The verdict's still out on Amazon's mail-in games-for-credit scheme, but Wal-Mart's not waiting for lightning to strike. The U.S. retail behemoth's planning a swipe of its own at the billion-dollar used games biz by teaming with portable movie vendor e-Play to deliver store-based kiosks that — you guessed it — let you automatically trade your used copies of games like Ninjabread Man (very wise), Far Cry 2 (death to re-spawns!) and BioShock (are you insane?) for cash, piped to your preferred piece of plastic after a day or three.
WherecanIdothat? Some 80 Wal-Mart locales across the Northeastern US, reportedly, with more to follow if the program takes off. An enterprising would-be customer posting to Neocrisis actually found one and even paused to snap a few photos of the "Video Game Buy Back" mechanism.
How's it work? Like you'd expect. You walk up to the pastel-blue kiosk, slip the UPC code on your game box under an omnidirectional scanner, and the machine pops up a trade-in quote if it's in the "currently accepting" database (sorry Fallout 3 and Oblivion haggle/persuasion mavens, there's no such option here). Assuming you're cool with the price, you then slip the disc into a slot, the machine presumably ensures the disc isn't crisscrossed with slash marks or slathered in too much Brasso, and presto, you're a couple bucks richer-o.
You know e-Play, right? I first spotted one of their boxes (it resembled an oversized apple-colored cigarette machine) this summer at a grocery chain in a rural Iowa town of about 10,000. My reaction? A dismissive smirk. Transacting rentals with a vending machine? Maybe if it offered a thousand titles and burned them on-the-spot to a time-limited DVD. But no, you're talking a couple handfuls of movies per station. Even if on-demand video wasn't infinitely more appealing, who wants to browse a selection that wouldn't fill a medium-sized box?
Joke's on me, I guess, since e-Play must have been doing well enough to capture Wal-Mart's wandering eye. And while the rental thing still seems bogus to me, the sell-your-stuff-while-you've-still-got-physical-stuff-to-sell angle, you know, whenever you like, is actually even more compelling than the idea of racking up store credit at Gamestop.
It's all going to depend on that bottom line quote, though, right? If Gamestop's offering $20 in store credit (as opposed to cash, which might be less) for Madden NFL 2010, but Wal-Mart's only ponying up $10 or $15 in cash, it's a much rougher sell. e-Play won't disclose pricing yet — expect unofficial price lists to start circulating around the web if e-Play and Wal-Mart throw up a smoke screen to discourage comparison shopping — but most gamers trade in their used games for more games, not clothes, copies of the latest Oprah book-of-the-month, or the trashy tabloids that disgrace most checkout aisles.
My prediction: The siren song of no-strings hard cash alone probably won't be enough to sway bargain hunters, and Gamestop's retail presence is significant enough to challenge Wal-Mart's install base...unless we're talking spots like Remotesville, Wherever, in which case sales irrelevance overrides any advantage.
The financial upside: Whether Wal-Mart's gambit succeeds or no — short-term, we may be on the verge of a used-market price war. That's good news for wallets, whatever publishers and developers care to claim about the Axis of Evil, i.e. Used Games, Used-Game Retailers, and all us Wicked, Sinful, Degenerate Bargain-Hunting Gamers.
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