Does anything really matter until you're personally affected by it? It's easy enough to ignore financial reports and credit warnings and gloomy editorials - but try ignoring an empty shelf. Try ignoring GAME, the UK's largest specialist video game shop chain, being unable to to stock Ubisoft's PlayStation Vita games (until today), Wii role-playing game The Last Story and Tekken 3DS.
As of September 2011, GAME is a hulking worldwide business of 1287 shops, and 615 of those stretch the length and breadth of the UK. GAME took £1.625 billion in revenue in its last full trading year. But when GAME was suddenly asked to pay for stock up front, the wobbly house that credit built nearly wholesale toppled over.
GAME's not out of the water yet, and nor is high street rival HMV. Emergency bank rescue packages are all that props them up. If GAME and HMV don't makes ends meet, bailiffs will. After all, business is business, sentimental gaming heritage or not.
But what would happen if GAME died? Here Eurogamer presents a theoretical picture of the future, painted by commenters from all walks of video game industry life.
The first thing to consider is where the 2.5 million people that walk into GAME and Gamestation shops every week go. To supermarkets? Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Tesco are regulars on Eurogamer's many price roundup articles. They're the obvious alternative. And they may "smell blood", warns Don McCabe, joint managing director of indie video game chain Chips. "They're like bloody sharks anyway. They spot HMV and GAME in trouble - if they smell blood and really go for it, they could wipe them out the market and they'll share the market between themselves and online."
Take toasters, says McCabe. Several years ago, toasters came in all shapes and sizes and brands. "Then supermarkets came in and undercut everybody," and the variety disappeared. "Now if you walk into your local supermarket, you'll get a choice of three: a budget, a premium and 'best price' or whatever they call it. They get it made as cheap as hell, maximise the profit on it and there's no competition."
As for range - take a look at supermarket books. "There used to be, on every high street, book stores and chains from Waterstones right the way down to Ottakar's," remembers McCabe. "You could browse thousands and thousands of books on every subject under the sun.
"Then the supermarkets came in, wiped out the cream, took the top sellers, the premium sellers, sold them as cheap as hell. I remember the Harry Potter books were cheaper to buy from Tesco than from a wholesaler! Now if you walk into your local supermarket, how much range of books have they got? Would it be enough to satisfy you? It's bland. It's the 10 per cent of crap."
"Now if you walk into your local supermarket, how much range of books have they got? Would it be enough to satisfy you? It's bland. It's the 10 per cent of crap."
Don McCabe, joint managing director, Chips
Not all branches of a supermarket sell games. Usually only the major supermarket stores do - the Locals and the Expresses don't bother. And those obliging supermarket stores don't offer the library of games that GAME does.
"Some consumers believe supermarkets will take up the slack if specialist retailers disappeared, but in truth they are only really interested in the very biggest selling games like Call of Duty and FIFA," comments Eurogamer Network managing director Rupert Loman, who has been dealing with people from all walks of the games industry for over a decade, "and they won't stock the range of games that specialists should be offering."
"Generally you're looking at your top 20 until Christmas," Tesco games buyer Jonathan Hayes explains. "For a supermarket that works quite well."
He expects there would be "some natural movement" towards supermarkets if GAME went. "Look at what happened when Woolworths and Zavvi went. Their sales spread around the industry," Hayes recalls. "You definitely get some movement towards the people that are left.
"Would it all go to supermarkets? I doubt it. If HMV went but GAME didn't, would it all go to either/or? Probably not, but it would get spread around. What you're trying to say is would we take full advantage of something that has happened? We'd be stupid not to take some advantage of it."
GAME relies on video games to have a business. Supermarkets do not. If the high-street video game business plummeted, supermarkets could simply strike them from their inventory and replace them with something else. "We've got loads of people that walk through our stores; if there's something to sell, we'll sell it," says Hayes.
Leave game sales up to supermarkets and you're faced with "lack of choice, lack of variety, lack of risk", explains Andy Payne, chairman of UK video games trade body UKIE, publisher Mastertronic and digital developer/publisher Just Flight. He's also founder of PC digital distributor Get Games, and CEO of developer consortium AppyNation. His business cards are big.
""From a gamer's perspective, you may be faced with a much more androgynous, bland offering, which is much more dumbed down to the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor. "
Andy Payne, chairman, UKIE
"From a gamer's perspective, you may be faced with a much more androgynous, bland offering, which is much more dumbed down to the lowest common denominator rather than the highest common factor. That's absolutely going to happen, because it usually does."
Losing GAME and HMV means losing a massive opportunity to see things in the flesh. You wouldn't be able to see new hardware in action, fondle game pads, twist steering wheels. Ancillary guff like t-shirts, books and posters wouldn't get the time of day in a supermarket. (And some of us really like game-related fiction, sniff.)
"The hardware manufacturers, Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, and anybody else with peripherals, other kit that makes the gaming experience that much more interesting - all those guys are going to suffer from lack of eyes, hands, feet in the stores," Payne stresses. "That's going to have a negative effect on innovation; you won't get new products coming through."
"It's a much more intimate buying experience," Screen Digest analyst Piers Harding-Rolls tells us. "People want to see what it's like and what it adds to the gaming experience before turning over the money." And if they can't, it's very likely they won't, meaning less money spent overall on consoles and gaming.
Sony certainly appreciates the role GAME's staff play in demonstrating and flogging Vita. "That's very important. We value that, and we've certainly valued that highly over recent weeks," Fergal Gara, Sony's UK and Ireland vice president and managing director, tells us.
"We hope that experience can continue to survive, because it's a very important part of British retail. And while there are many other retail channels out there that complement it, we wouldn't like to see a market without a specialist retail chain."
Also, don't underestimate a high-street shop's ability to sell stuff for cash. "There's a lot of people who don't want and don't have the ability to spend money on the internet," Andy Payne reminds us. "All that pocket money is used to buy stuff on a whim, maybe in the 15 minutes at the end of the shopping trip with mum and dad.
"We hope that experience can continue to survive ... we wouldn't like to see a market without a specialist retail chain."
Fergal Gara, vice president and managing director, Sony Computer Entertainment UK and Ireland
"The ability to take cash is underestimated by a lot of executives and a lot of analysts, because they don't live with normal people who do normal things. Some are driving round in big cars and worrying about spreadsheets. They don't realise that people are on the bread line and their gaming fix is what they want. If they've got some money in their pocket and they've saved up, that's what they want to go and do: go and have a look and spend their money. Get their hit from the retail experience and go home and play the game."
Dedicated shops are also perpetual adverts for video games. Windows are dressed and passers-by kept abreast of what's big, what's new. These shops are also reminders that video games exist. Take them away and what do you see? Gregg's flaky pastries?
"Even if people don't buy their console from GAME, the fact that on the high street there is a permanent billboard for games-type content tells people what's going on, even if they end up buying it at Argos or Sainsbury's with their weekly shop," Nicholas Lovell, founder of games industry blog Gamesbrief, reinforces. Without those shops, "the console manufacturers have to work really hard to find new distribution."
Plus, GAME's staff give you buying advice. You may sometimes wish they'd leave you alone, but a lot of their customer base needs directing. "We all think everyone knows about the games. They don't," Andy Payne says. "That's one reason why games like Call of Duty and FIFA sell so much, because people don't always know what to buy - they flock and they buy what other people recommend to them."
"[GAME staff] will be replaced by who - Dorises at supermarkets? People stacking shelves who know nothing about the product? That's not great."
Andy Payne, chairman, UKIE
If GAME goes down, those staff are let loose - lost, perhaps. "Right now, GAME has got a phenomenal amount of people under the age of 30 working in their stores, and they're all advocates for our industry," Payne continues. "There have been lots of examples of their staff getting careers in the games industry, and some even create games.
"Those people will be replaced by who - Dorises at supermarkets? People stacking shelves who know nothing about the product? That's not great. It's not great for the vitality of this brilliant industry that we work in, which is fun and full of really interesting stuff."
Then there are the midnight launches we've become accustomed to - hype-building media events to welcome major new hardware or games to the UK. EA drove a tank down to GAME Oxford Street last autumn for Battlefield 3. Were GAME and HMV not there, what options would publishers have? "I just can't see supermarkets being a like for like alternative. Out of town, on an industrial estate, trying to queue up - it's horrible," says Andy Payne.
Trading old games
GAME and HMV would be in far more trouble were it not for the booming pre-owned/trade-in/second-hand business, however much it antagonises potential publisher allies. But losing so much of this prospering pre-owned business could have undesirable ramifications, as Nicholas Lovell explains.
"Pre-owned says to punters that when you pay for this piece of content you will be able to sell it again. Therefore, your average purchase price is not £40 - it's £40 minus the trade-in price. It's not a £40 investment, it's a £10 investment. And a bunch of people then don't return it, they hold onto it.
"If you took away the opportunity to say 'it's only a tenner'," he adds, "it's entirely possible that the new-sales market would be much smaller than it would with pre-owned. People umming and ahhhing about whether or not to fork out are far worse than people who splash the cash because they know they can either take it back or get a return on their money."
"People umming and ahhhing about whether or not to fork out are far worse than people who splash the cash because they know they can either take it back or get a return on their money."
Nicholas Lovell, founder, Gamesbrief
Popular swap shop CEX would "definitely benefit" from GAME's departure, foresees Screen Digest's Piers Harding-Rolls, but it might not have "the scale of business" to cope. Would supermarkets? "Unlikely," says Payne.
Bye bye THQ et al
The knock-on effect of less game choice means only the biggest publishers with the biggest games survive. "The guys who are the also-rans of this world, the THQs, they'll go bust," says Lovell. "The middle-tier was going to be squeezed to death in the next three to five years anyway. In the absence of a specialist retailer that just might happen faster."
Take that a step further and you're in a world where only sure things exists. "This week it would be FIFA week, next week it'll be Call of Duty week and the week after that it will be Mario week," says Chips' Don McCabe. "Whatever the biggest franchises are, those will survive. Where does the innovation come from? Where's the excitement?
"To some degree, yes this is a natural cause of events. But it doesn't stop you from thinking, 'Well actually, that's not good for the industry as a whole.' If there are only 20-30 games coming out each year, what's going to happen to all the programmers out there? What's going to happen to all the graphic artists, and the developers, the musicians? Where are they going to get jobs in the future?"
He adds: "If there's only 30-40 games coming out every year, why do you need so many journalists to write about them?"
"It affects Eurogamer," Andy Payne tells me. "If the likes of Activision, EA, Ubisoft and company don't believe there is a market, then they won't place advertising, and it ends up become a much, much more competitive marketplace."
Eurogamer's Rupert Loman agrees: "If publishers are suffering, developers will suffer, and indeed there will be a large knock-on effect for the entire games ecosystem - including games websites, many of which largely rely on advertising revenue from publishers."
"If there's only 30-40 games coming out every year, why do you need so many journalists to write about them?"
Don McCabe, joint managing director, Chips
But even the biggest blockbusters like Call of Duty and Battlefield and Skyrim begin to suffer; they'll sell in roughly the same quantities, but they won't make as much money. "The supermarkets will do big discounts," Nicholas Lovell explains, "and it'll be harder to sell Collector's Editions except on the web directly, because Sainsbury's is never going to stock a Special Edition - they just want to do the throughput."
If blockbusters make less money and no one picks up the slack, then an alarming amount of that £1 billion spent at GAME each year could be lost forever. Perhaps shoppers decide to pop to the Apple Store and look at getting an iPhone or iPad instead. If that happens, the whole games food chain suffers. "If the people at the end of it are not feeding, then the people to the initial concept to the actual delivery to the customer will suffer," McCabe says.
And the spiral of less money, less risk, less exciting content continues, says Nicholas Lovell. "And the games industry, which has been so incredibly creative and successful these past 25 years and has contributed so much, is in danger of becoming diminished."
Don McCabe warns: "It's not like you can sit in a publishing house and think, 'Ah well, GAME - I never liked them bastards anyway, I'll be glad when they're gone. Because at the end of the day, they're your bread and butter! We're all dependent on one another. If you haven't got programmers at one end and retailers at the other end, you haven't got a bloody business."
A blessing in disguise
You wouldn't have a "bloody business" as we know it: big publishers, big budgets, big console launches, big marketing spend. But what if losing that wasn't a bad thing. Video games wouldn't disappear - like a stream they'd find another way to the sea. Look at digital distribution on PC (and Mac) via Steam, Origin and beyond. It's hard to find a bad word said about that evolution. What if GAME's theoretical demise was the nudge over the precipice our regimented console industry needs?
"Our research from earlier this year showed that 80 per cent of the UK was making games for digital download either in part or entirely, and only 20 per cent were doing so for retail," reveals Richard Wilson, CEO of UK developer trade body Tiga. "This big shift is already taking place.
"For the developer, [GAME closing would] reinforce something they already know. It would serve as a reminder that they've got to move fast and try and bypass publishers and go straight to consumers. It just gives them a much stronger incentive to rely on their own two feet." And that may force publishers to work harder on alternative content delivery methods, and "you'd probably see improvements in terms of distributing games via console".
"If we all turn to the web to do this kind of thing, then actually these products might do much better, because they don't depend on the gate-keeper of GAME."
Nicholas Lovell, founder, Gamesbrief
Does Nicholas Lovell believe GAME closing would be bad? "If you like your games in boxes, yes. If you don't care where your innovation comes from, it's a good thing.
"If what [shoppers] want is scores of identical shooters, yes. But what if they're interested in ... any number of excellent, excellent indie games that would find it difficult to get a publisher - and the reason they couldn't get a publisher was because the publisher didn't think they could sell it into the game-buyer at GAME who says, 'Well how much marketing budget are you going to push at it, and is it going to sell lots and lots of content really quickly, oh and is it a first-person shooter? That's why I don't think it's an issue.
"At the moment, if you're not stocked in GAME, then you don't sell very much. And GAME churn content very quickly - they want the next big thing. They're not a long-tail business. And the supermarkets are even worse, frankly.
"If we all turn to the web to do this kind of thing, then actually these products might do much better, because they don't depend on the gate-keeper of GAME.
"Conceivably," he adds, "it would be better for creative diversity. That's a definite positive."
"Is it a good thing for the games industry?" mulls Richard Wilson. "I don't think I'd use that particular term 'good'. It's something that's taking place, it's a major event that's taking place. The wider trends that are taking place towards digital distribution are absolutely positive and excellent news for developers. The move towards digital distribution is terrific for developers. It gives them a whole new range of opportunities.
"It's fantastic that developers, through digital distribution, have a better opportunity to hold onto their IP and to retain more of their hard earned work through greater profits. So those trends are really, really good. One would like that to take place irrespective of what happens to GAME or HMV."