With the release of Grand Theft Auto V this week, all those tired old industry rules that have long been in place have finally been stomped into irrelevance.
Once again we see broken street dates, early selling, prices hiked on pre-release sales and toothless ratings systems. The release of GTA V shows the absurdity of the old video game business, where arbitrary rules are trampled by the masses - the 'Police Line Do Not Cross' tape snapped with the slightest push.
"Grand Theft Auto V is just another box that needs shifting. That carefully managed marketing plan means nothing - it's just plastic in an envelope. Send it out"
Retailers don't care about rules put in place by distributors or publishers. Amazon sends out copies of the game early because it can and it will. It's an efficient distribution machine. This is a company that doesn't pay tax - why on earth would it abide by an agreement that says it must only mail out a parcel on a particular day? The machine is greased, the product is ready to go. Grand Theft Auto V is just another box that needs shifting. All those years of development and that carefully managed marketing plan mean nothing - it's just plastic in an envelope. Send it out.
Second-hand retailer CEX capitalised even further. According to this BBC report the company was selling copies of the game before its official release today for £75 a pop. That's the video game equivalent of ticket scalping. But the customers are paying for it, right? Give the customer what it needs. Where did it get the stock from in the first place? I would guess it ordered bulk copies from an online retailer to sell at a higher mark-up because it's cheaper than going through the official distributor. Pre-orders of GTA V at Amazon were £34.99 with free delivery. Walk into a copy of GAME today and you'll pay £40.99. The mark-up on those games is pennies, not pounds - at least until the second-hand market kicks into life.
Thanks to online retailers, the game was in players' hands days before release, while others ramped up the price. Parents saw the latest must-have game and bought it for their under-age children. Here's a reportedly 11 year-old French lad weeping with joy because he's got an (early) copy of GTA V. He kisses the shrink wrap. Keeping the kids happy is more important than any nonsensical barriers, because age-rating systems are toothless. On the surface something must be done, but in reality they're an inconvenience to anyone but policy makers. It's 2013, don't tell us what we can and can't watch, we're not listening.
All of this has happened before. It happens all the time, in fact, and these flimsy rules, rarely adhered to, remain in place like a broken fence battered by the wind. When a game reaches a mainstream audience like no other, it highlights the absurdity and ineffectiveness of it all.
In part, this is just a tired industry propping up the old retail model because it has to. The video game world outside of bricks, boxes and trucks has long since moved on, and we can see that the next round of consoles from Sony and Microsoft are designed to bypass the wheezing retail model once they've Trojan Horsed their way through the shops.
Amazon has proven its unbeatable efficiency at distribution so it can be relied upon to get the PS4 and Xbox One hardware out. Once it's in players' hands, it becomes so much easier and convenient to sell digital games with systems built to cater to that world from the ground up. Even hardware specs become less relevant when the cloud begins to seriously factor into the equation a year or so after the hardware release. All those policies Microsoft u-turned on? They'll come back over time and you won't even notice or care if the convenience is there.
"The next round of consoles are designed to bypass the wheezing retail model once they've Trojan Horsed their way through the shops"
Look at games like Payday 2 or Dust 514 as precursors of what's to come. Or, more relevant to this conversation, The Lost and the Damned and The Ballad of Gay Tony. Scale that thinking up, where games are preloaded and ready to go at midnight, and you bypass the early sales, the headache of scalping and price slashing, the chore of putting a game in an envelope, printing off an address label and mailing from one country to another. It's not even worth mentioning age ratings in a digital world, where dad's credit card is already being exploited by both players and games designers.
The hardware manufacturers know this, but they've had to wait until now to change the technology. The publishers have known this for a long time and some have changed. The recent changes at Sega - where it sits supporting the PC with a digital presence that can be applied to consoles later down the line - is a fine example, but there are others that will be following the THQ route to oblivion sooner than new consoles can save them.
The big issue for digital distribution on consoles will be pricing. Downloading Grand Theft Auto V on the PlayStation 3 costs £49.99 - a ridiculous price for sure, but not so high that it's been putting off customers. Services like PS Plus will soon come into their own, and the digital marketplace will stabilise once more companies show their support with content.
But what a primitive business the current generation of consoles has left us. It's no wonder so many companies have collapsed this generation. Yet despite all of this, the games will continue to thrive. There are less franchises now, but Grand Theft Auto and its kind are stronger than they ever have been.
It's time to draw a line under it, move on from the misguided obligation to support a retail world that has for years exploited developers and kept publishers in a stranglehold. Look at the buzz around Grand Theft Auto V this week. It's smothering the mainstream media. It's an event to celebrate, a conversation starter far beyond industry circles, and it should act as a catalyst and wake-up call for those that aren't already on board. It's not too late for the console business to make a success with digital sales, and maybe even help pioneer a new way of looking at retail.