The media process of building 'em up to knock 'em down never ceases to surprise me. Today the UK video games scene has witnessed the execution of what could be interpreted as an inspired windfall of free publicity or an unplanned blunder whipped into a media feeding frenzy.
The Mirror (yes, the tabloid newspaper famed for its meticulously cross-checked technology journalism, I don't think...) broke the story that The Dixons Group Plc. (the largest high street consumer electronics retailer in the UK) were planning on no longer stocking the Nintendo Gamecube hardware or software. The article quotes a Dixon's source: "GameCube hasn't sold well, so for now we're concentrating on just Xbox and PS2. It's purely about shelf space." (Remember that shelf space comment. This is important.) They also mentioned that Dixons were dropping the price of the hardware to £99 with a game thrown in.
Within hours this report was picked up on by one million forum-dwelling fanboys, who immediately proclaimed the machine's doom. Next, news site GamesIndustry.biz (don't even get me started) ran the story, although to be fair at least bothered to talk to Dixons to clarify the situation. ("Once we've cleared stock we'll review our next steps.") This clarification was hidden away under a sensationalist headline, which is also how the story ran (unchecked, obviously) on The Register.
Then to exacerbate the PR damage for Nintendo, the BBC run the story with the ludicrous headline "GameCube could vanish from the High Street" and the more sensible "Gamecube drops in price".
Now to put some perspective on the situation. The Dixons Group, retailing monopolists and price fixing bully-boys as they are, only make up about 20% of Nintendo's GC sales. The real big fish in the video games retail pond is GAME, with a number of other chain stores (HMV, Comet, Argos, Gamestation/Blockbuster, Virgin Megastore, Toys 'R' Us, Woolworths) nipping at their heels.
Gamecube sales have been sluggish (at least, prior to the release of Resident Evil Zero), I'll admit, thanks to Nintendo's increasingly worrisome 'staggered release schedule' policy. But it seems fairly obvious to me that Dixons' move is intended solely to stimulate hardware sales (1. Drop price, 2. Give the impression that it's for a limited time only, 3. Rake in 'attach' sales of forthcoming high-profilers), not to broadcast a vote of no confidence in the machine.
Cast your mind back to the first half of 2002 the Nintendo Gamecube and Microsoft Xbox launched. Dixon's buyers, pound signs in their eyes and market knowledge out of their grasp, chose to dedicate approximately 50% of their console shelf space to the new formats, reducing space for 'guaranteed seller' PS2 stock and resulting in the rather silly spectacle of games stacked one copy deep, two or three game titles to a shelf unit. Presumably the mountain of unsold software (they hugely over-bought on lots of mediocre third party titles for both machines, in the vain hope that they could bundle them in handfuls with hardware to the unwitting public) was eventually noticed and an internal war of blame started. Cue renegotiation with Microsoft and Nintendo:
Dixons: We need to free up more space for PS2 stuff. How do you plead?
Microsoft: We will slash our prices until stuff moves, and... how would you like a big pile of cash?
Nintendo: We have Metroid Prime, Zelda and the GBA SP coming out very soon, and are already competitively priced. If you knew what games were, you'd be more than happy to wait and let the cash come flooding in. As you're actually imbeciles, we can only hint that if you pull the GC, we'll pull the GBA.
Dixons: Cripes, I think we'll favour Microsoft. And to show Nintendo what a professional outfit we are, I'd better get Piers Morgan on the phone. And the BBC. Fore!
(Who else would have contacted the BBC about this story? I don't believe that they have spies everywhere.)
I guess we'll never know how Dixons intended to break the news to the public, unless this (a leak followed by a largely ignored clarification) was part of the plan. The real villains here are the 'journalists' who used the lack of hard information as an excuse for wild and borderline-slanderous speculation at Nintendo's expense. No doubt if the Gamecube did croak (bearing in mind that it's still globally the #2 machine, leading the Xbox by quite a margin*), these same journalists would be mourning its fate, as they did the Dreamcast after months of ignorance and apathy when the machine was still alive.
Shame on the journalists who do their level best to damage anything with promise. I can only hope that a few months from now Metroid Prime and Zelda WW's sales figures will be sufficient to make these hypocritical charlatans eat their words. I realise I am being a Nintendo apologist here (and acknowledge that they have made some bad mistakes in their treatment of Europe), but at the end of the day I respect a company that actually delivers high quality games (and doesn't resort to T&A Beach Volleyball) over and above a bunch of rumour-mongering hacks and greedy retailers.
*Of course, at the extreme of paranoia, you have to wonder where Microsoft fit into this: the story does after all put a negative spin on Nintendo's fortunes at a time when the Gamecube is reducing in price while drawing attention from the fact that the Microsoft Xbox is creeping up in price again, the Christmas special offers having finished.