City, Battlefield 3, RAGE, Dead Island, Zelda 3DS just to name a few. How many of those have broken in NZ or the UK? Zero.
EB Games regularly schedules midnight parties for core gamers. It had prepared parties for Battlefield 3 and unfortunately, as a result of events out of its control, had those plans ruined. This will lead to game companies refusing to do midnight launches because think about it — stores have only got eight hours notice to cancel, which you might think is ample, but if an EB is in a shopping centre they would have had to arrange security at a premium cost, arrange with the shopping centre to open (which costs money) and pay their staff overtime. It’s unfair. We all love midnight launches and everything that goes with them (well some gamers anyway) but it won’t happen if this keeps up.
Australian gamers are getting games earlier than any other country in the world in terms of street date breaks but it's a double edged sword. Perhaps retailers should start to respect the street dates and realise that half the reason street dates exist is to protect them against other companies spending literally tens of thousands of dollars to be first to market. When the JB HiFi alleged memo went out, not every retailer in Australia had stock of Battlefield 3 and is now losing sales? How is that fair and why should that be allowed?