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As a kid I loved nothing more than saving up some empty soda cans or earning a few bucks doing chores around the house, hopping on my bike, and riding down to the local video store. Back in the days of the NES/SNES, game rentals could be had for around three bucks, and I could choose from any number of titles to make mine for a pre-determined rental period.
Sadly, today’s youth will be unable to repeat this experience. Gone are the days when you could head down to your local video store and rent a game. With Hollywood Video finally giving up and Blockbuster closing stores like crazy, there are very few old-school, so-called “brick and mortar" locations where games can be rented. Instead, today’s gamers are forced to contend with mail-order rentals and enormous scarlet kiosks.
The death of the traditional video store is not only sad, it’s also very bad for gamers.
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That Personal Touch
I suppose that before we go too far along on this journey I should reveal that I managed a Hollywood Video for several years in the early to mid 2000’s. I didn’t work there when they closed down, so this is not an article about a guy complaining about losing his job.
I spent a lot of time talking about games with my customers, gaining a knowledge base filled with facts and opinions not only based on my own playing habits, but also those of people who rented games from the store. I enjoyed using this knowledge to help customers find a game that was suited to them. In fact, having someone come back and say something along the lines of “that game you recommended was awesome!" was one of the few pleasures in a life of retail drudgery.
Unfortunately, there is one thing that is conspicuously absent when renting games from a giant robot or by mail: people.
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Does Not Compute
If a customer had a problem with a game they rented from my store, they brought it back, I swapped it out for another one, apologized, and sent them on their merry way. Total time lost: as long as it takes to get to the store and back home.
I tried to pick up a disc I had reserved at one of those movie-dispensing, overgrown crane machines that you see at every McDonalds, 7-11, and funeral home the other day and arrived at the machine only for it to tell me it was experiencing an “error" and couldn’t dispense my item.
No problem, I thought to myself, I’ll just pull up the phone app, reserve the same thing at the slot machine down the street, and go pick it up. Item reserved, I hopped in the car and hit up the next-nearest location only to find out that the touch screen was malfunctioning and there was no way to retrieve the item I reserved.
Now, slightly angry, I called up customer service to get my money back for the reservation that the malfunctioning, porta potty-sized extortion kiosk wouldn’t relinquish. Well over 30 minutes later, I was finally taken off hold and allowed to voice my concern to a very nice Indian man with a thick accent who assured me that the price of the rental I couldn’t pick up would reappear on my credit card in a few days.
Total time lost: over an hour, and I didn’t even see, let alone play, the disc I attempted to rent.
If you rent by mail and get a disc that, for some reason, will not work, you’re going to wait at least two days to get a replacement.
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Please, Think of the Children
I’m an adult with a car, credit card, and a cell phone, and it was this much of a hassle for me, but what about the poor kid on his bike who’s saved up a few bucks and wants to rent a game?
Well, the short answer is: that kid’s out of luck. Not because he’d have no place to go to exchange a damaged game, but because he’s unable to rent any game, anywhere, in the first place.
Where can a kid with a couple dollars in his pocket go to rent a game? Certainly not the blood-red, rectangular servants of our future robot masters, you need a credit card to get anything from those beasts.
Online rent by mail services don’t accept cash, either. Yes, an enterprising ten-year-old could probably coerce his or her parents into signing up with their credit card, but what options are left for the unfortunate little waif who cannot?
Today’s kids will never get to feel the joy of earning their own cash, pedaling down to a local store, and standing wide-eyed in an aisle filled with games, knowing that in exchange for the fruit of their labors, any one could be theirs for a few, fleeting days.
They’ll never develop an innate ability to filter out crappy movie tie-ins and other awful games in order to avoid wasting their precious few dollars, only to be subject to awful gameplay for the duration of a two-day rental.
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Selection, Selection, Selection
Admittedly, the online rental services do tend to carry a decent library of older releases, so it is possible to obtain and play great games from previous years through their service. Still, finding a title you know you want by searching a website and discovering one you never knew you wanted on a rental shelf are not the same thing.
As for the heartless, touch-screen automatons: have you seen their “selection" of games? My local robot currently has a grand total of ten titles available for rent, five of which are currently out of stock.
Seemingly never-ending aisle of gaming bliss or paltry selection of “new" releases? Which would you rather rent from?
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The End of an Era
Yes, it’s still possible to rent a game. It’s not the end of video game rentals that I’m concerned with, it’s the death of the experience that used to accompany it- an experience that our generation had and that today’s youth will never even know that they are missing out on. This bothers me.
As much as publishers and console manufacturers try to push us ever-farther into the realm of digital distribution, there’s no denying the existence of something appealing about actually holding a product in your hand--be it a game, movie, or CD--before you purchase it.
Even today, when I’ve read countless pages of previews and gazed longingly at a ton of screenshots before I decide to purchase a game, I still pick up the box and immediately flip it over as soon as I see it in the store.
I usually know what I’m going to buy before I leave the house, but I always feel myself compelled to check out the back of the box before I make a purchase. You can’t do this at the soulless, devil-colored entertainment kiosks or when adding games to your mail order queue.
Video games have grown up--one recent study found that the average gamer is 37 years old--and the way we rent them has followed suit. Nowadays, you need a credit card, a car, and possibly access to the Internet just to take home a game you’re interested in playing for a few days.
Back in my day, all it took was a bicycle, a pair of legs, and a few bucks scavenged from between the couch cushions or earned mowing the lawn.
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