So a guy with three birds on his shoulder walks into a video game store ...
That's not a setup for a joke; it's a setup for a blog entry by two guys, Roger Post and Kevin Whitman, with a seldom-heard take on the video game industry: They work at a game shop.
Whitman has manned the counter at Bandit Video Games in Sicklerville, New Jersey, for five years. Post has worked weekends for one year. During their time there, they've seen eccentric characters and learned just how well game ratings really work. They know which games you can't sell the average customer no matter how hard you try. They've heard the buzz about this year's PS3 and Wii consoles and know which one their customers significantly care more about.
Post has taken note of how many women have come into the shop looking for games in his past year. That number would be two. And the number of people who come in with birds on their shoulder? That's one.
Earlier this year, Post and Whitman convinced their boss and owner of Bandit Video, as the guys in the shop call it, to start sharing some of this information on the Internet. They launched a blog called "A Day in the Life of Video Games" (DayInTheLifeOfVideoGames.BlogSpot.com), the rare spot where gamers can find out what people on the other side of the counter think of them and the stuff they pay to play.
They started it at least somewhat out of frustration, trying to prove that their work is just that: work. "It basically started with everybody saying my job was really easy and there's nothing to it," Whitman told MTV News. But they've also stepped into a light that corporate-controlled workers at GameStop, Best Buy and Wal-Mart aren't in: They can and will talk publicly about selling people games.
Bandit Video is in a strip mall where the main sign is for a ravioli restaurant. It's not a big chain and doesn't get games the day those chains get them. But plenty of hard-core gamers come through anyway, browsing the classic games or just looking for a good discount.
These days, the games people ask about the most are "Grand Theft Auto" and "Bully." And people talk next-gen systems. Sorry, Nintendo fans, but that doesn't mean the Wii. "A lot of what we get is, 'What's going to be better: 360 or PS3?' " Whitman said. He punts the question when people ask. He reads five gaming sites a day and tries to stay informed and feels the verdict is 50/50 so far.
The Wii hype hasn't started at their store, but they do have customers bracing for the PS3 and swallowing hard when they hear the price tag. "The first question will be, 'Say, when is that new PS3 coming out?' " Post said. He tells them. Then they ask the price. "I'll give them the $600 [price], and you can literally see the face drop. ... You hit them with that price and they lose all energy."
People may want that PS3, but what Post wishes they wanted is "Gradius V." That game is a shmup, or shoot-em-up, a cult genre that last enjoyed mainstream popularity in the days of "Galaga" or "1942" or some other classic that came out more than a decade ago. Shmup fans think "Gradius V" is one of the genre's best. But that doesn't stop Bandit Video shoppers from walking out with copies of "Madden" or the critically lambasted "Jaws," which was a surprisingly good seller for the shop.
It doesn't help that Bandit is out of stock on "Gradius V." Whitman said that game companies stop providing copies of a lot of their games within a month of release. After that, for all but the hits, there's no resupply. So he and Whitman have tried recommending personal favorites that are there, like last year's acclaimed PS2 epic "Shadow of the Colossus." "I'll say that game is great," Post said. "And they'll just look at the back and say, 'Oh, I'll pass.' " Whitman had the same problem with "God of War."
So pity the game store employee anxious to sell apples to people shopping for oranges. "I die a little bit inside each time," Post said. "I think people are afraid to take a chance." He gets just that close to getting people to buy the good stuff, but he said that if people haven't seen a TV commercial for a game, it's very hard to sell them on it.
And cheer Post and Whitman for their acts of retail kindness, like warning customers buying EA's recent "NFL Head Coach" that it doesn't actually let people play football. "I warned two people, and both of them said, 'I'm glad you told me. I don't want it now,' " Post said. "You want to make the sale, but you don't want the guy to go home and say, 'That guy doesn't even know what he's talking about.' "
Asked what the biggest surprise was about working at a game shop, Post said it's the economics of the sale of every new game. "I thought the retailer would make a lot more profit on the game," Post said. I figured if a game retailed for $50 that he was making 20 or 25 [dollars]. That's not the case at all." Post said that at Bandit, they make only a dollar or two on each new game sold, once shipping and other costs are all factored in.
One of the most striking stories on the game shop guys' blog involves a young teenager cursing out his father for forcing him to return the M-rated 17-and-up "Grand Theft Auto" to the store. The kid had bought the game at Bandit at noon and was brought back by his father a couple of hours later. The father was telling the son that the son wasn't old enough for the game. The son was calling the father a moron. It's a good store but also proof that Post messed up. He admits it. "I shouldn't have sold it to him in the first place, but I sometimes forget in the first place."
At least Post and Whitman are aware of the ratings. "A lot of parents actually don't even see them," Whitman said. "They just bring the game up and ask what's in the game." As most gamers know, descriptions of a game's content appear on the back of the box of every game. Post said he's had parents express surprise to him that M-rated games such as "50 Cent Bulletproof" and "25 to Life" include foul language. "They're just surprised that they'll allow language like that in the game."
The "Day in the Life" blog will remain Post and Whitman's chronicle for this sort of stuff. It's where they continue to reveal the intricacies of working at a game shop and where they get to talk about the characters that make their days great.
So it's work. Sometimes it's colorful work. But is any of it play? Not so much, Whitman said. "I don't play even one-third of what I used to."