My Loser Phase: Reflections on Video Game Retail from 1992-1997


 

February 1993: Sticking Around

The job at Electronics Boutique was supposed to be seasonal. I expected to be out of work in February and looking for something new. However, two of the permanent part-time employees left for full-time jobs at other stores. With their hours open I was asked to join the permanent staff. That was fine with me.

Both of these former co-workers have subsequently left retail.

For someone who makes their primary living through retail, switching jobs is incredibly common. This happens for a number of reasons. Retail pay is pretty low, $8-$12 per hour for the average employee, so even a 50-cent per hour raise was cause to switch. Some retail managers are petty, bitter individuals that take out their frustrations on the only people they have control over. A conflict with a manager was a frequent reason for a job shuffle. To this day I see people that worked in Gurnee Mills the same time I did, who are the same age as me, that are still behind a register.

There was a huge difference between the mall in February and December. It was about 5 degrees out with wind chills frequently knocking another 10-20 off that. There were only 8-10 hours of sunlight during the day, even then the reflection off the snow and ice was blinding. Wallets were empty after splurging over the holidays. The malls, of course, were vacant. We could easily go an hour without anyone entering the store. Employees would stand outside their gates and chat most of the evening to pass time. It felt like working in an Antarctic research station. Every 2-3 hours we'd have to run outside to start our cheap cars and let them run for 10 minutes so we wouldn't be stranded when closing time rolled around.

The positive to this slowdown is that it gave me the time to learn more of the day-to-day operations. I started learning how to close the register down at night. It sounds like something that should be simple but was overly complicated with many steps. For example, we had to manually add all the credit receipts despite the fact that the card machine already did that. For a software store, we sure didn't trust software.

This time of year was perfect for the annual inventory. It was an all-night effort where we counted every single item in the store and reconciled it with what the system said we should have. The numbers weren't close so we'd have to pour over shipping and register logs for the next few weeks until we came up with more reasonable figures.


 

March 1993: DOS 6 Fiasco

In my early days at Elbo I was treated to many conspiracy theories about Windows and DOS. Well, the "conspiracy" was that Microsoft was trying to move everyone off DOS and onto Windows. For some reason, crackpots felt it necessary to rant at software store employees about Microsoft's plans for world domination. Key to these plans was the gradual phasing-out of DOS. According to these prophets the very existence of DOS somehow threatened Microsoft's scheme. When I use terms like "crackpot" and "rant" I'm not stretching the truth even slightly. These were grown men, usually early middle-aged, that sounded like a 9/11 "truther" at an anti-Bush rally.

In hindsight, maybe they were geniuses.
DOS 6

The Microsoft "conspiracy" started in March 1993 with the release of MS-DOS 6.0. Later in the year they released an update that was labeled 6.2. Since IBM's version of MS-DOS was 6.1 they had to stay one number ahead. Yes, consumers fell for this all the time. If there were two nearly identical products to choose from, the one with the higher version number typically won out. Microsoft used this same strategy when they upgraded from Office 4.3 to 7.0, one higher than WordPerfect 6.0. That worked too. A couple years later there would be similar version number battles between Microsoft and Netscape.

One of the new features in MS-DOS 6.0/6.2 was disk compression. They used a technology called DoubleSpace to do this. Hard drives used to be small and expensive, a couple of products were released to address this problem by offering drive compression. The most successful one was Stacker. Microsoft briefly entertained the idea of buying out their parent company but opted to develop their own disk compression technology. Stacker sued Microsoft for patent infringement and won on most of their claims.

Microsoft was forced to release a MS-DOS 6.21 "upgrade" that removed DoubleSpace. We were shipped a counter display stand that held about 20 cardboard envelopes containing the "upgrade". These envelopes held a single 3.5" disk and sold for $5. Needless to say, they weren't a big seller. There was also a regular size package to upgrade 6.0 to 6.21. That one was picked-up by users who wanted SCANDISK (which was in 6.2 but not 6.0) but didn't use DoubleSpace.

By the summer of 1994 Microsoft released MS-DOS 6.22. This included a non-copyright-infringing compression tool called DriveSpace. It was also packaged in both $5 envelopes and full-size boxes. With Windows 3.1 and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 also in the mix, many customers were left confused. I distinctly recall one gentleman who was genuinely baffled:

Customer: Do you have Windows 6.22?

Me: I think you mean DOS 6.22.

Customer: No, I mean Windows 6.22.

Me: Windows only goes up to 3.11, I think you have it confused with the new version of DOS which is 6.22.

Customer: I saw Windows 6.22 at Software ETC.

Me: Then go buy it there. Hold on to it because it's the only copy in existence.

Microsoft had a very generous purchase program for retailers. We were able to buy virtually any Microsoft program for pennies on the dollar. Their intent was to get their products in our hands so we could use and recommend them. Since the average retail employee makes beans they had to offer extremely low prices. I don't know if they still have this program in place.

This purchase program was key to my eventual exit from retail. I used it to buy a full version of Visual Basic 4 for $20 in 1996 (original retail price ~$300). I spent a lot of my free time learning the language and pounding out various small programs. Despite having no practical experience, I was easily able to get a job as a Visual Basic developer.

People may look at this kind of Microsoft program cynically. Microsoft wasn't giving away cheap software out of the kindness of their heart; they wanted to make money. Why is this a bad thing? Microsoft certainly increased their sales while inadvertently widening the skill set of lowly retail employees. In my case it was a contributing factor to advancing to a better career, a career that has used countless Microsoft products. Each side of this equation benefited greatly.


 

August 1993: MPC2

MPC2 was a confusing concept for both gamers and retail employees. In 1993 games with a little MPC2 logo on the box started pouring out. "What the heck was MPC2? Is it a certification, an operating system, software, a new game system?" We were asked all these and never really had a good answer. MPC2 was in reality a set of hardware & software specifications published by Microsoft (see http://support.microsoft.com/default.aspx?scid=kb;en-us;106055) to try and create a standard definition for a "multimedia PC". Hardware and software manufacturers would then certify their products met this standard. It could loosely be considered a precursor to DirectX.

King's Quest VI

Games carrying the MPC2 label flooded the store and sold especially well. As long as there have been computers there have been computer owners who wanted to show-off what their machine was capable of. Sierra became well known for releasing MPC2 versions of their franchise titles like King's Quest VI, Space Quest V, and Leisure Suit Larry VI.

Along with games came a deluge of reference and "edutainment" titles. I always hated the phrase "edutainment"; actually I can't stand any time two words are mashed together into a new, meaningless one. Anyway, "edutainment" was a silly way of saying "a game that's educational". A spate of interactive stories and educational games carried the MPC2 tag and sold reasonably well to parents looking for a way to introduce their kids to the PC. Despite the relative success of "edutainment", the entire category would be dropped from the Elbo lineup in a couple years.

Finally there were stacks of reference programs carrying the MPC2 label. Dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, bibles, you name it. These barely sold on their own and were frequently bundled with CD-ROM drives.

The internet sure has made these CD based references obsolete. Can you imagine buying a road-trip planner or encyclopedia when both are freely available now? Of course, I'm still amazed that video game magazines continue to sell when that content is also free online.

During this time we starting carrying CD-ROM drives. The prices of course were staggering compared to today. A 2x CD drive easily went for $150, a quick check on Newegg reveals that a total of eight 48x DVD drives can be purchased for the same price today. We also carried a massive upgrade kit for $500. "Massive" refers more to the size of the box than the contents; it was roughly the size of a Fiat. It contained a 2x CD drive, sound card, speakers, and a host of those crappy reference programs.

In August 1993 I started taking classes at the College of Lake County (CLC), a junior college that was nearby. I took a few morning classes and then went to work at Elbo, it was an easy schedule. I majored in "computer information systems" which, at the time, was taught using FORTRAN 77 (despite there being a FORTRAN 90 and better languages like C++). All the programming I'd done prior to then was in some flavor of BASIC but it wasn't a huge adjustment.

I was never a good student. I cut class a lot figuring I could improvise on the exams. I got through four years of high school with roughly the same mentality. The difference is, if a high school teacher fails you they'll probably be stuck with you again. If a college professor, even one at a junior college, fails you they know it puts you on track to get kicked out. They have no real motivation for making sure someone passes their class. If you screw-off and don't go to class they aren't going to give you a 'C-' just so you pass on to the next grade.

Throughout the years in college I'd learn FORTRAN 77, C++, Prolog, and x86 assembler. I have never used any of these at an actual programming job unless you count Visual C++ (since the work I did was largely MFC programming I don't consider it the same thing as what I studied). 95% of the professional development work I've done is in Java, C#, Visual Basic, and SQL. This is not meant to belittle the importance of finishing college (more on this later), it's merely a brief (and off-topic) critique to note that academic Computer Science needs to do a better job keeping up with industry trends.
Street Fighter II Special Championship Edition

Mercifully, August 1993 would see the release of Street Fighter II Special Championship Edition for the Sega Genesis. The release date for this game was pushed back countless times. We had a hard date at one point in the summer only to have Capcom change it at the last second. I had one irate customer threaten to sue us because we had this date advertised in a flyer. I explained that without the benefit of time travel we couldn't update the flyers, it didn't help.

We received at least a dozen phone calls per day asking when it would come out, as though we had a red-phone connected to the Capcom developers. Some customers grew tired of waiting and bought a Super Nintendo just to play it. When it finally came out it was a tremendous relief. Well, except it originally carried a $70 price tag which irritated even the most patient customers.


 

September 1993: Mortal Monday

Mortal Kombat

In my time at Elbo there was never a game launch as grand as Mortal Kombat. It spent the several months gulping quarters at the arcade with a fury. The long lines of gamers, eagerly waiting a turn to play, revived memories of arcade classics like Pac-Man or Dragon's Lair. When a home version was announced there was a buzz in the stores that went on for months.

We took more pre-orders & reservations for Mortal Kombat than any other game, except its sequel. Our reservation system was rather crude. We had a gigantic, heavy, over-stuffed red binder on the front counter where customers would leave their name and phone number for an upcoming release. We'd take a reservation on any game even if only one person cared about it, there were a lot of mostly blank pages. The Mortal Kombat reservation list took up more pages than an unabridged copy of Dune. A reservation meant we'd hold a copy for 48 hours, a pre-order guaranteed a copy on the release date. The idea of pre-ordering a game was still kind of new so some shoppers were skeptical. It was about a 10:1 ratio of reservations to pre-orders. Over time that would flip in the other direction as new games came out in short supply.

The controversy around the violent content only fueled sales. Senator Joseph Lieberman sold more copies of Mortal Kombat than every video game store employee combined.

The store phone rang off the hook with kids asking when Mortal Kombat would be released. Never mind that the entire marketing campaign revolved around the "Mortal Monday: September 13" theme. The volume of calls got so bad that we starting answering the phone like this:

[phone rings]

Me: Hello, thank you for calling Electronics Boutique. Mortal Kombat comes out September 13th.

Caller: Oh, uh, never mind.

I too had been swept up in Mortal Kombat madness. During my brief enrollment at CLC, I easily spent more time in the arcade playing Mortal Kombat I & II than I did in class and studying combined. In the basement of the main building there was a dark, smoky game room filled with slackers. There was a regular group huddled around fighting games like Street Fighter II, King of Fighters, Samurai Showdown, and of course Mortal Kombat. Titles like NBA Jam and Lethal Enforcers had a few faithful players, but nothing compared to the manic following of the fighters. From the time the doors opened at 8:00 to their closing at 7:00, there was a steady line waiting for their turn to release virtual brutality on their peers. At the risk of boasting about something not worth boasting about, I can say I became nearly unbeatable at it. I often played for over an hour on a single quarter, leaving behind a wake of frustrated opponents. I was borderline obsessed with the Mortal Kombat games, it's not a stretch when I say I played for 4+ hours a day. Now I don't play 4 hours of anything in a week or two. What the hell though, I was 18 and didn't have the motivation to do anything serious. I guess most males go through a phase like this.

From the mid to late 90s arcades would suffer a slow and painful death. Home consoles would produce games of equal, and sometimes better, visual quality. Arcades would be left with games that couldn't be duplicated at home, vehicle simulators and dance games mostly. Every arcade within a 20 mile radius closed by 1998. I have it on good authority that the CLC arcade finally closed up in 2005 after several years of neglect. It's a shame because arcades were about more than just poor lighting, loud music, and the latest games. They were a social networking hub for an entire generation of future engineers, programmers, and IT workers. The arcade was also a place where one could keep up with the latest underground rock, alternative, and industrial bands. Stuff that radio stations wouldn't touch was always blasting through the air. It's a piece of culture that can't be replaced.

Mortal Komat for Sega Genesis box

The first release on September 13 included versions for the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, and Game Gear. A debate raged among gamers on whether to buy the Genesis or Super Nintendo version. The Super Nintendo version had superior graphics, but it was well-known that Nintendo forbad the inclusion of blood & fatalities. Gore won out over graphics as the pre-sales of the Genesis version dwarfed the Super Nintendo one.

It turns out the Super Nintendo version wasn't just missing fatalities, it replaced them with comically bad ones. Johnny Cage wiggling his foot in his opponents torso was my favorite. More importantly, the game play was different than the arcade. It was like playing a poor imitation, Pac-Man for the Atari 2600. It was almost as though the programmers thought "screw Nintendo" when they were forced to censure the game. The Genesis version, on the other hand, played almost exactly like the arcade. It wasn't long before many of the Super Nintendo pre-sells were exchanged for the graphically inferior Genesis version. I'm rarely critical of Nintendo but their botched handling of Mortal Kombat set themselves back in the 16-bit war.

Although the Sega Genesis version included blood, it wasn't enabled by default. Players had to enter a "blood code" at a specific time before the game started. This became a selling point for many magazines that promised on the cover to reveal the code inside. Keep in mind, the first rendition of GameFAQs.com was still two years away from existing so magazines were the only source for gaming secrets. Naturally almost everyone who bought the game asked us for the code and we were big enough jerks to say "sorry, you gotta buy the magazine". The customer's reply all too often was "OK, sure. Hey can I look at the magazine first to make sure it's in there and oh do you have a pen I can borrow?"

Autographed Mortal Kombat magazine

Shortly after the home version of Mortal Kombat hit the shelves, Mortal Kombat II started appearing in arcades. Later that year two of the actors from Mortal Kombat I&II popped-up in our store. It wasn't a planned event or anything. Carlos Pensina (Raiden) and Richard Divisio (Baraka, Kano) were out shopping with their girlfriends and another employee recognized them. They were both cool. They asked if they could get some free Mortal Kombat hats that were a promo item for pre-sales of the PC version. We gladly parted with a few in exchange for autographs. Yeah, getting the autograph of a game actor is dorky but I don't care.

An interesting note about the magazine cover to the left. Richard Divisio is dressed in the Scorpion outfit instead of Daniel Pesina who's posing as Cage. Daniel played Cage and all the ninjas in Mortal Kombat II. Since they wanted Scorpion on the cover they had Richard don the attire instead.


 

October 1993: 3DO Launch

John Madden for 3DO

The 3DO corporation introduced a new concept in gaming. Rather than creating a new game system they created a specification for a game system and left it to electronics companies to implement. Panasonic was the first to try by releasing a $700 3DO player in October 1993. The initial launch didn't produce many sales. The sticker price and no-name library kept the bulky Panasonic 3DO boxes dusty.

Our store was sent a demo unit shortly after the launch. It was the only demo unit we had in the time I was there (although the same store now sports several). We had a challenging time finding a game to display that caught customers' attention. After several experiments we found that Madden Football was the most successful. Sports games were always solid sellers and Madden was (and still is) the premier franchise. When customers saw how superior Madden for 3DO was in comparison to the Genesis and Super Nintendo versions it made them consider buying a 3DO. Are people really willing to shell out $700+ just to play the latest version of Madden? Well, at the time of this writing (2006-04-17) I found something called the "Xbox 360 Premium Gold Pack Sports Bundle" (which includes Madden '06) selling for a low price of $830. So to answer the question, "yes".

The 3DO never took off though. The failures of other CD-based systems lingered like a dark cloud over the 3DO. Previous CD systems (Sega CD, Phillips CDI, TG-16 CD) were infamous for their weak game libraries. 3DO made the mistake of launching without titles that gamers were actually interested in. Customers' was saw it as yet-another-overpriced-CD-system-with-no-games. Far too late it managed to amass a respectable library with rock-solid ports of Super Street Fighter II, Dragon's Lair, and Samurai Shodown. By that time gamers had largely written the system off.

I never touched another in-store demo unit after seeing a kid sneeze directly on our 3DO controller.

3DO made a number of mistakes with this system. One that gets overlooked is the controller design. It looked remarkably like a Sega Genesis controller and had fewer buttons than the Super Nintendo pad. It also had a goofy port in the top used to daisy chain controllers (instead of having multiple ports in the front). This gave off the impression of being a technically inferior system, or at least one designed by someone who doesn't actually play games. Nowadays, every new system has to have more buttons than the one before it. I'm not sure that's a good thing, in two years we'll probably be seeing an Xbox 720 controller with 16 buttons and 4 analog sticks. Maybe Nintendo is on to something with the minimalist Wii controller.
Late in 1993 Elbo introduced something called the "Extended Service Agreement" (ESA). It was basically the same obnoxious extended warranty that Best Buy and Circuit City pimp with every purchase today. We originally only offered it on the Genesis, Super Nintendo, Game Boy, Game Gear, and redesigned NES. For an extra $15 or $20 customers could purchase a 1 or 2 year ESA. If any part of the hardware broke during that time we'd swap it out for free. We were given small commissions for each one sold so we pestered customers mercilessly to buy them. During the Christmas season they actually accounted for a decent percentage of our paychecks. The program wasn't offered for the 3DO because, to put it bluntly, we didn't know if we'd have replacement systems handy in 2 years.
Ys

With the first 32-bit console arriving Elbo had to free up shelf space. The sacrificial lamb was the TurboGrafx-16. It was a distant third to the Genesis and Super Nintendo and had no hope to catch-up by this time. This didn't discourage me from buying one though. A big chunk of the Christmas cash I earned in 1992 went to a shiny new TurboDuo early in 1993. The first time I played Ys Book I&II at a friend's house I knew I had to own it. I don't regret paying $300 for it because of all the systems I own it's the only one that would still sell for near its original price.

I knew it would be a matter of time before we stopped carrying it, but when the day finally came it still hit me by surprise.

I started my shift one afternoon and there was a kid in the store holding a few TurboGrafx-16 games. I asked "trying to decide which one to get?" and he replied "for $5 I'll get them all". $5!? I was in a bit of shock. I eyeballed the section and sure enough every TurboGrafx-16 game was marked down to $5, every single one. I stashed away a copy of each to buy later that night. The best deal of the lot was Beyond Shadowgate which was $50 the previous day. It turns out that is a fairly rare game now and can sell for over $100.

 

November 1993: Do the Math

Club Drive for Atari Jaguar

The Atari Jaguar product launch was the least promoted one I've seen. Atari started by shipping highly limited quantities to select markets. We were never given a clear date of when our location would get them. One day we opened up a box and a couple were in it. No signs, marketing material, or even games. Just 2 or 3 mixed in with our regular re-stock. We put it up at the front of the store by the 3DO demo unit. It never really garnered more than a few curious glances. That wasn't too surprising since the launch library was pretty weak. Cybermorph, a shooter, was the pack-in game. To mix things up they released another shooter called Trevor McFur in the Crescent Galaxy. This appeared to be Atari's answer to Starfox, only not as good. Club Drive, a comically bad rip-off of Hard Drivin', was another launch title. The game play was inferior to practically every Super Nintendo and Genesis racing game, the sound effects were almost indistinguishable from Enduro. It's a bad omen when your "next-gen" launch titles are inferior to current-gen games.

Alien vs. Predator, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom would breathe some life into the Jaguar but not enough for it to survive. Atari would eventually adopt the slogan "Do the Math" for their Jaguar advertising. It was their way of saying "64>16". A better equation would be "bad games + bad marketing + bad controller + no 3rd party support = flop".

If the Jaguar was a flop, I have no idea what to label the Jaguar CD. It clocked in at $250 and had a smaller game library than any system I can think of except the Super-Grafx. We never sold a single one.

When we finally cleared the Jaguar out in 1996 for $50 I picked one up. I guess it was worth the price, just barely though.

Sonic Mania

In contrast to the Jaguar, 11/93 saw the heavily promoted release of three new Sonic games. Sonic Spinball (Genesis), Sonic CD (Sega CD), and Sonic Chaos (Game Gear) were given a simultaneous release date of the 23rd. Elbo participated in a cross-promotion with Lifesavers for this release. Sonic collects rings so I guess I kinda see the connection. We were sent a 4'-5' tall cardboard display stand to hold these Sonic Lifesavers. They came in a variety of new fruit flavors like watermelon and pineapple. The deal was if you bought $X worth of Lifesavers you got $Y off one of the three games. Y was slightly greater than X so they went fast.



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