Sticker Shock

Editor’s Note: As some of you, I have a fairly professional gig writing video game reviews for the site, From time to time, my work there helps color the content here. This is one of those times.

I never buy protection.

Now, before you go fleeing for the exits thinking you’ve wandered into a Very Special Episode of The Ed Zone – relax; this is purely gaming related. I’ll leave the pharmacy chat for Dr. Oz.

No, I’m speaking specifically about that Game Disc Protection Plan that every counter jockey at your friendly big-box game store has been coerced to offer you each time you look to purchase another game. I guess $3 is not that steep a charge to save you from yourself – but if you have even the tiniest bit of self-control and can be counted on to refrain from using that new copy of Dead Space 2 for skeet shooting practice; that’s three more bones that you can place as down payment on the next round of DLC that should have been on the disc in the first place.

I’m fundamentally opposed to this policy on two fronts.

For starters – my discs move from the case to the system and back to the case again. That’s the extent of their wandering. Occasionally they return to roost at my nearest game emporium – where whatever credit I get can be placed on purchasing the next Must Have title on my list. Not all of my games find this fate but when you play as many as I do in a year, there’s bound to be a fair share that will simply collect dust. It takes something special to merit “BFF” status on my shelf. So, off they go.

By minimizing a game’s frequent flyer miles, the risk of injury or crash is seriously diminished. So whether it’s staying home with me or I’m kicking it to the curb in favor of the next hotness, these discs always look like they just got their Born-on-Date that very day – even if I’ve owned the thing for a year. Not one blemish, nor scratch, not fingerprint – and this is coming from a dude who shares a house with two small children and two rampaging labs. All have been trained to keep their paws off Daddy’s discs. And those that I trust my kids to handle are spotless. They’ve learned by watching me.

And yet, the ‘used sections’ of the game store look like a forgotten M.A.S.H. unit. With boxes battered into submission, there’s no question that whatever disc that cashier places in the coffer is going to carry a few war wounds. Even the whole “Seven Days to Return It if You Have Any Issues” policy doesn’t provide much comfort. It’s bad enough I darken the doors of these strip mall “swap meets” a few times a month to get something new to play – the last thing I want to do is add another unnecessary trip because their merchandise never should have been bought back and pawned on me in the first place.

Which brings me to my second issue with the Protection Policy. Insurance implies that you are paying a premium to protect your most precious possessions. Yet – every single square inch of the ever expanding Used Game Section has been sandblasted by Price Stickers, Reduced Price Stickers, Coming Soon Stickers, Promo Stickers, etc. And trying to remove this adhesive assault once you’ve got the game in your mitts is a devilish task. Hell, Sisyphus had it easy when Zeus made him continually push a rock up hill, only to have it roll back down before he reached the top. With every one of these decals you remove, two more pop up in their place. And no amount of rubbing alcohol will do the trick.

My daughter once got gum stuck in her hair. An old wives’ tale told us to use peanut butter to remove the sticky substance. I have no idea who came up with that elixir (no doubt, once upon a time someone was trying to remove peanut butter from their hair and by using gum they realized the reverse was true). Regardless, those fabled old wives spoke such truths and that gum was removed without one follicle pulled from her head. To this day, I am still scratching away at a musty old copy of Twisted Metal Black masquerading as a tag sale. No amount of peanut butter will remedy my cause – not even the chunky kind.

It’s Twisted Metal’s outspoken director, David Jaffe, who once famously railed against the general unpleasant condition of most game stores in an EGM piece. He said that whenever he and his wife hit the mall, she released him to check out the games while she continued on with her errands. She wouldn’t step one foot in their doorway as she felt the store was dingy, dark and “smelled like nerd sweat”.

I’ve been a game nerd for three decades and change, so I think I’m coming at this from the right vantage point when I say “She is absolutely correct.” There’s an air of unpleasantness that hangs over many game stores and it is only magnified by the shoddy condition of the merchandise on the shelves. All those decrepit stickers and labels give the inventory a cluttered feeling of complete chaos. It looks dirty and shabby and unhealthy.

I think there are ways to correct this – and with game stores currently focusing their energies on competing in the digital distribution realm; they need to address the real world concerns at the brick and mortar level if they are going to successfully transition into the new frontier. After all; they aren’t going to tackle this nebulous future in one fell swoop. They need to continue reaping revenue in the real-world retail space until we get to that far flung future where we are all housebound shut-ins who send our surrogates out to do our dirty work. If not that, then we’d better have flying cars. We’ve been promised those for far too long.

If these stores need a cautionary tale to motivate them, just take a look at Blockbuster. A once shining bastion of blue light promising all the copies of the latest hits you could ever hope for; this behemoth pushed all those dingy Mom & Pop video stores into a mass grave. But Blockbuster let their stores fall into disarray and it became an unpleasant experience wandering those over lit fluorescent aisles looking to rent the latest box office smash. When Netflix swooped in; offering up ease of use and a customizable plan that sent those DVDs direct to your door; and later streamed through a myriad of digital devices; Blockbuster tried the “me-to” approach but came at it a little too late.

It’s a hard lesson that I think the gaming chains need to learn from. And while they figure out what their streaming strategy should be; they need to take stock of their shops and corral the used game market into something more attractive and marketable.

This means eliminating the stickers completely and clearing all those redundant cases from the shelves. One display copy per game should suffice – store the extra copies in the back room or in custom cabinetry throughout the store. And then simply populate the space with a handful of touch screen computer kiosks which allow shoppers access to that store’s current inventory (and any nearby affiliates).

You could scan a box – see how many new and used copies are in the store – and get the latest price; thus eliminating the need to sticker and re-sticker the product. Gamers could also access the current Trade-In values from inside the store or at home – allowing them to plan their purchases. In addition; you could also offer a Smartphone app that allows shoppers access to the same info and utilizes the phone’s camera to read the image and provide pricing info on the screen. If that store didn’t have what you were looking for, you could reserve at the next one down the road – all by using the connected, interactive app.

With all that superfluous inventory removed from the floor space, each store could get creative. Put up some decorative displays that pay tribute to our precious hobby. Give the store room to breathe and air out all that nerd sweat. The more attractive the destination; the more we want to head back.

Until then, I’ll make sure to take my vitamins and stay up-to-date on my vaccinations before grabbing the latest copy of Halo: Reach… Special H1N1 Edition.