Why In The World Are We Buying Digital Content At GameStop?

So, last year, more than $724 million of GameStop's sales were from digital content. And, even though you can purchase Watch Dogs season passes online, nearly three quarters were bought in brick and mortar stores. Just, what? Are we not yet familiar with the concept of digital content? Does buying something without receiving a physical object still freak us out that much? Are we seriously that uninformed about what is available to us?

Seriously people, what in the fuck is going on here? Digital content is content that is available to you digitally. It exists on no physical media save your hard drive and the server hard drive you download it from. You do not need a card. You do not need a disc. You do not need some kind of token. These are unnecessary physicalities added to a transaction in order to have something on a shelf. These are things that can be purchased at a whim, on the fly, in your own home. After playing 6 hours straight of your new Watch Dogs purchase you can buy the season pass directly from the console you have been playing it on. Why oh why are 70% of the sales for a thing that does not exist in the physical world being purchased there?

GameStop's attempts to make you buy things you could buy anywhere from them specifically are demonstrably bad for gaming, and yet they are wildly successful. It is beginning to make it so that not only does a retailer control how much you pay for a game (totally fair by the way), but what game you get. "Pre-order from GameStop and get the exclusive Lava Gun!" means that you get a different game according to where you buy something. These types of deals are expanding and turning into unavoidable economic tactics for game retailers.

Now, digital content like DLC and Xbox Live membership cards are not specific to any particular retailer. I won't trudge you through the nightmare scenario where certain instances of DLC are only available through certain retailers. What I will say is that when you give money to brick and mortar stores like GameStop you do two things:

First, you are empowering those stores. You are letting them go to manufacturers, developers and publishers and say, "Look, you wouldn't survive without us, so what can we do to keep each other in business?" When the truth is that gaming stores should be going the way of record shops. I enjoyed going to record shops as much as the next guy, but digital distribution just makes more sense, and when it comes right down to it the number of people having life shaping experiences in record shops is small. How many people are having really good experiences in a GameStop? Is interacting with retail drones really changing your lives?

Secondly, you are adding to the cost of whatever it is that you're buying. If GameStop is making money selling Xbox Live cards it's because they get a bonus or a part of that sale. So, in order to keep both the in store and online price the same they set the price at what will allow them to pay GameStop their cut. You are buying a physical representation of a digital thing, and part of what you're paying for is space on a shelf that never had to exist in the pirst place! I have a month by month phone plan. I can buy a phone card most places, but I can also add money to my account directly on the phone that I am paying for. Why anybody would ever buy a card for this mystifies me. Why add an extra step, and another person to the transaction?

Maybe those point of sale purchases are just too tempting. Perhaps buying things on a console is annoying or difficult. Maybe when someone offers an add-on you just can't turn it down. Maybe you didn't know about that season pass or piece of DLC. Maybe you just figure "As long as my debit card is out, I might as well." Stop it. No, you mightn't as well. GameStop is trying to convince you that they are the only place to buy games and accessories, and they are getting dangerously close to making it true by manipulating the market so that you'll be missing out on something if you don't buy a game with them. This is nonsense. A game, or anything else, should stand on its own no matter where you buy it. If something is available online, and requires no shipping and no physical exchange whatsoever then that's where you should buy it. Didn't know about that season pass? Thank the clerk for letting you know and go buy it when you get home.

It wasn't so long ago that we were debating the future of GameStop, and I was rooting for their demise, but instead of dying away they've insinuated themselves even deeper into the industry. Their service as a used games swapping center is valuable. They're creation of a GameStop specific experience reflected in the very products we buy is not. And they've gotten away with it because we are lazy and we demand nothing. Given a viable, convenient alternative to purchase Xbox Live credit we'll choose to drive or walk or crawl to the nearest GameStop and buy or reload a useless card simply because that is where we go for game things. We could have done that at home.

Why aren't we?

Eric Diebel's picture
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