Mar 10

The Art of Selling Video Games in the 1990s

by in History, Interviews

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A few weeks ago, I sat down with a friend of mine over beer, and he told me about his experiences working in a computer store in the 1990s. Our conversation made me realize that there is a large segment of the population under the age of 25 who have never heard of a “computer store” before: a store explicitly dedicated to selling computer hardware and software. The idea of visiting a brick’n'mortar building to purchase a video game, for folks that have grown up with Steam, must be a bizarre anachronism akin to inserting a Compton’s Interactive Encyclopedia CD-ROM to look up the capitol of Finland.

What was it like to browse physical shelves of new and used computer games? What happened behind the scenes, among the distributors, store managers and salespeople? How did salespeople persuade customers to buy expensive computer hardware like the Amiga 500, Tandy 1000 and IBM PS/1? In this article, my friend Ray – a father of two and a long time video game devotee – tells me about what it was like working as a hardware and software salesman during the peak of the modern computer revolution in Western Canada.

A Typical Computer Store in 1994

Although we did not know one another at the time, I often visited the store that Ray worked at in the mid-90′s. I was a teenager, and CompuCentre was the place to go to buy computer games. A wallet full of birthday cash – usually $60 or $80 – meant that I could afford one new AAA release, or two budget/bargain-bin games (usually I opted for the former). The store entrance was eerily similar to the “Software Excess” parody in Space Quest IV. I remember CompuCentre having an open floorplan: hardware kiosks and displays were scattered around the centre of the space, and the walls were lined with wire racks that showcased hundreds of software titles. Being an IBM user meant that I would not only pay no attention to the Amiga and Apple sections, but actively avoid them.

Ray: Besides a section of the store that was for all the gaming consoles, it was otherwise divided into computer sections, so you had the IBM software, the Commodore section, and even a little section for Mac.  People didn’t seem to buy computers to play games explicitly, however, the types of games available for a computer could influence someone who hadn’t decided on which computer to buy.  That’s even how I bought my own first computer.  It was an Amstrad that I bought from The Brick.  While my first experience was with a Commodore PET that used a cassette drive to save my work, it wasn’t until a few years later that I was able to buy my own.  I bought the Amstrad solely because it could play some of the games I had seen at school.  I wasn’t too interested in word processing or graphic design.
The computer buyers were generally either the creative artist who leaned towards the Amiga – the music composition software abilities were greatly sought in particular, or the at home professional who wanted a business computer.  I don’t remember anyone who thought of a computer as being so dynamic in that it could be used for work and games.
Unlike Ray, the people in my house with the purchasing power were my parents. Buying a new computer meant buying a family PC – a computer that was mainly used by my mother for writing papers and letters, and only secondarily, was capable of playing the kinds of computer games that my sister and I liked. In the 1990′s when Bulletin Board Systems and the Internet were quickly becoming part of my reality, having a computer that was capable of dial-up was a part of our purchasing decision.
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Above: Yours truly, proudly watching the end credits to GhostBusters II on the Amstrad
Rewind a few years. In 1990, my first real family computer that was capable of dial-up and playing a wide array of games was also an Amstrad: a PC2086/30 with a noisy 30 megabyte RLL hard drive, 8 MHz 286 CPU, 640k of RAM, and a VGA monitor. The strangest part of this story is that this U.K.-built computer, like Ray’s, was purchased at The Brick: a national furniture store that briefly flirted with computer hardware sales. The idea of a store dedicated solely to the sale of computer hardware and software in Canada, like we saw with CompuCentre in the mid-90′s, was still a few years off. (Note: Radio Shacks were around at the time, but were more known for their electronics than computers.)

Choosing the Right Machine

In the 90′s, there was still a glut of different architectures available – buying an Amiga meant that you would have to buy Amiga-exclusive software, and choosing the right architecture was often a crapshoot.
Ray:On the computer side, we primarily sold the Amiga and the IBM PS/1.  There were other models but those were the main.  Amiga was set up to be the go to machine if you had a lot of creative applications, like music composition or drawing (sort of where the Apple machines are niched now).  The PS/1′s were set up as the workhorse.  Sure it could do stuff the Amiga could, but where the Amiga was prettier (with regards to sound or colours or general creativeness), the PS/1 had the more necessary applications like Tax packages, word processing, spreadsheets…stuff like that.  It seemed that games for the computer were mostly an afterthought, or a bell and whistle that was nice, but not necessary.  At the time, the Internet mostly consisted of dialup modems, BBSes (bulletin board systems) and chat rooms.  Not near as fancy as we have today.  I remember many conversations where I tried to explain how the machines were different but both could access the same “cyberspace”.
In 1994, my family decided to stay in the MS-DOS compatible world, and we upgraded our curvy lil’ 286 to a monstrous, blocky IBM PS/1 486-SX33 with 4 MB of RAM. A “workhorse” indeed, especially because it came with a 2400 baud modem crammed into an ISA slot. Prior to that moment, cyberspace was only accessible via the University’s computing labs and meant a one-hour drive to the city to get on the campus network. From that day onwards, I was online from my home on an acreage – 75 kilometres from the University’s network – almost every day.

The Playtesting Bonus

So what about retailing the software itself? Similar to the story that Rob O’Hara tells in Commodore: Sordid Tales of a BBS Junkie, Ray mentions his delight at receiving a new shipment of software from the distributor.
Ray: I remember working at the store and everyone wanted the shift when the new shipment would arrive.  There was something awesome about seeing a game before it even reached the shelf for the public.  I remember when the store received its first copy of SimEarth.  It didn’t make it to the shelf.  I asked the owner if I could buy it even before we had finished the processing on receiving it.
I can tell you that at the time there was a cachet in having access to a game before it appeared on the shelves. Salespeople would tease me with harrowing tales of their adventures in a yet-to-be-released game. This was possible because in some cases, the retailer (or perhaps distributor, or publisher) would encourage employees to playtest games beforehand and reward them with incentives.
Ray: I don’t know who awarded us for playtesting the games.  I’m not certain if it was the owner of the store, the head office, or Nintendo and Sega themselves, but someone was footing the bill for our playtesting reports.  I mention Nintendo and Sega as those were the games I remember testing – not once did I ever playtest a computer game (though I would have been happy to do so).
How it would work is that to promote a game it was felt that the better the game was known, the better we as salespeople would be able to sell it.  So, there was the occasional game where we’d get it for a few days, play it, submit a report (sometimes they had a questionnaire you’d fill out, other times you’d have to actually type up a report detailing how far you got in the game, the pros and cons of the game, criticisms that could make it better, etc.), and depending on how far you got in the game and the submitted report, we’d get a pay bonus.
A pay bonus for just playing a game? My teenage self would have wept openly in envy if I had known that at the time. Ray recounts one of his favourite playtest/bonus experiences…
Ray: The example I remember best was Zelda – I think it was A Link to the Past for the SNES.  We had received our shipment late and the report needed to be in on Tuesday (it was a long weekend).  I was living in a house with three other guys down by the university and I really wanted to get the bonus for a full run down of the game (the bonus was larger than usual because the game was reported to be so much bigger than previous SNES games).  So that long weekend there were four of us guys pinned to the television as we tried to play this game.  There’d be the one playing and then one or two others to offer suggestions and take notes so that, when the player needed to rest or go do real life stuff, someone else could read the notes and pretty much take over.  Within 72 hours we had finished the game, and thanks to all the notes that were taken, the report was easily written.  Sometimes playing a game like that is more of a chore than fun, but we enjoyed that game.  I believe one of the guys actually even bought a copy.
The process of handing over my cash, listening to the dot-matrix printer churning out a copy of the invoice/receipt, and tearing into the shrinkwrap, is a sacred rite that is all but lost now. In an age where free online reviews have replaced a paid salesperson, where one-click purchase digital distribution has replaced a ritual involving face-to-face interaction and a lot of patience, where the disposable computer has replaced a minimum five-year allegiance to a specific architecture, we have began to treat the computer as just another consumer device like the toaster or the microwave, unworthy of mention itself.
Although I am fifteen years late in my thanks, Raymond Bilodeau, thanks for being that friendly guy who sold me a copy of BioForge. And thanks for sharing your story with us.

3 Responses to “The Art of Selling Video Games in the 1990s”

  1. From chris:

    Update: There are some fantastic stories over at this Reddit thread that replies to the post. Thanks to the Redditor who posted a link!

    http://www.reddit.com/r/Games/comments/1a5624/the_art_of_selling_video_games_in_the_1990s/

    Posted on March 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm #
  2. From Oskar:

    I always wanted to become an astronaut or a game dev/hacker like Flynn in Tron but certainly as an option for a more relaxed life or once retired I wanted to be one of those amazingly knowledgable video games sales guys. Spreading the news and love for video & computer games!

    I’m still eternally thankful to that one wise soul who convinced my father to buy a Master System instead of the NES I wished for my birthday. People like that were spreading the great stuff for sure. I do believe the same guy in Munich made my father get Wonder Boy III, Phantasy Star, Castle of Illusion and later on Mega Drive games like Toejam & Earl as well as Quackshot. I also don’t think we would have had Populous for the XT without him.

    In the end it was about the people, talking games was almost half of the experience! Great story Chris, thanks a lot! <3

    Posted on May 21, 2013 at 3:59 pm #

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