Thursday, August 10, 2006

I dreamed of an ideal game store...

One of my favorite activities is browsing the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble. Sometimes I have a specific section I want to check out such as the game magazine rack or the game development book section. Most of the time I come in with no particular agenda and I browse the isles looking for anything that catches my eye. Sometimes I come across particularly fascinating books and I sit down and devour them in one sitting. Other times I make a mental note to pick up the book at a later date. I also make it a point to buy a few books at retail to support these stores for the generosity in browsing that they offer.

For some reason, this particularly satisfying experience does not apply to movies, music, or games. Many music stores offer you the ability to scan a CD and listen to the first 30 seconds of a song if the CD is stored in their database. 30 seconds isn't a really great sample size but at least you can get some idea of what you the CD is about. What I really want is to be able to sit down and browse a magazine or book while letting lots of random music cycle and then being able to get more information about any songs that grab my attention.

The movie watching experience is highly intertwined with visiting the local theater or renting the latest flick. The one area that I have trouble with is tracking down independent or foreign films. These movies usually require extra effort in going to out of the way movie theaters or rental stores to obtain copies. It's a great experience to visit indie theaters or movie stores because you run into other people that are also into more diverse movies. Howeverer, the added effort of reaching these places usually means that I don't get to see as many non-mainstream films as I'd like.

How does this relate to games? Games are in their own world. It's pretty hard to find anything outside of currently popular games at most places. Shelf space is about one-fifth the size of the space allocated to either movies or music. There is also no way to sample the games ahead of time outside of potentially downloading a demo. Demos are not a great representation of the final game and many take an overnight download to complete. Renting is also less than optimal since my local video store doesn't carry about half of the new games that are released.

When I go to specialty game stores I am pressured about trading in or pre-ordering games and buying protection plans. These plans might make sense for some hardware but they have even started to push these policies onto the games themselves. In addition, the selection of new and used games is in a sorrier state than I expect - there are rows of filthy and mismatched games and even some of the new games have no shrink wrap or the original cover. About 50 percent of specialty game store space is devoted to racks and racks of used games and it's often hard to distinguish where the new ones end and the used ones begin.

So what would my ideal game store look like? It would be large - about the size of current specialty music stores. There would be several kiosks for each system and some stations would be dedicated to multiplayer and online games. There would be PCs with reasonable access rates for trying out online games. Perhaps there could even be built in wi-fi access for players to sit down with their laptop or handheld system. It would include retro gaming systems and a large back catalogue of significant games. Everything would be available for rent or purchase. There would be a large selection of gaming magazines that included foreign journalism such as Edge and Famitsu, with accompanying comfy chairs and tables. There would be a section for playing tabletop games. It may even include a few of the latest arcade games. There would also be a section for trying out the latest mobile phone games. Finally, there would be a catalogue of indie games alongside the big budget stuff. The theme of the store would be to bring together different communities of game players along with a large variety of games to play. Think of it as a gaming lifestyle store that celebrates all the forms of gaming and attempts to create a comfortable, stimulating environment to meet like-minded gamers as well as provide a gentle introduction to those that are not as familiar with what's out there. Ideally there would be regulars who may get tapped for purchasing advice every now and then.

How would the store make money? There could be a club that allowed you access to the game library and had different tiers of membership that included things like wi-fi access and rentals. There would be sponsored tournaments and gaming jam sessions. Perhaps there could even be sneak peak events where players could pay a small fee to try out an incomplete version of a hot upcoming game. Maybe game developers would even show up for the release of new games. All of this would feed into selling the games. I believe that if people have the opportunity to sample their entertainment and there is a social incentive to playing they will be more likely to patronize the store. While online gaming is great for playing with your friends it is less than ideal for gaming sessions with strangers. I think gaming face to face is much more attractive in this regard and having a store that encouraged people to play together would generate a lot of interest in games that people may otherwise overlook.

It seems evident to me that people today want to sample their entertainment before they make purchases and we need to develop friendlier ways to capitalize on this trend. I believe that people also want to do this legally and as a society we are simply not providing enough ways to do this. Games also seem to have the unique characteristic about them that they encourage us to be social because it enhances our gaming experience. Even single player games generate a lot of discussion about the various ways players interact with them. I think a great game store would invite, encourage, and reward play and, if done right, the business would easily follow.

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