Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Breaking Release Dates - What's the Issue, and What's to be Done?

Can't wait to play Call of Duty: Modern Warefare 3? Well, if you went to certain stores you didn't have to! It's certainly not the first time that stores have either willfully or just out of ignorance broke the street date on a game release, but this begs the question: shouldn't something be done about it?

Sure, most of us know a guy that knows a guy who can get you the hotest new releases a couple of days or even a couple of weeks early. It's not that magical, he's just a dude that works at an EB or a Best Buy or something that has access to the storeroom and thus can get you a copy of a game that they've got in but hasn't been officially released yet. You pay him cash (and perhaps a little extra) and he gets you a copy before you should be allowed to have one. It's not the most legal thing, of course, but it's not like it doesn't happen. But this isn't even one of those cases, no sir, this is just a case of a store selling a game that they shouldn't be selling yet to anyone who walks in and asks for it.

Like I mentioned in the header, this is hardly the first time that something like this has happened, nor is it the biggest case. Hell, Penny Arcade even did a strip on it:

*Ahem* blowbos aside, this is actually a serious issue for the gaming community thanks to a couple of factors. Before online multiplayer was the main point of some games breaking street date meant that most of the games that people got their hands on early where single player releases; sure, people were jealous, but the harm was minimal. That's unfortunately not the case with most games these days. Take Modern Warfare 3 for example: the huge, driving point of the game is going to be the multiplayer. You can't deny this fact, it's what the franchise has recently built itself on. But when a store sells the game early, they're giving someone a marked advantage, letting them know the ins and outs of the maps, level up their perks and weapons and whatever else. It might only be a few days, but it can make a big difference, and it's one that not everyone is going to have access to, unlike the more XP campaign I talked about a few weeks back.

So, what's a company to do? Well, for a while Infinity Ward was seemingly considering punishing the people that bought the game early. This is an ass backwards way of doing things, while the people that purchased the game are likely aware that they've gotten it early, they've still made the purchase legally, they own the copy of that game. The retailer (or as the case may be retailers) that sell the games early should be culpable. Yet, in taking a cursory look around, I haven't found much information about the kind of fines that retailers get from breaking street date and even less about how often these kinds of fines are actually enforced. I've heard sums thrown about from the low range of $500 to the high end of over $150,000 in terms of potential monetary punishment for stores giving stuff out early, and yet I've not found one concrete case where a company got a fine slapped on them for doing so. If a dissuasive measure isn't going to be used, then what's the point of having it at all?

Another thing I've heard is that rather than fines that publishers will simply deny copies of games to retailers they've had problems with until launch day, which means shipments that will usually arrive a day or two after the game has already launched and after the majority of those interested in acquiring it as soon as possible have done so. Again I have no idea how often this punishment is actually enforced, but it seems to me that it's the very least that could potentially be done to prevent street dates being broken.

Retailers also need to tighten things up. It can't be difficult to put a chart in the back that clearly shows the upcoming release dates -- dates which I should mention are not often subject to change and even less likely to be moved forward rather than back -- and that if anyone is caught selling a game before street date, they get one warning not to do it again, and then after that if they're found doing it a second time they're terminated. This not only discourages people from trying to break street dates in order to scalp some profit for themselves, but also people who sell games early because they don't pay attention to the dates and don't particularly care, because there's no punishment for it anyways.

To sum it up, if there's going to continue being seemingly no reaction to street dates being broken, then they're going to keep being broken. If publishers want to make sure that games get to people when they actually want them to, then an effort is going to have to be made to dissuade people from doing otherwise.

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