In a battle as fierce as any seen in interactive games, independent dealers are up in arms over perceived preferential treatment that games publishers give large retail chains.
The pre-release of Civilisation 3 CD, a first-person strategy game for the PC, by Electronic Boutique last week re-ignited the debate between "indies" and the larger chains.
The stakes are high for both parties, as retail chains leverage their buying power with publishers to flout release dates, while discount independents struggle to capitalise on sales made after the games have been sold for days by larger chains before the official "street date".
The move has forced Rob Beaumont, proprietor of Berlin Wall Software Supermarket, to rally 5000 customers and other independent retailers via e-mail to join together to oppose what he said is unfair and anti-competitive marketing practices.
"The publishers/distributors should not publish a street release date unless they are willing to enforce it. In most cases, a store chain will be the first to break the release date, mainly because they cannot and will not compete on pricing and they know full well because of their buying power they will not be penalised," said Beaumont.
Electronic Boutique has dismissed claims it sold Civilisation 3 prior to the official release. Steve Wilson, Electronic Boutique's merchandise director, denied the retailer had a special agreement with Civilisation 3 publisher OziSoft, adding "we were never told of a street date for that product".
He also said the retail chain works hard to honour street date releases.
OziSoft Australia claims it is difficult to enforce street date releases of its titles, but had delivered pre-orders of 20,000 units to the market, including Electronic Boutique, earlier in the week. OziSoft officials also said information on the street date was available from the publisher's catalogue, which Electronic Boutique would have.
However, Beaumont said he has already had customers cancel pre-orders because they've purchased the game somewhere else. "It all sounds petty to the naked eye, but every customer that cannot buy from us simply goes elsewhere. In this particular title we gained heaps of pre-orders and now some of our loyal customers are mad at us because we would not release stock until Friday," Beaumont said.
"Indies represent different percentages of business depending on who they are, but one thing is certain: small businesses are more profitable and loyal to their suppliers and far less dictatorial about trading terms, returns and cap promos," he added.
A former marketing executive for a major games publisher said that while breaking embargoed release dates is widespread, it's almost impossible to police.
"While an [independant dealer] might order 25 units, which is great and a huge order for them, large retailers are going to order 2500 units," she said. "You can't really punish Electronic Boutique, because it's a massive account. Business-wise, it's just not going to happen."