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The cost of gaming is becoming less fun for stores in Oman
August 1, 2019 | 7:07 AM
by Gautam Viswanathan
 
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Technological advancements mean game developers and game companies are able to reach a far larger audience than they ever have. The best example to highlight this is the viral fashion in which PUBG (Player Unknown’s Battle Grounds) has taken the world by storm, with people playing it not just on their mobile phones, but also on PCs, their Xboxes and PlayStations.

With more than 400 million people playing the game on mobiles alone, as PUBG closes in on half a billion downloads and 50 million active users playing it every day, PUBG is just the most popular in a series of a new era of games, which also includes titles such as Fortnite and Pokémon Go.

But the rise of online games and gaming is far from a recent development. Games such as World of Warcraft, League and Legends and the still-legendary DOTA (Defence of the Ancients) did take the gaming world by storm.

But while recent years have seen the rise of online games in Oman and the rest of the world, it has also seen the popularity of online gaming stores, which often offer far better prices for games, as well as increased convenience and access, when compared to traditional brick-and-mortar shops.



There are of course, a number of reasons for gamers in the Sultanate preferring to shop online as compared to browsing in a store. For starters, the variety of games available for sale over the internet is far greater than the physical copies often kept in stores. In addition, online stores offer periodic and seasonal discounts that traditional gaming stores just cannot compete with.

This is particularly important at the moment, as the economic downturn in Oman has put additional pressure on people’s wallets. Many people, particularly parents whose young children often ask them for games, simply have to say no to them, because they have more important priorities to attend to, while young adults who are just starting out on their own will also need to consign games to the back of their list of responsibilities.



It is here where the appeal of online stores is most strongly felt. GOG.com for example, an online game store that are owned by Polish company CD Projekt Red, often run periodic discount runs for certain games on their site.

GOG works directly with over 600 partners, including studios such as Bethesda Game Studios, Ubisoft, Square Enix, Activision, EA, Disney, Daedalic Entertainment and Capcom, to name a few. The company’s most recent discount scheme saw it give gamers discounts of up to 75 per cent on games made by Bethesda, which means that gamers get plenty of value for money for games from the Elder Scrolls series, which includes games such as Skyrim, as well as the Fallout and Quake series of games. Games that cost around $20 (OMR8) are now available for just $7, or less than OMR3.

A parallel discount on games from Kalypso Media – the people behind Warhammer and Tropico – is currently running, and the site also runs regular weekly discounts on selected titles. GOG’s previous series of discounts were focused on games made by studios in France, such as Ubisoft – creators of the Assassins’ Creed, Far Cry and Prince of Persia titles – as well as discounts on games made by US and Canadian production houses.

It is this sort of constant availability of games at discounted rates that makes stores like GOG so marketable to gamers, who know they are able to get content for a very low price, something traditional stores might not be able to do. Add to that the uncomfortable heat you face when you go outside, and compare that to the convenience of shopping from home, and it is not hard to see why online stores are siphoning more and more visitors away from outlet stores.

“GOG.com is a digital distribution platform with a curated selection of games, a ‘you buy it, you own it’ philosophy, and utmost care about customers,” said a spokesman from GOG. “Every game is here because we chose it for you. When you’re with us, you can be sure that all games are legitimate, and your purchases support rightful owners and creators.

“Even if the game is older than you are, we test it thoroughly, fix all the bugs, and apply patches so it runs flawlessly on your next-gen PC and on modern operating systems,” said GOG. “As much attention we’re giving to pick great games, the same goes to highlighting them on GOG.com — treating each release as a celebration.”

To find out how traditional gaming stores were handling the new competition, having been able to rule the roost on their own for so long, we spoke to game store owners in Oman.

Harish Kumar, a game store owner in Ghala, said he had faced a drop in up to 30 per cent of customers due to this combination of factors.

“Earlier, when people used to come to me, they were very excited to get games, and would often ask me to keep games for them,” he revealed. “If they were my loyal customers, I would definitely hold copies of games for them. But now, they say they cannot afford to pay the same amount that they used to and I am therefore forced to sell them at a discount. If, for example, I used to previously sell a game at OMR16, I now sell it at about OMR12. I have to be prepared to take that loss.

“I have seen sales decrease by up to 35 per cent over the last couple of year,” admitted Harish. “The truth is that earlier people knew that they had money to spend, so they would buy the things that they liked to buy. But now, people don’t have as much money to spend on these items, so they will first look for the game online. If they can get it at a good discount, then they will buy it. If they cannot get, only then will they come to me.”

KS Sampath, another game store owner in Qurum, added that gamers wanted more value for their money, given that purse strings were not as loose now as they previously were. While his regular, more loyal customers did still come to him, he said that the number of walk-in customers had dropped significantly.

This in turn had a knock-on effect: Sampath now had an excess of games from his distribution agents, and no way to sell them. He therefore began offering discounts on his existing stocks, while in turn reducing the number of games he shipped from his suppliers.

“If you look at some of the games in the market today, how much do they cost? The latest games, they cost between OMR 20 and 25, while games that are good, but have been released a few months ago, they cost between OMR16 and 18,” he said. “Who has this sort of money to spend on games? People don’t want to spend so much money. Many of my customers ask me to give them a discount, and if I can, I will definitely give them, but I also have to meet my targets, pay the rent for my store, pay my suppliers, and so many other things.

“Others tell me that they will come back when the game is available for a cheaper price, because they cannot pay so much for it right now,” Sampath said. “I will then offer them a discount, but if they don’t want it then, I can only wait for them to come back. The loyal customers will come back, but others will find it online, or will go to another store because they think they can get it there.”

To counter the impact of online stores, traditional outlets are also offering to rent out games to customers who want the thrill of playing the game. This works better for both customer and seller, particularly those who are interested in playing the game just once, instead of returning to it over and over again. Games that are rented out to customers are often offered at prices of about 40 per cent their sale value, and Harish Kumar says while sales might have gone down, there has been an uptick in rentals.

“If I sell a game for OMR18, I will rent out a game for OMR6, maybe for a week or 10 days, depending on how well I know the customer,” explained Kumar. “Sometimes, the customer likes the game so much or is not able to complete it, but wants to, so he will want to buy the game, in which case I will just deduct the rental price from the cost of the game and ask him to pay the rest. This is a better option than just losing the customer when he buys online, but even then, some customers will rent the game from me, and then buy the game online when it is available on a discount.”

But online gamers have managed to offer gamers an alternative to this as well. Platforms such as Origin, the online gaming store for Electronic Arts – the publishers of games such as FIFA, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Need for Speed and The Sims among a host of other titles – offers customers an ever-growing basket of free games, as well as discounts on upcoming games, and the ability to play new releases a few days before they officially hit the market, in exchange for a subscription fee, in addition to their regular option to just buy games a la carte.

For those who want it, Origin’s Basic subscription will set them back €3.99 (about OMR 2) per month, or they can avail an annual subscription at the rate of €24.99 per (about OMR 12.5) per year. In addition, their premier package costs about €14.99 per month (OMR 7.5) and €99.99 per year (OMR 50). There are those, though, who are against this, because given all the economic uncertainties and responsibilities they have, are unsure whether parting with this is in their best interest.

In addition, some gamers will wait for seasonal discounts available online before swooping for the latest games. Because the parent companies of Origin, GOG and Steam are based out of the US and Europe, they offer discounts for the traditionally western holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, in contrast to PlayStation, which also offers discounts based on regional sensitivities. In the Middle East, for example, they offer a significant Ramadan discount.

Because PC gamers have so many options to choose from online, they often have accounts on multiple servers, and so will choose the best price for the game of their choice. This competition further drives down online prices and has made services like Steam, Origin and UPlay, Ubisoft’s online shop, offer free games in the form of giveaways to customers.

Zaid Al Ajmi, a passionate gamer, says he’d rather wait for discounts to pop up online as opposed to forking out plenty of money for a new game. On PCs, for example, the upcoming FIFA 20 video game is being sold by Origin for €59.99 (about OMR 30), and that’s the basic edition, and customers are being invited to pre-order it. It has been similarly priced on the PlayStation Store and Xbox marketplace.

“I think it is very expensive for many people,” he explained. “Yes, some people can afford it, but not everyone can. To some people, OMR 30 is a lot of money, and they can use it to buy many other things. To some people, that is shopping for a few days, to others, it is the cost of their internet bill. Of course, we all want to play the game, but that does not mean we rush into it.

“But I would rather wait to buy it in December, because that is when I can get a discount on the game, even if it is only OMR 5, but that is a lot of money” added Al Ajmi. “This means I feel like I am also treating myself to this game as a New Year’s Eve gift. That discount is quite a significant number, so my message, especially to some of the younger gamers that might want to buy the game immediately. If you wait for the discount, you will be better off.”

Asked about why he felt so strongly about not paying full price, he added, “It is because these game companies make a lot of money anyway. Some of my friends try to provoke me into buying the game now for full price, but I have other responsibilities and have to look after them as well. There are those who say that the amount of money provided in these discounts is not much, but if that is the case, then let them pay the difference between the discount and the original price and then I will buy the game. When I tell them to do so, they keep quiet and go about their own business.”

Another convenient source of games for people these days is torrents. Although technically illegal, many people download pirated or cracked versions of games through torrents, so that they can play them for free.

According to a report published in 2018 by Sandvine, a Canadian broadband management company, and 22 percent of total upstream volume of data is sent through BitTorrent, a torrent client. 31 per cent of this takes place in the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East and Africa). Aware of gamers engaging in torrents to download games at no cost, some shops have also offered to give their gamers the setup files to several games, often bundling several of them together for a fixed price.

“If you want to use a torrent file to get your game, that is fine, but remember that you are the one responsible after that for anything happening to your system,” said Sultan Ali, who asks gamers to give him their hard drives so that he can upload their games of choice onto it, before giving it back to them in a few hours’ time. “If you download a torrent, and it messes up your entire system, you have only yourself to blame.

“Then, you will have to spend an amount that could run into hundreds of Rials to repair your system, because some of these torrents have viruses and malware that could permanently damage your computer,” he added. “If your system fails, who will you go to then? The guys who upload these files? Yes, we charge money to sell games, and we know times are tough, that is why we now have flat rates if you want games in bulk. Many of these games are a bit older, so we sell them for discounted prices.”

Sometimes, gamers don’t understand the financial implications of buying games, because they might be too focused on the game. Conversely, someone who is forking out the money for the game in question might be too concerned about how much it costs...games are after all seldom seen as a worthwhile investment because many of them consider games to be childish.

It is best, therefore, to get a perspective on the current relation between how much gamers are willing to pay for games, and why they are unwilling to pay so much, by talking to Ramanuj Venkatesh, a financial analyst who also happens to be a gamer. Raised in Muscat as the middle child among three brothers, Ram grew up with a PlayStation, Xbox and a PC at home.

“I would like to buy my games online, because I like to have convenience when it comes to gaming, rather than waiting at the store, and from my prior experience, sometimes, customers who walk into the shop after me get served before I do. That is why I have chosen to go online store. The future is going to be online anyway, and if I have to move from one location to another, my games are going to be safe.

“It is not that I am only for online gaming, but I still remember the nostalgia I have when we were little and we used to go to the store,” he said. “In terms of going to a physical store, I can sell it once I have finished it and recover at least 50 per cent of my costs. When you game through an online store, you need an active internet connection, and sometimes, you need to download updates, but that inconvenience is not there in a physical copy.”

Ram added that he always hunted for good offers in stores when it came to buying games, because he still enjoyed the connection and the interaction with shopkeepers, from whom he had been buying games for years. Several of his classmates have opened game stores in Oman, and Ram regularly recommends them to his other friends who want quality games at good rates.

The same practice applies for when he travels to the neighbouring United Arab Emirates to meet his family. He actively scours the gaming and tech stores there looking for good deals across the malls and other outlet stores.

“The shopkeepers are dedicated to serving you, so he will pick out a game that he thinks will suit your needs,” Ram explained. “Online game stores do still have my preference because of the ease and convenience, and a lot of the stores charge you a lot, and given that people are not willing to spend as much on games as they used to, because the reality is that many games are expensive. Online stores are just so much more convenient, but in a store, sometimes the guy does not have the stock or he has to source his product.

“For example, I wanted a cricket game and went to a store, and the seller charged me OMR16 for it, which is quite a lot, but when I bought it online, I was able to buy it for half that price,” he revealed. “Despite me having the passion to play cricket, I would rather spend at a more affordable rate. This gives me more leeway for whatever I need.

“Very recently, I had gone to a store where I three games for OMR 15 as part of their Eid offer, but the online market has captured the mainstream audience when it comes to offering games that have special discounts,” explained Ram. “Accessibility is key in this digital age, so people don’t want to go all the way to the store and pick it up. Stores are trying their level best to incentivise selling of games on offers, by providing Eid and festival discounts. They are doing their best, but they cannot compare themselves to the online market, because this audience once went to them, but does not anymore.”– [email protected]



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