The dichotomy between physical and electronic delivery of media doesn’t just strike the book world. As I’ve noted a few times in the past, computer games have also been moving to electronic delivery, most notably via Valve’s Steam system, but other companies such as GameStop have been trying to roll their own as well.

Digital delivery of games can allow game publishers to do some interesting things. For instance, buying any Valve game box in the store includes a free Steam-based on-line version of it that players can download forever even if they lose the retail disks, Also, Valve throws in the Mac version of any PC game (and vice versa) that players buy, free—even if the Mac port doesn’t come out until months or years after the PC version. (And the PS3 version of Portal 2 includes a code good for both the PC and Mac versions.) It doesn’t really cost them anything to do this, since 0s and 1s don’t have any cost to copy. This form of bundling (as well as some other bundle promotions Valve has put together) makes the games more attractive to consumers, which leads to more sales.

Square Enix did something similar with its new game Deus Ex: Human Revolution, including a coupon good for a free $50-value downloadable version of the game inside the retail boxes sold in stores. The downloadable game was provisioned through the on-line distribution system OnLive, a competitor to both Steam and the system GameStop is developing.

This apparently annoyed GameStop’s corporate management, because last week an email came down directing all GameStop employees to open every new copy of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, remove and discard the coupon, and then put the box back on the shelf and sell it as new as if they hadn’t done anything to it. That’s right: GameStop was essentially selling vandalized games as brand new, at full retail price.

Unsurprisingly, this caused an Internet furor, and GameStop quickly responded by pulling all copies of the game from their stores. A week later, the company has apologized and announced it will be providing a $50 gift card and buy-two-get-one-free used game coupon to anyone who bought the game from one of its stores.

(Oddly enough, Square Enix itself didn’t seem to take that much offense, saying in a statement to PC World that “GameStop was not made aware of this inclusion and Square Enix respects the right of GameStop to have final say over the contents of products it sells and to adjust them where they see fit in accordance with their policies.” Presumably it just doesn’t want to risk GameStop dropping its games altogether.)

Deux Ex’s bundled deal is not the only digital gaming offer to spark controversy among retailers—last year, I covered UK game retailers’ annoyance with Valve for pushing its own online game retail system through the boxed games that are sold through their stores—but it is certainly the only example I’ve heard so far of a game store actually practicing vandalism against such a game.

At the moment, we’re not likely to see any similar conundrum popping up in the e-book world since most publishers see print books and e-books as entirely separate and distinct products, and think “bundling” would mean they lose out on the purchase of a second copy of the book rather than making the first copy more likely to sell. (This same mindset seems to be responsible for their belief that piracy represents lost sales rather than gained readers.) It’s left up to consumers who feel they should have gotten bundled e-books to do it themselves.

Only one publisher, Baen, does any sort of e-book bundling at all, binding CDROMs full of books into the back of selected first-printing hardcovers. And to my knowledge, I’ve never heard of any bookstore removing the CDROM before selling the book due to fearing e-book competition. I have heard of bookstores refusing to carry or promote print books published by Amazon, this does not result in those books being vandalized before they are sold the way GameStop’s decision did for the game.

By the same token, GameStop should simply have stopped selling Deus Ex and shipped its inventory back to Square Enix when it discovered the competitor’s coupon bundled inside. By opening the box, removing the coupon, and then closing it and reselling it as if nothing had happened, the company was trying to have its cake and eat it, too. Given how game retailers universally refuse to take back and refund any game that has had the shrinkwrap cut off, even if it hasn’t been installed on a PC yet, there’s an element of hypocrisy here, too.

Perhaps the crowning irony is that digital content distribution is set to put GameStop’s primary revenue model, of buying used games at ridiculously low prices and then reselling them at ridiculously high prices, out of business. As with e-books, you can’t resell a used digitally-downloaded game. (And for the most part, game publishers couldn’t be happier about that.)


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