Finding good deals on new games
By Alex Kierkegaard / July 03, 2006
The theory of supply and demand describes how prices vary as a result of a balance between product availability at different prices (supply) and the desires of those with purchasing power at each price (demand).
It is unfortunate that the prices of new games can fluctuate so wildly throughout their limited shelf-life. Sometimes, looking for certain titles feels like playing in the stockmarket, and quite unlike the routine shopping experience it is supposed to be. Companies proudly display their backlist of titles on their websites, with eloquent descriptions, arresting screenshots and sharp cover art, but when you visit the major retailers to look for them, they are nowhere to be found.
And why should it be impossible to find a new copy of Ico (a game that's barely five years old), when new copies of nearly all DVDs released during the past decade are widely available?
My long search for that game ended five months ago, when I finally resigned myself to buying a used copy for about 5,000 yen. Worst thing was, even though I had spent a great deal of money on that occassion, and even though the spending of money is supposed to engender in us feelings of instant gratification, however short-lived, I did not even experience a shred of satisfaction that day. There was a certain relief, yes -- I had at last plugged that gaping hole in my PS2 collection, I could move on to the next one -- but little more than that.
The fact is, I rarely enjoy myself when buying used games. Of course, when I get back home and start playing them I enjoy them as much as anyone else: whether I am playing a just-opened copy, or a dirty-and-scratched-disc-from-hell borrowed from a friend, or even a pirated DVD-R, the playing experience is the same. But the buying experience -- the walking in the shop with a bunch of notes in my wallet, and the walking out of that shop with a game inside a little bag -- leaves me cold and dissatisfied. I want a brand new copy dammit, so I can tear off the seal and open up and read the crisp manual, and stick the shiny, perfectly reflective disc inside the goddamn console. Is that an unreasonable expectation? Am I asking for too much, considering that I am asked to spend the equivalent of several DVDs worth of money for the privilege?
But I am often cheated out of this experience, so important to me as the oxygen in the air I breathe; browbeaten into buying a used copy because I am given no other choice. (Yes, there's self-depreciating sarcasm in this paragraph, you can go on reading now.)
More importantly, with the game industry being what it is these days, buying a new game has also become a way to make a statement, and is more or less your only method of influencing the kinds of titles that will get made in the future. In this case, I would have loved to give my money to SCEJ, and in that way support Fumito Ueda's and Team Ico's upcoming projects. But my cash, instead of being used as fuel for creative individuals, who would go on to make the kinds of games that I want to play, ended up enriching mere... merchants. What a deplorable waste.
And you know, I fully realize that secondhand game shops serve a noble purpose. You can often find games there at half the price that new copies go for; if you are hard up on cash then these shops are your only choice.
But in Ico's case, and in countless other cases, it doesn't quite work out that way. I certainly didn't get any discount on my used copy of the game -- I paid more or less its full price, as I mentioned. In fact, secondhand game shops are a last resort for me because the kinds of games that I go there looking for are never half price. People go to these places to buy cheap games -- I go there, against my better judgement, to buy expensive ones.
It's perverse, really; it doesn't make sense for the companies that produce the games, and it sure as heck doesn't make sense for the gamers who buy them. With a few clicks on Amazon I can order a huge variety of movies, many of them released decades ago, beautifully restored and updated with lots of extras and snazzy packaging. But if I were to ask them for any game released over a year ago, I'd most likely be directed to their marketplace of small game shops and scammers. These people often advertise new copies of games, and six times out of ten they send you used, shoddily re-sealed ones, or budget re-releases (six times out of ten is my current score, averaged over dozens of purchases during a period of several years). What a wretched, miserable buying experience these places can give you. You'll occasionaly come across a decent seller, and get what you are looking for, but for me at least the rewards are often not worth the expense and trouble.
In Japan, where the used game market is more widespread and developed than anywhere else, this situation often leads to absurdities. One day I go into a secondhand game shop in Akihabara and see Homura going for 4,900 yen; a few moments later I walk into a Sofmap and see it new for 2,000. I see things like this every other day in Tokyo. It's nuts.
All this has got to change, it will change, one way or another, maybe by more regular and higher quality reprints, but most probably by a digital delivery format (at which point we'll all have to say goodbye to cool-looking boxes and shiny discs and crisp manuals, and get used to flavorless streams of 1s and 0s and pdf files). In the meantime, however, there is a certain art to snatching new games in Japan at their lowest price point, before they go vanishing into a murky world of secondhand game shops and auction profiteers. It took me a while to figure it all out. Here's how it works.
Round and round we go, in never-ending circles
The day a new game gets released every shop carries it at a price point slightly below the suggested retail price. If, for example, the suggested retail price is 6,800 yen, most stores will sell it at a price somewhere between 6,200 and 6,600. This is NOT the time to buy a game, no matter how much you'd like to play it. I paid full price for Biohazard 4 on release day and a few months later it was going for half price. Of course I enjoyed playing it, but I would have enjoyed it just as much six months later, and I would have saved enough money to buy ice cream for the ending (ice cream can be prohibitively expensive in Japan, especially the good-quality, imported kind).
Same thing happened with Killer 7, Genji, Devil May Cry 3, Fire Emblem GC, etc. etc. With the money I spent on those five games alone I could have bought more than a dozen titles, had I waited and picked the right moment to grab them.
In any case, if you absolutely have to have a game the day it comes out, there are specific shops which undercut everyone else by a small margin. I know of several such places in Akihabara. In the case of the example above, if most shops are selling the game for between 6,200 and 6,600, I guarantee you there will be a shop somewhere selling it for 5,990 -- even on the first day of release. Not a huge difference -- only 200 yen less than the cheapest shops -- but a great deal if you were initially planning to buy it from Tsutaya who, god help me, would be the first place to sell a game for more than the MSRP if it was possible. Just look hard enough and you'll eventually identify the one or two joints that consistently undercut everyone else on the day of release.
Now, after the initial couple of weeks have passed, and the bulk of copies for most titles have been sold, interesting things start happening to the price of games. How interesting depends on the specific game and its initial sales performance.
The trick when going shopping for new games is NOT to look for particular titles. You simply make a round of all the game shops in your immediate area (it helps if you have easy access to an area with lots of games shops, like Akihabara or Osaka's Den Den Town), spending a few minutes in each one, scanning all the shelves and paying particular attention to the bargain bins (almost every shop has a bargain bin, or some sort of sale shelf or corner).
Some titles get discounted pretty quickly. I picked up Viewtiful Joe Scratch! for less than 2,000 yen within a couple of weeks of its release. Other titles take months to come down in price, and yet others are never, ever discounted. Final Fantasy X International is one such game. It was going for over 7,000 yen when I first arrived in Japan, in February 2004, and it still sells for the same amount. (In general, Squeenix and Nintendo games hardly ever get discounted. These are the sorts of things you will start picking up after a while.)
Viewtiful Joe Scratch! and FFX International are extreme examples, however. Most titles can usually be had for half price or less within a few months of release if you know where, how and when to look.
The where is something you quickly figure out. There is no magical shop which always has the best deals; though some are better than others. You have to identify five or ten good game shops and spend some time every week checking them for new deals. The main point here is that you have to keep doing your rounds regularly. So the answer to when is simple: constantly. If you stop doing it for a while, chances are you'll miss your chance (once and for all) of scoring some great titles at ridiculous prices. For example, I've been away from Tokyo for just over three months now, and I am perfectly aware of the good deals I am missing out on. A huge number of first- and second-generation DS games were going on sale just as I was leaving. I had hardly bought any before because I had been waiting for that exact moment, but then I had to leave the country...
As for the how... well, the answer to that would have to be 'thoroughly'. Scanning the shelves of a dozen game shops twice a week can get repetitive, but the one shelf which you decide to pass over can hold the deal you've been waiting for. I've often found single copies of games at great prices, languishing on a shelf in some half-hidden corner. I can only guess at the number of good deals I've missed when I hadn't been paying attention.
Being constantly on the ball is critical. Sometimes deals last for a while; other times you go for a shit and they are gone.
I once went into a shop (it was Messe Sanoh, right on Chuo-dori) and found the PS2 port of Espgaluda going for around 2,500. I didn't buy it at the time, since I had already bought two other games that day and was feeling guilty getting a third one. I was still a newcomer back then and I figured it would still be there the next week. I happened to pass by the day after and to my extreme surprise discovered they had none left, and every other store in the area was selling it at full price. One working day is how long that offer lasted -- less than twenty four hours. I kept going back to that shop incessantly, but when they eventually replenished their stock of Galudas the game was back at full price. I waited for months for a good deal on it, but gave up eventually when supplies where starting to run low and I had to just buy it at full price or risk not being able to find a new copy. (There is a way to judge when supplies of games are starting to run low. More on this later.)
This is only one story regarding lost opportunities but I have many more, though I won't relate them here because I'd rather not remember them. The moral is you always should have cash on you when doing those rounds and, just as importantly, you should be prepared to spend it when you see something on sale which you know you'll eventually want to buy. Even if you are not planning to play the game within the next year, you should still get it. It's either that or pay twice as much for a used copy in questionable condition somewhere down the line. I said that Squeenix and Nintendo games hardly ever get discounted, didn't I? Well, that means the moment you see one of their titles that you want on sale, you should immediately, physically, violently grab it.
I think I was the last person in Japan to buy the original version of Katamari Damashii from a physical store location. I looked for ages and ages and ages, and I finally found, will you believe it, a single copy in a giant Sofmap (which, incidentally, I'd been visiting on a weekly basis). I don't even remember how much I paid for it -- it could have been a good deal or it could have been full price. I simply handed them all the bills in my wallet and let them sort out the change. That's how grateful I was to have found it. You'd have thought it was a previously lost work of Aristotle I had unearthed, and not a goddamn video game that was released only months before!
In any case, the initial print run of KD was tiny, and if there are any sealed copies left you'd have to look on Yahoo! Auctions Japan for them. Or get the cheapo re-release. Or buy a used copy for twice as much as I paid for the new one. Ha!
Yeah, buying new games can often be distressing (as it was the 99 other times when I had looked for KD and hadn't found it). That's why we should all stop doing that and play roms until the publishers get their shit sorted out.
And yes, I am just kidding.
Now things really start to get complicated
Each publisher has their own sale policy, and you eventually get to figure each one of them out. Capcom, for example, discounts the fuck out their games if they sell below expectations. I have built a huge library of Capcom games, many of them purchased for the rocking price of 1,000 yen. Here's a small selection: Biohazard (the GC remake), Biohazard 0. Chaos Legion, Auto Modellista, Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter, Onimusha Buraiden, Onimusha 3, Genma Onimusha, Devil May Cry 2. All these titles would have cost a fortune to buy full price, but I only spent 1,000 yen here, 1,500 yen there, or 2,000 yen tops, and hardly even noticed.
Now one essential trick to this crazy business is being able to discern when the remaining stock of a game starts running low. The process is not terribly complicated but, like most everything else I mention here, it takes a lot of grunt work.
At first, all shops carry every single one of the newest releases. Eventually, some shops run out of stock of a particular title. When that happens, they either re-stock in a couple of days, or they don't. Now in your rounds, you should keep a mental inventory (I am not going to go so far as to write these things down, I do have a life you know) of which shops still carry which games. As the number of shops that stock a particular game starts decreasing, it means the game is slowly being depleted. This is the period to make some quick decisions: that copy of Gradius V you saw for 3,900 yen might be worth getting now -- there are only two other shops that still carry it for 5,800, and it's highly unlikely it will be discounted further at any of them before all new copies disappear for good.
There's another important complication you need to be aware of, at least if you dislike budget re-releases with cheap covers and b&w manuals, but not correspondingly cheaper prices.
Once a game gets a budget re-release, virtually all remaining copies of the original still in circulation seemingly vanish overnight. I've seen this happen many, many times, with Sega, Capcom and Konami games in particular. I was really caught unawares with Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. The original versions of both games were widely available for years, always going for full price, as most Squeenix games do. I waited and waited for their price to come down in those days, since there was no way I'd spend upwards of 6,000 yen for a game I knew to be fairly mediocre. One day there were stacks of KH and Final Mix to be found everywhere, the next day Squeenix comes out with the budget versions and all the original ones disappear. I am still not sure where all those original copies went; though I have several ideas. Wherever they went, they'll one day surface somewhere, and I guarantee you they won't be cheap.
Take another example. Several Sega GameCube games (Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, Skies of Arcadia Legends, Billy Hatcher, and the monkey ball games) saw budget re-releases. The original titles didn't sell as well as Sega had expected, so for a while you could pick them up for around 2,000. And then the budget versions came along, the originals suddenly disappeared, and the price was jacked up to 2,500. People ended up paying more for less. That's how it often is in the world of video games, and there's not much else you can do than suck it up and beg for more.
I'll close this by explaining with a bit more detail the absurdities I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
Secondhand game shops take several factors into account when deciding on prices for their games. They start by setting the price a set percentage below MSRP, and then factor in condition and rarity. With recently-released games, rarity is never an issue. These titles can be found in any major chain, after all. So the price of a recent release with an MSRP of 6,800, which normally goes new for 6,200 to 6,600, would be set at around 5,000 to 5,500, depending on the shop. But the owners of secondhand game shops do not take into account sales happening at the shops that sell new games. So when Sofmap decides to slash prices for dozens of PS2 titles and flogs them for 2,000 yen each, seemingly incomprehensible situations can arise when the used copy of game is much more expensive than the a new one.
The basic idea behind all the above is that you are trying to get hold of the games while the large chains are still carrying them -- before the last remaining copies fall into the hands of the tiny mom-and-pop shops and the online auction people. There is a boundary which you should be aiming for, a short time period that separates these two states, while stocks have shrunk and the large retailers are trying to get rid of an old title in order to make space for new ones. That's when you have to be there, money in hand, to score that new copy of the game you want to play, for a bargain price.
The only problem is that to do all these things I am explaining here you have to live in Japan, preferably in a large city with many game stores, and be willing to spend quite a bit of your time going around various shops, usually buying games which you won't end up playing for months.
And yes, it can get obsessive sometimes. I mean, hell, just the idea of making regular rounds looking for cheap games to fill a collection -- one that never ends, I might add -- can be described as obsessive. I do have several stories of compulsive game-buying to relate, especially from my early days in Japan, when I hadn't yet grown accustomed to the mind-bending abundance of games, consoles and accessories. These things can be had for such crazy cheap prices here that skimping on food (which, by comparison, can be exhorbitantly expensive) can become a valid approach to building a collection (I, um, did this too for a while. Way back when.)
If this process I've just described seems to you boring and a waste of time, you couldn't be further from the truth. If you love games, chances are you will love doing this too. For one, it doesn't really take as much time as you think. I can canvass all of Akihabara in less than an hour if I am going alone (if I have company it takes more time, of course, but it's usually more enjoyable), and browsing such brash, loud, colorful game shops never gets old.
And then there's the surprise, addictive element to the whole thing (which can lead to obsession if you fail to exercise self-control). Since you never know what cool deals you'll come across, every trip you make can land you unimaginable treasures (well, not exactly, but you get my point). Maybe today will be the day DOA 4 gets discounted, and you'll finally get to play it. Or maybe the day will come when FFX International comes down in price (if only) -- you never know what you'll bring home with you. And as you are probably aware of, it's twice as much fun playing a game you bought for half price; in fact, even titles that subsequently turn out to be *holy crap* can become playable in this way. At least for a short while. Maybe.