The jury was always out on whether street breaks were a good or bad thing, but one thing is for certain — they pretty much don't happen any more.
The street break: that moment when an anticipated video game sells early, before the official release date. Back in 2011, those halcyon days, there was an epidemic. A week barely went by without a major release breaking street date in Australia.
It culminated, for me, with Battlefield 3. It's hard to imagine now, as Battlefield has slowly lost relevance, but in October 2011 there was no bigger game. Whisper the word 'Battlefield' and there was a stampede.
I still remember the day before release.
I remember clicking on the social media pages of EB Games, JB Hi-Fi and GAME. I remember the slow burn shitstorm.
"ARE YOU GUYS SELLING BATTLEFIELD 3? I HEARD THAT TARGET/KMART/BIG W IS SELLING IT."
The hysteria: it filtered down to my twitter feed and my inbox. I would get faked receipts sent to my inbox. "SEE! SEE! THIS PERSON BOUGHT BATTLEFIELD AT BIG W IN CHATSWOOD. STREET BREAK!"
Some would come in the form of literal pleading.
"Can you post this receipt and pressure EB Games into breaking street date? PLEASE?"
People would seriously ask me this.
And the strange thing: I kinda miss it. The energy of it. Like the moment before a sprint, waiting for the gun to go off. That tension, it was palpable. There were so many factors at play. From my perspective, I wanted to break news that a game had broken street date. There was value in that for readers and those stories always did insane amounts of traffic. But I also wanted to be right. When was it okay to report that a game had broken street date? Was it when the first copy was sold at Target? Nah. Was it when EB Games started sending texts to pre-order customers? Yeah, maybe. Was it when GAME posted that the game had broken street date on their Facebook page? By then it was probably too late!
It was a day where literally everyone had their finger on the trigger. It was like a video game arms race. A cold war. A Cuban missile crisis. On the one side you had EB Games, the other GAME. Who would break first? Sweat dribbling on the forehead of these two specialist retail giants.
"A Kmart in Parramatta Westfield sold it? Maybe it's okay for us to go!"
"NO HUMBLE SALES ASSISTANT... WE WAIT."
Both EB Games and GAME had that defence: neither would go without the permission of the publisher. But money was at stake here. If GAME was selling and EB Games wasn't, that was a lost sale to your direct competitor. That tension. Do right by your suppliers? Lose money? The dilemma! Publishers technically had the right to punish retailers for breaking a street date, but how could they really prove it? And what publisher was really brave enough to bit the hand that feeds? Publishers need retail to sell boxed products.
It really was crazy there for a while.
It was a tension driven by competition. It's hardly a coincidence that, once GAME left, street breaks slowed to a crawl. GAME wasn't to blame, neither was EB Games. The street break was a reflection of that direct competition, that need to be first. That need to win. Once GAME left EB really had little reason to ever break a street date. Target sold early? Big deal. One copy sold as a loss leader at a Mom & Pop store was hardly going to affect the bottom line. Relationships with publisher are not to be trifled with. The stakes were lower all of a sudden. The need to take that risk was subverted.
The end result: video games don't break street date anymore. It's probably a good thing for everyone — for consumers, retailers, publishers — but it's also kinda boring.
Yesterday, the day before Metal Gear Solid V's release date I got a tweet from a friend. It said: "send me a txt if Metal Gear breaks street date." It was a joke. I chuckled. But a part of me was like, wouldn't that be fun? One last time? A street break.
For old time's sake?