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Archive for February, 2011

Déjà Vu

February 22nd, 2011 No comments

Back around Y2K, I had moved house and happened to find myself living right beside an Electronics Boutique. Oh, happy day! Well, not exactly.

Under normal circumstances, yes, but at the time, I was in the process of marginalizing my “gaming self” (long story, but it was in part a social experiment). In addition to adopting the maligned Nintendo 64 as my console of choice, I sold my aging Pentium 133 for a pittance and purchased a G3 Mac and its inexplicably endearing OS 9.

Want to Game Different? The Mac was the right place to be. Its user base had always been a fraction of the PC’s, and given the beating Apple’s image was taking in the late 90s, more developers and publishers were going PC-only. And of the studios that were still sticking around, the traditional hybrid PC/Mac install discs and simultaneous release dates were becoming less common: develop for PC first, then have it ported to Mac. The reality was these businesses were simply heading to where the larger audience, thus higher potential profit, happened to be.

And when I first walked into that EB store (I guess it’s a GameStop now), this story was succinctly told by the fact that the entire Mac inventory could fit on one side of a centre-floor shelf. This image attested the Mac’s dwindling gaming presence, but was evidence of its former weight. Eventually, that shelf was used for something more important to the business, such as secondhand PS1 games, or bulbous Mad Catz packages.

It’s been a number of years since I moved from that area, and I recently happened to find myself in the old neighbourhood and paid that GameStop a visit. As I browsed the shelves, I was reminded of how much can change in a decade. The mighty PC — once the bane of every Mac gamer — had now been relegated to the Mac’s former status.

PC shelf at the local Electronics Boutique

It was a pretty sorry sight: one narrow shelf “brought to you by Blizzard,” and the other crammed with whatever else was in stock, both partially hidden by the cashier’s saloon door.

Ten years ago, PC games and their oversized boxes were at the front of the store, covers facing out. As consoles came and went, this section slowly shrank. Boxes were turned, spines out. The section was continuously moved to less prominent areas. Now, it’s right beside the cash station. It is impossible to peruse that shelf without having an employee “ask” you to move out of the way as though you were some kind of nuisance.

But at least you can use a nearby cardboard box as a seat while slowly going through the lower shelves.

Diminished shopping experiences aside, there are greater issues represented by that picture. There’s been talk about the imminent death of the PC-gaming market, and no doubt its relative underperformance at retail is feeding pet theories. In this chicken-and-egg scenario, publishers are going console-only or console-first, where larger profits lie, leaving the PC to wither at retail. Retailers devote less shelf space to the PC, giving publishers less reason to invest in PC projects. How Mac-like.

But maybe not.

This is not the demise of Mac gaming Part II — the marketplace is not what it was ten years ago. GameStop has clearly made up its mind about PC games in its stores, but I think this decision says more about its own worrisome future than the PC’s. Despite being the world’s largest brick-and-mortar game store, what GameStop does right now determines whether it matters ten years from now. And until they’ve parlayed their recent acquisition of Kongregate into something self-sustaining, I can’t consider them the most reliable litmus test of platform strength. (If anything, the fact that they bank a great deal of their future on a PC-based, Flash-game portal says a lot.)

And back to the former butt of the joke: over the last year, in spite of itself, Apple has experienced a resurgence as a gaming platform — not in the traditional sense, but in the mobile realm. There’s no denying the iPhone is pretty important to publishers right now (at least the western ones). And whether the era of the 99-cent game will last any longer than the Guitar Hero era did, the distribution channels and pricing models are clearly evolving.

The PC will correspondingly evolve to exist in this future.

And GameStop? Its share of the action could potentially dwindle to, oh, say a shelf’s worth. Should that happen, whoever the jackass is that manufactures those clear, round stickers GameStop uses to re-seal those “new” games is going to have a good cry.