When Limited Run Games started supporting the PS Vita it seemed like a match made in heaven. Many PS Vita owners are frustrated with being forced to rely predominantly on digital releases for the console from the PlayStation Store, especially with the proprietary memory cards becoming increasingly scarce at retail, and the hardcore fanbase relished the idea of collectors editions of games being made available targeted specifically at them. In theory it was a win all round.
The idea was simple – releasing digital-only games in a physical format and, as their name implied, in limited quanties. Taking things a step further it was intended that each title was produced in a way that there was to be a single production run, the physical edition was to be exclusive to Limited Run Games and only available for a short period of time guaranteeing that they would sell out. Making sure that games only reached the label once all the patches had been released so the cartridges were the final versions of the game (as they were released as region free) it seemed like the perfect concept. For a while it was, with early games selling out quickly but as time has progressed and the range has expanded to include the PS4 some kinks have worked their way into the way LRG do things which has left many gamers not only frustrated but also feeling disillusioned with the company as a whole.
Since the original release, Breach & Clear which had a production run of just 1,500 copies, not only have the print runs of each game increased but the release rate has as well. At the same time, Limited Run Games have been more flexible with their customers in the way they allow them to purchase the games which has lead to more frustration and – to a degree – anger amongst some. Before I continue, I want to stress that I’m not laying the blame at any one person, company or group of people, but it has to be said that events and circumstances have combined to put Limited Run Games in the unenviable position now of having to change their business practices or perhaps their entire approach to their future releases. To understand what has been going wrong steadily over the last year or so, I’ll look at each element in turn…
The reality is that Limited Run Games have become the victim of their own success. As more PS Vita owners (and PS4 owners for that matter) have become aware of them, more people want to own their games. That’s perfectly understandable but the production runs themselves haven’t increased accordingly. From the initial run of 1,500 the most any single game has seen so far for the Vita is 5,000 and while this may sound like a lot, the sales policies that the company has in place mean that these still sell out extremely quickly, often within an hour or so of going on sale if not faster. It’s certainly clear that demand considerably outstrips demand.
I don’t think there’s a need for quantities to be increased to near-retail numbers (they certainly wouldn’t be “limited” then), but with over 14.5m PS Vitas sold worldwide (a million more than the WiiU) it’s clear that there would be more than a few thousand people wanting to own a physical copy of a game given a chance. To give them credit, Limited Run Games did attempt to address this with one of their most recently titles Skullgirls 2nd Encore which is being made-to-order instead.
Gimme Gimme Gimme!
So with several thousand copies produced of each game, you would think that there would be enough for every Vita owner who wants one? Sadly not and being completely honest, Limited Run Games are primarily at fault here because of their selling policies. There are collectors out there (not just in the PS Vita community but gaming as a whole) who buy games to keep them sealed for their collections. Now while this is entirely their perogative, I firmly believe that games are meant to be played and enjoyed. In the case of Limited Run Games, for almost every title they produce they have allowed customers to purchase two copies of each title so these collectors buy one copy to keep sealed and one to play. Immediately that has the potential to halve the number of available copies to buy.
Then there’s another sales loophole in the system. LRG don’t place limits on multiple customer accounts from the same physical address as long as the customer name / account email address is different. What that means is that – if I wanted to – I could buy FOUR copies of their next PS Vita release using my wife’s email address and credit card in addition to my own. Sadly this happens a lot and a glance at eBay a few minutes after a title sells out seems to validate this when scalpers start selling pre-orders for the sold out titles at vastly inflated prices, some offering 3 or 4 copies of each title for sale. Some of these games are changing hands at anything up to 5 times their original price yet Limited Run Games still allow this to continue.
A simply policy of abandoning the multiple copy rule and restricting sales to one order per household would ensure that more gamers would have the opportunity to buy the games fairly and dramatically reduce the amount of scalping taking place.
When Is Limited Not Limited?
At the same time, part way through the company’s lifespan, Limited Run Games stopped asking developers for an exclusivity agreement for their games. In almost every case this made no difference as the only physical releases made available remained those released by LRG. That is until the release of Söldner-X 2: Final Prototype for the PS Vita. Limited to just 3,200 it’s ackowledged by Limited Run as being plagued with issues brought on by decisions made by the company. One of the most highly sought after games from the company, the production run vastly under-estimated the demand for this critically acclaimed arcade shooter which sold out within minutes. To add insult to injury for gamers eager to buy it, Limited Run Games allowed customers to buy multiple copies of a game that was already offered in short supply reducing its availability further. Within hours copies were selling on eBay for triple its original price and it’s currently selling for close on £100.
The Söldner-X 2 story doesn’t end there though… this game, for many, has become a symbol of what is wrong with the way Limited Run Games’ business model operates. At the time of its release, the company had relaxed its policy on exclusivity although this had not been relayed to its customer base. After Söldner-X 2 sold out and prices rose online, it was inevitable that many gamers were left with resorting to lining the pockets of the unscrupulous profiteers who had no interest in the games themselves. I count myself amongst them, although I consider myself “lucky” obtaining the game for £50 instead of the astronomical prices some have been faced with. Retro Gamer editor Darran Jones wasn’t as fortunate having been left with little choice but to pay in excess of £80 to secure his copy of this highly sought after title.
However, things took an interesting turn when the developer, Eastasiasoft, announced they were releasing their OWN physical copy of the game for the PS Vita in Asia. Apart from different box art, it was to be identical to the game released by Limited Run Games and more importantly, was set to be released at the same price point. More frustratingly for those who had turned to eBay, as with the LRG release, it too was going to feature a full English language option so the games themselves were identical in every way. Limited Run Games have responded to this and indicated that they do intend to re-evaluate their position with regards to their exclusivity agreements and may look into reinstating it for future releases, but has the damage already been done?
Let’s Hear It For The (Skull)Girls
The release of Skullgirls 2 Encore was a major change in direction for Limited Run Games. Rather than release the game with a fixed quantity, it went on sale with a two-week window of availability for the PS Vita and PS4 starting on 31st October 2016. In that time, copies could be pre-ordered with production starting to-order once the final sales figures were known. This new system was – for LRG at least – revolutionary. As long as gamers were able to afford it, potentially noone would miss out on getting a copy of the game and it had the potential to eliminate eBay scalpers. At the end of the sales run, LRG had received over 7,000 pre-orders for the PS4 version and almost 4,000 orders for the PS Vita version – impressive figures and initial thoughts were that the order system worked – that scalpers had been put off from bulk buying because of the relative ease that fans could obtain the release.
Analysing the figures further it does ask more questions about the range as well as this release in particular. While both the PS4 and PS Vita releases always sell out quickly, more often the PS Vita first, it’s interesting to see that the Vita version sold fewer copies in this instance but why? Is the games market for the PS Vita entering its twilight years as critics have been saying for some time and this is just a sign of that? Have many of the other games in the series sold out quickly because of scalpers or collectors buying multiple copies and not in this case or could it be something simpler?
Personally I think in this case it’s purely an economic decision on the part of many gamers. In the past, many games have been released with optional soundtrack CDs as extras. This has been fantastic for those who have wanted them but understandably not everyone wants a soundtrack – many just want the game to either put on display or to keep and play. Certainly it’s a cheaper option as well especially with the planned 24 releases a year. In the case of Skullgirls we weren’t presented with that option. If we wanted the game, we had no choice but to buy the $39.99 bundle with the CD rather than the normal $24.99 standalone game price. With games already considered to be a luxury item and with further titles already scheduled for release the same month, it makes it harder to justify buying a collector’s edition of a game. In the UK, with shipping, Skullgirls cost almost £45 at the current exchange rate – more than any regular PS Vita title and certainly more that I would be happy to pay for a typical game.
The Future – A Plea To Limited Run Games
As I said, I don’t want this to be an attack on Limited Run Games, more a look at what has happened and hopefully a platform for change. A way to look at how things can be improved both for the company and for gamers the world over. Ultimately I think we all want the same thing – more physical releases for the PS Vita, limited edition releases to appeal to the collectors, a way to continue to support developers to ensure that they will be able to keep producing PS Vita titles but fairness so people don’t miss out who really want to get the games for the right reasons. They say that you can’t please all the people all of the time, but in this case can that actually be achieved? I believe so.
The first real issue that needs to be looked at is that of the production runs of each game. The demand is certainly outstripping supply so this needs to be looked at carefully. How many individuals are actually buying the games? How many households? If the distribution is more limited that the production run then Limited Run Games immediately has to tackle this from the start. The first step must be to place a block on multiple orders from the same household – there can be no reason why any household would want three or four copies of a single game unless it was for resale. And here lies the first problem. While LRG doesn’t officially condone the actions of resellers, they don’t take steps to stop them either and their current sales methods allow them to obtain and sell their games quite easily. If the games aren’t produced in large quantities then the scalpers need to be stopped at the source but LRG don’t seem particularly concerned about this as their website FAQ states in relation to resellers,
“We cannot and won’t stop someone from selling our games if they are within our set limit. If they choose to sell the only copies they are allowed, that is their choice. We will, however, cancel any additional orders if they go above our limit.”
The actual production runs themselves also need to be looked into. They have said that the production quantities are set by the original publishers but given the situation I am sure that many would love to see increased genuine sales which still having some sensible limits in place. When games are produced in quantities of 4,000 or less and consumers are allowed to buy 2 copies each that means that potentially the entire run could be sold to just 2,000 gamers. If that run were larger then that’s not such a problem, but smaller production runs makes it difficult for the average gamer to buy the games they want.
Now I come onto their release schedule. I applaud the company for wanting to bring as many digital games as possible to collectors in physical form but there is something that needs to be remembered in all this. No matter how much we all love this hobby, being able to afford new games has to be considered a luxury for most players. We have families, bills to pay, and day to day living expenses, and the prospect for many of paying for anything up to four games a month in a collectors series can prove to be costly. True, no-one is being forced to buy these games but they are being marketed as being part of a series which almost compels the most die-hard of collectors to feel the need to own as many of them as possible even in many cases owning both the PS4 and PS Vita versions of each game. Missing one game in the series for some collectors can be genuinely traumatic but wouldn’t it be a more sensible approach to slow the releases down to make it more affordable?
Too many releases too frequently is damaging to the company’s image. While Limited Run Games did explain the need to release several games close together not long ago resulting in the release of Thomas Was Alone and Mystery Chronicle: One Way Heroics on the same day (as a result of previous delays to their release schedule so the dual release was done to get their releases back on track), this meant that gamers were faced with an extra expense if they wanted to keep up with their collection. This double release proved to be only of only two occasions where games failed to sell out on launch day with stocks being available for well over 24 hours later. It certainly wasn’t because people didn’t want both games but they simply couldn’t afford them together.
In fact, the frequency of releases and the excessive profiteering has left many collectors now giving up on the series completely and to win them back they need reassurance. Fewer releases with better timing in between would make budgeting better for gamers (especially as most will own other consoles and will want to spend money elsewhere as well), tighter controls on limits as I’ve already mentioned but the Söldner-X fiasco needs to be addressed as well. Limited Run Games needs to ensure that all of their partners enter into an exclusivity agreement immediately and if this isn’t in place, then transparency is needed with their customers. We have a right to know that a game isn’t as limited as we believe it to be.
Finally, for future releases I do believe that the Skullgirls approach could work again but it does need some refinement. Certainly making games available as limited editions still have to appeal to the collectors – afterall, that’s why the company was established in the first place – but they still need to be profitable to ensure that Limited Run Games remains in business and just as importantly the business model proves attractive to publishers wanting to see physical releases of their digital titles. So how can the system be improved to keep everyone happy?
First, it’s clear that the pre-order approach works and in this first instance it hasn’t left any gamers disappointed. The two-week ordering window has certainly given people enough time so this seems like the perfect timescale as well. If this is the way forward, my only reservation would be that some realistic break would be needed between games going on sale to give each title the maximum online exposure and sales and to make each title truly unique. This may reduce the number of releases slightly but in the long term the benefits should outweigh this so a gap of a week or so between new releases would be beneficial all round.
Marketing outside of the existing mailing lists / social media would also boost public awareness. It’s not a case of trying to make each title sell tens of thousands of copies, but they do need to be self-sufficient and as old customers leave, the brand needs to attract a new audience. The range has had no coverage on the PlayStation Blog for some time despite the work it does. Shouldn’t each new release be covered? Greater media coverage should be a higher priority.
Onto the games themselves and the exclusivity clause NEEDS to be back in place and if not, it should be clearly stated when games go on sale. Non-exclusivity may reduce sales, but at least gamers will be forewarned and can choose what version(s) they want to own. From that point there are two decisions that need to be made. First, in the case of pre-orders, extra items such as soundtracks should always be regarded as optional extras and not included as standard. In my time as a collector of limited edition games (from other companies as well as Limited Run Games), the only times I have purchased releases with soundtracks are because those are the only choices presented to me. My priority has always been to own the game, nothing else and I know I’m not alone in this view. Take away that choice and you force your customers away as well.
The final consideration in the core production of the games is the quantity. While there may still be an occasional need for fixed production runs for some games (and these need tighter controls which I’ll discuss momentarily), there should still be actual physical limits with pre-orders as well, while still allowing as many people as possibly to buy them. Skullgirls 2 proved that almost 4,000 PS Vita owners were happy to pre-order a game with an audio CD. If that extra were removed and a future pre-order was available for the standard price of $24.99 I am sure that there would be more orders. If an upper limit were set of no more than 10,000 per format but stopping physical production at the actual quantity ordered that would still keep everyone happy.
Regardless of whether the pre-order or regular sales method is adopted, LRG still need to tackle the excessive ordering of their releases and ensure that sales are conducted fairly to all their customers. Customer addresses need to be checked more carefully to screen out those who want to bulk purchase for resale, whether they are individuals or traders, and the individual limits need to revert back to a single copy per format regardless of the game in question. If games haven’t sold out after 24 hours then by all means the company can relax its limitations as they have done so on a couple of occasions, but right now change is needed badly.
I’m certainly not calling for Limited Run Games to turn their business model into a large scale mainstream distribution but those who do want to buy and play their releases are missing out for all the wrong reasons. There’s a huge potential for the future of the company and all of their planned releases and a great chance for them to rebuild the bridges that have been burned by some of the poor decisions made of late… but right now the future is in their hands.