I’m a first generation video gamer – I started in the 70’s with my first console being the Coleco Telstar and I graduated from there to an Atari VCS and then onward and upward through my Commodore Vic-20, C-64, countless PC’s, NES, SNES, Sega Genesis, Sony PlayStation, all the way to the current (eighth) generation consoles. I’ve been playing and purchasing video games for decades now and I still get excited when anticipating a new major release but the buying experience has changed a lot over the years.
It used to be that that I’d MAYBE see a full page ad in a Compute! Magazine or Popular Science but most likely I’d hear from my friends how great it was or was going to be. We were kids and most of us had to beg to get a video game and it was a rare occurrence and took time to convince our parents to pony up the money – they were as expensive then as they are now.
The anticipation would start building – week after week I’d go into the local video game store – which was likely an electronics chain like Sears, Lechmere, or Highland Superstores to see what was there and if that game I just couldn’t wait for was released. Back then we weren’t online, there weren’t dedicated video game magazines like there are today. We went to the store routinely and checked – usually every time our mom’s dragged us to the mall.
This would be our highlight in an otherwise dull shopping trip. Even then, you’d go into the store and have to hunt through the rows and rows of cellophane wrapped game boxes – picking each one up and staring at the hopefully compelling artwork and marketing copy the publisher chose to put on the box along with the carefully chosen screenshots of the gameplay in attempt to divine if THIS title was worth your (if you were lucky enough to have saved up or had some birthday money burning a hole in your pocket) or your mom‘s $50. Sometimes the guy working the store if it was an Egghead Software, Games ‘n Gadgets, or Electronics Boutique (before they were just EB Games) might have some insight on the mysteries of the game within.
Usually, you’d find two maybe three titles whose box had the magic touch or maybe one was THE game you’ve been waiting for and now you’d be stuck with the conundrum of having to decide which to get. I have literally stood for hours going from one box to the other, back and forth while my mom shopped and eventually stood at the entrance to the store stamping her feet waiting for me to make the choice. It’s funny that this continued on right into my early adulthood. Many times the graphics, copy, and screenshots of the box could do no wrong – they promised a gaming experience like no other and they delivered.
Still many other times, they did not and sometimes they did so in spectacular fashion. It was crucial to get the decision right since you didn’t want to waste your money but you had very little to go on.
I can remember standing in an old Electronics Boutique back in 1994 staring at the box of Sierra On-Line’s Outpost in one hand and Doom in the other trying to decide which to get – I had gone to the store specifically to pick up Outpost. I had been on a waiting list to receive a copy – the hype surrounding the game was THAT big. I had heard NOTHING about Outpost’s actual gameplay except some magazine reviews (by this time gamers had the dedicated likes of PC Gamer to reference) had given it high marks in the beta phase. EVERYONE was talking about this game.
On the other hand (literally) I had Doom, this game had been released a few months prior and was generating incredible amounts of buzz – I had friends that couldn’t shut up about it, reviews were glowing, this was a groundbreaking release. I had my decision making work cut out for me. I hemmed and hawed, back and forth, even went up to the register a few times only to sneak out of line to keep staring at the boxes. In the end, the allure of the simulation side of Outpost and the clever marketing copy that promised, to a sci-fi loving, science and technology junky and future engineer mind you, a realistic experience of what it would be like to colonize another planet won out.
I already had Wolfenstein 3D and Doom seemed like a better looking knockoff at the time. I made my decision and plunked my $50 down on Outpost. I must have violated a dozen traffic laws getting home – I couldn’t wait to fire it up and then it happened – I opened it up.
I knew pretty much right away from the moment I opened the box that I had made a terrible mistake – games back then included extensive manuals and this “scientifically based space colony simulation” had barely a leaflet. The opening sequence of the game had you switching toggle switches from on to off in a 1 through 10 sequence. Wow! Somebody at Sierra REALLY thought this would pass for fun?
Many of the games promised features, including those that made it in to that leaflet of a manual, were simply not there. The game was horribly buggy, nothing was explained – it had a near vertical learning curve and simply was not fun. It would later come out that the reviews published in magazines at the time were based on beta versions and promises of features by the publisher.
There would be a backlash against those magazines and the whole debacle nearly killed Sierra On-Line but it did something else too – it hastened in a new era of video game buying. Magazines and later websites would not only offer post-release reviews but later pre-release playable demos, previews, impressions, and more critical beta reviews. Stores began demanding employees be game-savvy and then they began putting in demo consoles so you could play games right in the store.
Nowadays few games are still sold in boxes save PC games in Wal-Mart. Sure the shrink wrapped DVD cases holding our Xbox 360 or Xbox One games still have fantastic graphics and marketing spin but if you stand and watch people buying them you’ll see that they come and get a specific title and take it up to a register with barely a glance – want to see the gameplay? Chances are, you can fire up a demo on the demo console attached to the display rack. Few people are still buying PC games in stores and the ones that do are as informed as the console players are pre-purchase unless it’s an impulse buy. Pretty soon, publishers will stop releasing boxed games altogether. Now I’m much less likely to get a huge stinker like Outpost – I’ll have read countless impressions and reviews long before I pick it up a title from an online store or an EB Games.
Video gaming has changed a lot over the years, maybe for the better since we’re more informed shoppers now but the level of excitement I once had for running to the store to peruse the boxes and trying to decide for hours which to get is long gone. I can still take hours trying to decide which game to buy from Steam or GameStop Online but now I do it sitting in my chair at my desk staring into a computer screen or even on my phone screen for hours instead but it all seems so less personal, so less pivotal a decision now than it once did. Maybe Peter Pan grew up after all.