Tuesday, October 25, 2005

And that's when my pants fell down

Chris is sad, because he isn't playing Civilization IV. It is a cold comfort that nobody else is, either. If you venture onto any of the fan sites for this franchise, you will be quickly overwhelmed by the wails and screaming of all those who were convinced that this would be the day they cracked open their packages and began playing.

I forget whether I addressed this before so I'll discuss "ship dates" again. With most forms of consumer media (books, CDs, DVDs, etc.), items have a "street date." When I worked in a bookstore, we would get these things a week or so in advance, and would basically be on our honor to keep them packed up until the posted date. (You have probably heard about this before, in cases like a new Harry Potter book accidentally going on sale in a hotel store days before it is supposed to.) The reason for this is to ensure a fair playing field between competing retailers. You can think of it as a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma. If a store gets its shipment before others, it will put them on sale first, and will attract the buyers before later stores get a chance to sell theirs. Any store gets an advantage by selling early and is hurt in the more likely case that other stores get theirs earlier. Therefore, the publisher tells them to wait for the same day so everyone has the item in stock before anyone can sell it.

Computer and video games are the exception to this rule. Instead of street dates, they have ship dates, which is the day an item ships from the publisher's warehouse to the retailers. Therefore, while different retailers will receive them around the same time, there is no coordinated moment at which the item goes on sale.

For the vast majority of products, this doesn't make the slightest difference. You aren't going to drive down to Best Buy to see if Deer Hunter III: The Bludgeoning is out yet. However, for AAA titles like Grand Theft Auto or HalfLife, hordes of ravaging fans have been building themselves up into a frenzy, eager to be the first person on the block to play the game.

(You may have noticed that, if you pre-order a DVD from Amazon, you'll often get it on the release day or even the day before. This is because they already have it in stock and try to ship it so it reaches you on the street date. You won't get this same treatment for a video game unless you spend a lot on rush shipping, because they won't even have it in stock until the day of.)

So, the situation we find ourselves in now is that Firaxis and Take 2 Games had announced a ship date of October 25th. (That is today.) Apparently, it is standard practice for most stores to pay for rush shipping on their initial order of items like this; that way they can satisfy their pre-order customers by getting them the games quickly. I remember when Final Fantasy X came out while I was in college; the local EB Games only got enough stock in its rush shipment to fill half the pre-orders, so an employee drove four hundred miles to a warehouse to pick up more for the rest of us. In this case, it sounds like Take 2 did ship on the 25th, but not until very late in the afternoon. Therefore, everything has been bumped back a day.

This is causing no end of outrage. Most stores seem to believe they had made accommodations to sell today; Fry's printed an ad Sunday advertising Civ IV available today after 4PM (with an asterisk denoting "if available"); many people online report that EB Games' computers reported until today that they would have stock on the 25th. Speculation abounds as to the reason why. Some think it might be because of the bad weather in the eastern US. This seems plausible, especially if all the copies are coming from a single manufacturing plant.

Throughout today I regularly refreshed my order page on GameStop, mentally commanding the line that said "Processing" to shift to "Shipping." I dared to believe that, though some fluke, it would ship in the late afternoon from, I dunno, San Francisco, and get to me before I went home. At 6:30 I forced myself into my car and drove home.

Now, I finally have a "Shipping" label and a tracking number. The good news is that FedEx has my parcel; the bad news is that, for whatever reason, it is in Indianapolis. Still, they show an estimated delivery date of tomorrow at 3PM, and I presume FedEx knows how to get things to the coast quickly. I hope to get my item and just shift my planned celebration forward twenty-four hours.

A fair question is, why all the hassle? Why is the release process for video games so much more elaborate and frustrating than all other media? I don't know for sure, but my two guesses are piracy and status. Computer games have been pirated far longer than CDs or movies; from the mid-eighties onward bootleg copies and cracks of games could be found on BBSs, warez sites and all the dark corners of the Internet. As soon as one pirate gets a copy of a game, they can make unlimited replicas at no cost. Therefore, if a game ships on Tuesday and goes on sale the next Monday, if a pirate somehow gets a copy on Wednesday, many people will be playing illegal copies of the game before they've even had the opportunity to buy a legitimate copy. By eliminating the traditional gap between shipping and street dates, publishers narrow this window and hope that more people will opt for legitimate copies.

The other possibility is that they like the rage and consternation this causes. In the same way that bookstores have midnight parties to mark the release of Harry Potter, and movie theaters have lines to inaugurate new movies, your local video game store has people calling all day and harassing employees about whether the game has arrived, and descending in droves once it's on sale. It's annoying and petty, but it's also a ritual, and there's a certain comfort in that. The seeming scarcity of the item makes it appear even more valuable, making people feel like it's even more necessary to buy NOW, before they've finished reading all the reviews or waited for a friend to try it first. And for the truly rare items, like the initial release of the PS2 or Nintendo DS, being one of the few to beat the system and find the store selling it means that for weeks you will have true nerd status, as one of the lucky few with the coveted item in your possession. In these situations, the heterogeneous release means it requires actual effort and skill, not merely persistence, to get what you want.

Enough pontificating. I'm going to bed. I hope that, when I get up in the morning, my order status shows the game is somewhere in California.

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