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Why the high street deserves to survive the digital age

HMV's sins aren't those of physical retailers in general

It's often claimed that there's no place in the modern games industry for brick-and-mortar retailers. The truth, I suspect, is that there's no place in the modern games industry for brick-and-mortar retailers like venerable UK giant HMV, which joined Zavvi, Blockbuster, Comet and Woolworths on the autopsy slab earlier this week. Many of the faults attributed to the high street are actually the work of a select committee of ageing titans, too ponderous or obstinate to respond effectively to the growth of digital retail and the corrosive power of supermarkets.

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HMV probably deserves more of a berating than most. With over 100 years of experience under its belt, and a sizeable cash reserve built up during the glory days of CD and DVD, the company was well-positioned to exploit new business models as they arose, heading off the likes of Amazon and Tesco. It had the money, and the brand presence, to grab the lion's share of digital before boxed game, music and movie sales fell through the floor. Instead, it chose to recline on a cushion of vested interests. HMV's belated soft-launch of a downloads service weeks before the chain entered administration is a testament to this complacency.

But HMV's sins aren't those of physical retail across the board. The high street may be losing ground rapidly to digital storefronts, but however ardently Amazon's advocates pimp the relative cheapness and convenience of buying online, the existence of firms like HMV serves an important purpose. For starters, let's not over-estimate the scale of the damage - physical sales still account for a sizeable share of new games purchases, despite notable declines, and the sector is likely to see a dramatic resurgence when next generation consoles arrive this year.

A significant proportion of consumers have yet to see the point of ordering online. Another, equally significant proportion of core enthusiasts are in love with the notion of a game in a box - a love reinforced by the sadly escalating popularity of draconian digital rights management schemes and anti-pre-owned measures. Even if you don't buy anything from GAME and its ilk, the presence of whole stretches of storefront dedicated to Call of Duty or Skylanders is great for the industry's public profile, insensibly boosting purchases across the board.

Microsoft clearly holds the high street in some regard, for all the talk of transforming "Xbox" into a service brand. During the unveiling of the new Lift London studio, dedicated to the development of cloud games for tablets, consoles, PCs and phones, corporate vice president Phil Harrison was careful to assure retail partners of their on-going significance. Under Harrison's model, boxed games remain a vital point of origin for digital, feeding into a five-year ecosystem of downloadable or cloud-based offerings. "The shift is from packaged goods to connected products," he said. "We will continue to support retail with our products, for sure. But we are going to keep creating features that are enhanced and improved by the network."

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It's not just impossibly over-endowed multi-national corporations that stand to gain from the high street's survival, however. Brick-and-mortar stores have much untapped potential as community centres, offering tailored areas equipped with the latest tech where enthusiasts can congregate and chew the fat. HMV itself has taken hesitant stabs at the idea in the form of Gamerbase, a scheme which might have been cooked up in memory of the classic LAN party, and GAME has recently recommitted to it in the form of monthly "lock-ins". A productive analogy may be Starbucks' embracing of the café-as-office phenomenon, via free wireless internet, refills and the like.

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