In an unsurprising move, gaming industry organisation ELSPA (the European Leisure Software Publishers Association) has sent a letter to the British government "expressing its dismay" at Stephen Byers' suggestions that the EU should allow grey imports, or "parallel importing" as it's known in the trade. The Department of Trade & Industry believes that lifting restrictions will allow retailers to import goods more cheaply and force down the sometimes extortionate prices we pay in many parts of Europe. Obviously this is of grave concern to the companies which make their money by over-charging European retailers and consumers. Companies like the publishers which ELSPA represents. Cynical, moi?
ELSPA claims that allowing grey imports would somehow "reduce consumer choice and jeopardise a range of industries whose main assets are their intellectual property and brands", although we fail to see how allowing retailers to import games from other countries would in any way reduce consumer choice. If anything, the opposite should happen. "ELSPA believes that if parallel importing is not only tolerated but actively encouraged, it could place an intolerable strain on British-based publishers", the organisation continues. Their main issue though seems to be the same one which has movie distributors worried - that it "will allow retailers to import product from outside the EU in advance of any UK release dates". Apparently ELSPA has just woken up to the fact that we are living in a global market, and this scares them. And with good reason.
It's long been known that games and consoles cost more in Europe than in the USA, often significantly more. For example, the PlayStation 2 costs £299.99 in the UK and $299.99 in the USA. At current exchange rates, we are paying 40% more than Americans for the same hardware. Game prices tend to be closer to American levels once you have taken into account differences in sales tax, but there are exceptions. Probably the worst recent example was Serious Sam, which retailed for a budget $19.99 in the USA but cost £29.99 in the UK - more than double the American price.
Even worse, many games are released in Europe weeks or even months after they appear in the USA. Often this is for no apparent good reason, or is done simply to allow time for the game to be translated into French, German, Spanish and so on. Obviously this is of little interest to UK gamers, and indeed many English-speaking gamers from other countries have repeatedly told us that they prefer to play games in the original English because of the often poor quality of translations and voice-overs provided for their native language.
Last year's hit (in Europe at least) Deus Ex took around two months to reach our shores, while Myst III is already available in the USA but won't be released in Europe until September - four months later. Going back a little further, the original Tribes took several months to reach the UK, and even then it was only ever released as part of a bundle with mediocre mech game Starsiege. In these cases it's easy to see why many English-speaking European gamers would like their local retailers to be able to import games from overseas, and why the European publishers are worried about this possiblity.
The real question is, will parallel importing hurt the publishers as much as ELSPA claims, or will it just force them to rethink their pricing and release strategies to better suit what most European gamers want from them - pricing as close to US levels as local taxation and distribution costs allow, and simultaneous worldwide releases for English language versions of games.