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Hot on the Web

We don't need no stinkin' retail

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 17, 2003
(Issue 2103, Computer Grab Bag)

A couple weeks back, we visited the history of id Software — which began life in the early 1990s by distributing its games via the then-dominant computer bulletin board systems, or BBSs.

Today, of course, id titles like "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" and "Quake III" are best-sellers, getting prime floor space at computer retailers.

For id, success began online — but only fully blossomed into financial reward once they made the move to the retail world.

Interestingly, two other software publishers have followed id's lead in getting a foothold in the market by only selling online — yet show no signs of moving toward retail.

An alternative plan

Both and Shrapnel Games publish combat simulation games (or what a group of gamers called the "Conflict Resolution Simulation Club" to avoid getting hassled by the peaceniks at San Diego State in the early 1980s).

For the most part, these are hardcore wargames — the kind of complex, strategic simulations that Avalon Hill used to sell in the '70s and '80s. These are the types of games that can take hours to complete, even days, where you move your units turn by turn, reacting to what another player or the computer does.

Many of the games re-enact historic battles, allowing you to see if you could stop Patton or face up to Grant. carries about a half-dozen titles; Shrapnel about a dozen and a half.

Marketing problems

Of course, there are problems in inherent to an online-only marketing plan. If folks don't see your games on the shelves at the local computer store, they might not even know you exist. I've been playing computer games for 27 years now (yes, that is kind of pathetic), and I'd not heard of either publisher until reading the letters to the editor section in PC Gamer magazine's January issue, which mentioned the two sites.

Not only had I — obviously — not seen the games from or Shrapnel at the local retail outlet, but despite spending an inordinate amount of time online, I'd never seen either mentioned there either.

Word of mouth remains the best form of advertising, and in the hardcore war simulation community that may be enough to make a decent living. But for reaching the larger audience of gamers out there, there is a certain drawback in not having a retail presence — or a large online advertising budget.

Low overhead

On the other hand, not having to get involved in the retail distribution chain certainly keeps your costs down. I've worked in the consumer products business, and the distributors' and retail operators' share of the end price eat into your income in a hurry.

If Batllefront or Shrapnel sells a game for $45, they get that entire $45. If they want to sell at the large chain stores, that same $45 title may only net them $8-$12.

There's clearly incentive to maintain control of your own sales.

For while best-seller status has let the founders of id become quite rich, there are plenty of folks — apparently including those at and Shrapnel — who are content to make a nice living doing what they love.