This is a sample of the comments under a recent article about the launch of GAME’s Elite membership programme, which costs £33 a year, and apologies in advance for the language.
“Two words: Fuck Game. Actually, come to think of it, I'd like to add three more words: in the ass.”
“I avoid that place like the plague.”
“Honestly, GAME just needs to die already. An absolute shambles of a company. I can't believe there are still people out there stupid enough to shop there.”
Almost every article published about the UK retailer attracts similar bile.
Why do so many people hate a high street store that, at bottom, is all about selling us lovely videogames, and letting us trade in our own?
Ah! I’ll buy it at a high price!
One criticism forever levelled at GAME is that the prices in the shop are generally far higher than elsewhere. It’s mostly true. When I wandered into an Edinburgh branch at the end of May, I noted they were selling The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild at £54.99. You could argue that that’s fair enough for a brand new and popular game — although, bizarrely, they were selling a pre-owned copy for exactly the same price.
This mindset excludes a little bit of reality, which is that it costs serious money to run high street stores and employ staff. Yes, chances are you’ll be able to find a given game at a far cheaper price online, or maybe even in a supermarket, than at GAME. But the overheads associated with high street retail make this kind of inevitable: prices in every sector are higher in a shop than online, and supermarkets can only offer competitive pricing (on a small range) thanks to the scale of their purchasing power.
But arguing about prices could get very boring, and high prices on their own aren’t enough of a reason to explain the venom that’s regularly directed at GAME. There must be more.
All your base are belong to us
I remember when a GAME store opened near me in Watford in the early 1990s, not long after the chain was founded. It was a dingy, exciting place, covered in black paint and metal panelling with dodgily-airbrushed images of Mario and Sonic. I remember the excitement of playing a demo of Destruction Derby on a PlayStation demo pod there, months before the console’s release. It was a dark cavern of wonders for a teenager like myself, filled with staff who were happy to chat about gaming.
But, confusingly, this GAME I remember so fondly has almost nothing to do with the GAME stores of today.
Deep breath, because what follows is basically a short list of takeovers — but it explains why we are where we are. The GAME store in Watford was part of a chain co-founded by Peter Wickins and Neil Taylor in 1990. Shortly afterwards a rival chain, Future Zone, was founded by Bev Ripley and Terry Norris under the company name Rhino Group. Rhino Group went on to buy the Virgin Game Centre chain after Virgin decided to exit the games business. Then in 1995, the American retailer Electronics Boutique bought a 25% stake in Rhino Group, and the group’s name was changed to Electronics Boutique. At the same time, a US manager, John Steinbrecher, was drafted in from the American firm to run the chain, and subsequently the Future Zone shops were rebranded as Electronics Boutique.
Electronics Boutique - previously known as Future Zone, and later rebranded as GAME following a takeover of the rival GAME chain. (Image credit)
This history matters because a lot of UK shoppers get the next part confused. It's commonly thought that GAME took over the competition, but what happened is actually the reverse. GAME and Electronics Boutique coexisted until 1999, then EB bought out GAME for a cool £99 million. All of the Electronics Boutique stores were later rebranded as ‘GAME’ — hence the confusion over who bought who — but essentially the GAME I so fondly remembered as a teenager was dead.
By taking over GAME, Electronics Boutique effectively eliminated their main competition on the high street. Then in 2007, this new GAME Group took over the UK chain Gamestation for £74 million. It initially kept the Gamestation brand but eventually, in 2012, all Gamestation stores were rebranded as GAME.
There had been lean pickings on the high street for many years, but Gamestation's absorption into GAME was an especially bitter pill for gamers to swallow. Where once UK high streets were awash with rival game-store chains, now it was largely dominated by a single entity — though we should shout-out the North East's Grainger Games, and the burglars' paradise of CEX.
The loss of Gamestation, though, felt like the end of knowledgeable gaming retail on the high street. Commenters at the time mourned the loss. “The staff [in Gamestation] actually knew a thing or two about gaming, whereas half the staff in Game don't appear to know anything about their wares,” runs a typical example. “Gamestation were excellent before the Game takeover — selling a wide range of games — vintage and modern,“ said another. Memories fade of course, but many gamers still rankle at how Gamestation disappeared and hold it against GAME as a whole.
More importantly for our purposes, GAME had vanquished most of its high-street opponents, and no competitors of comparable scale and size. Would this also mean they no longer had to work so hard to please customers?
Dark storm clouds were billowing over the land
On paper, GAME was going from strength to strength throughout the 2000s. For the 2007-08 financial year, it achieved more than £1 billion in turnover for the first time, and the GAME Group had expanded to own more than 1,000 stores worldwide. Its shares hit a peak of around 300 pence in 2008, up from below 50 pence at the start of the decade.
But this meteoric rise seems to have coincided with a gradual souring of feeling among staff in the stores themselves. I spoke to two ex-GAME employees about their experiences during this period. Both tell a similar story.
“Initially I was excited to work with them,” says Baz627, an ex-deputy manager in a Scottish GAME store who asked to be identified by his gamer tag. “I loved games. I enjoyed the daily interactions with the general public. Even after a few years I still enjoyed it. When corporate greed took over, the fun got sucked out.”
“We had a good team who made it fun. The company put pressure on with targets and it suddenly didn’t seem so fun any more.”
Trevor, an ex-manager who worked in several London stores in the early 2000s, agrees that initially the job was a joy: “It was fun. The store had many peaks and troughs in trading, so there were times during the day when we were run off our feet, but other times when it was very relaxed. I loved it. It was run by people who knew their product.”
However, as the decade wore on, he noticed that the pressure to meet management sales targets increased. “It was like the wild west when I first started. The company was coming to terms with gaming exploding, this was around the time of the Xbox launch, and gaming had just become a mainstream hobby. As time went on though, they seemed to be a victim of their own success, and expanded too fast. It became about selling products and pushing high-margin lines. There were many times I actually felt sorry for customers.”
When asked why he left the company, Baz627 cites this pressure on customers as one of the main reasons: “I guess the biggest issue was that they just saw the customers as being a number. A targeting scheme was introduced a couple of years before I left which put a lot of pressure on staff to achieve or they were shown the door. Getting the money at any cost was required.”
“The company took a more greedy, ruthless stance,” he adds. “Customers ain’t stupid. They see the change in attitude.”
"GAME spent too much time trying to make the stores look too much like 'show homes' than focusing on the one thing that mattered. The customers. To take time with them, to get to know them — not to get them in and out again whilst forcing six different products onto them that they don’t want.”
Long gone are the airbrushed images of Mario and Sonic - modern GAME stores look “like show homes”. ( Image credit )
I asked Trevor whether he was ever encouraged to push customers into buying products.
“Oh yes. This became the primary business model for a long while. It didn't matter what the customer wanted - it was all about the numbers. They used to be a really friendly store, you know? Ten-day returns, knowledgeable staff. Now it's all about the upsell.”
Trevor cites hitting preorder targets as a particular bugbear: “It became about getting the preorder at any cost, often even if the customer didn't want it they'd end up with one, just to keep the numbers up in store.”
Going by the comments cited at the start of this article, a small fraction of those I saw while researching this article, Baz627 is right. It’s not just GAME employees who noticed a deterioration in customer service over the years, but the customers themselves.
We all make choices in life, but in the end our choices make us
In March 2012, it looked like the jig was up. GAME Group filed for bankruptcy as Christmas sales figures disappointed and its share-price crashed. Administrators PwC blamed the group’s “ambitious overseas expansion into seven territories” as well as its overstuffed UK store portfolio — the 610 UK stores were often in close proximity to each other.
But contemporary comments tell a different story.
“They … went from being characterful, nerdy places staffed by enthusiastic staff to soulless identikit high street stores with demoralised 'customer service assistants' having to repeat scripts,” said one . “Game saw that it could treat the public like morons and get away with it ... But they kept pushing and pushing. everything has a limit and game reached it,” said another .
It’s debatable how much GAME’s customer policies actually accounted for its spell in administration, but when the chain was bought out by OpCapita, it signalled the perfect time for a fresh start. Speaking to Eurogamer in 2012, Deloitte's Lee Manning hammered home the need for change:
"Retail has to change with the times. It has to face up to the very real challenge of the multi-channel approach, having to deal with the online offering. Stores have to be more than just a place where you can go and buy the product. There needs to be more of a wholesale experience within retail, from the customer's perspective. They need to be able to know exactly what's in the store at that time. They may just use it as a showroom and then buy the product online and have it delivered to somewhere more convenient."
GAME had the opportunity to rebrand its stores as a destination, a social space that offered something tangible that couldn’t be recreated online. A chance to reconnect with customers, to host events, run tournaments, give people an exciting reason to leave their computer and come into their stores.
But nothing really changed. The chain reopened with a drastically reduced number of stores, but otherwise it was business as usual.
War. War never changes
GAME has been no stranger to innovation in the past. Once upon a time it experimented with selling CDs, anime DVDs and even refurbished Atari Jaguars as part of a short-lived dabble with retro gaming. Baz627 also notes that “if staff had ideas, they generally were allowed to try them out”.
Now more than ever, GAME could use some fresh ideas to pull itself out of the self-made hole it's in. I asked Trevor if there was anything the company could do to improve its reputation with gamers, and he wasn't so hopeful. “I don't think they can. Their history is so long and convoluted that there's no trust between them and gamers now. The only customers you're likely to see in there are parents buying gifts, children spending pocket money, and bored commuters killing time.”
From an outsider’s perspective, GAME seems to be sleepwalking into the abyss. Since the company was relisted on the stock market in 2014, its shares have dropped 90% — at the time of writing, each share is worth just 33 pence.
This month, Paul Summers of the Motley Fool advised people not to invest in GAME shares in the hope of an uptick in the company’s fortunes. “I wouldn’t touch [them] with a barge pole,” he counselled, citing the group as a “company in terminal decline” and noting that they can’t compete on price with online retailers like Amazon. It doesn’t help that sales of physical games are on the wane, while digital sales continue to rise — the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) reported that in the United States, 74% of game-related sales were digital last year.
Without some sort of radical change, GAME may not be too long for this world. In a sense it's inevitable, another high street victim of Mr Bezos and co., flailing on the way down but never quite having the ingenuity or nous to really try something new. For all its bad qualities there is something melancholy about the downward spiral — surely we've all bought something in GAME — but perhaps the saddest thing is how customers will feel. Game feels like it's dying and, if it does, there won't be many mourners at the funeral.
Opening image credit: Matt Alexander / PA