This time of year there's a big game release every week, often more than one in fact. We've had some massive releases in the run up to Christmas already; Burnout 3, Pro Evolution Soccer 4, Star Wars Battlefront - I could continue. But every now and then a game comes along that redefines what it means to be a big release. A game that creates such a frenzy that even those without any interest or connection to gaming know what you're talking about when you mention it.
We're used to such stories of mania in other industries. In the past stores like HMV and Virgin have opened at midnight to see in the launch of new Oasis albums. It's common to hear of people queuing for days to grab tickets for a massive concert. Midnight book launches are also not unheard of (the most recent Harry Potter novel, for example). Video games, however, are not normally privy to such publicly open revelry. That sort of behaviour is reserved for our manic Japanese cousins, surely? We know all about them lot. Every time a new Final Fantasy or Miyamoto title launches the place goes into raptures, if the social stereotyping we all hold dear is true at least. But us Brits are far too sophisticated for that, aren't we? Forget about it. Us Brits are now officially equally as daft as those wacky Easterners. The reason? Simple: Grand Theft Auto San Andreas.
In the coming days it's inevitable (I would have thought, at least) that San Andreas will be confirmed as the largest ever launch of a video game in the west. The hype, within the industry at least, has been larger than anything we've experienced before. This has been reflected in every facet of the games industry. In the run up to the release of previous GTA games, Rockstar have always been very tight lipped and kept gameplay details closely guarded. Not so this time. Information has been flowing freely over the last few months, and as a result magazine coverage of the game has reached unprecedented levels. On the retail side, stores across the nation have been plugging the game since the name was confirmed earlier in the year.
As much as this exaggerated behaviour is evident to you or I on the high street, don't underestimate the importance of it behind the scenes. After all, these games don't simply appear on the shelves of your local store - they have to get there first. In the case of San Andreas, exclusive distribution rights fell to a distributor named GEM and, oh, how they've loved it! Having exclusive access to possibly the largest release ever gives you a lot of power. As a result, in the run up to the release of San Andreas GEM have used the title to stamp some authority on indie stores all over the country. Knowing that small shop owners would do almost anything to get their hands on as many copies of the game as possible, Gem insisted that all indies sign a written agreement not to sell the game early. This may sound fair, but in today's GAME-dominated high street a couple of days of early sales are about the only advantage smaller shops have over their larger, cheaper, corporate driven rivals. So what's the price indies faced paying if they were caught shifting a few copies a tiny bit early? No stock of the only game this year that could hope to challenge GTA's dominance, Halo 2, which also as it happens, is a GEM exclusive. Ouch! Other distributors of course have been scrapping to get their hands on stock of the title in any way they can, but with alternative grey stock of the game changing hands at anything up to £30, well over £5 above the normal distributor price, many stores have found themselves taking a loss on the title just to get punters through the doors.
It was with a mixture of surprise, glee and humour that I got to the office on the Friday of release and read about the public frenzy that greeted the launch. One story in particular I found most amusing. An online acquaintance of mine told me that on the day before he had received a phone call from his local GAME telling him that they hadn't received enough stock of the title to cover the number of pre-orders they'd received for the title. So, giving him a special code over the phone he was told to get there the next morning as the store opened at eight o'clock. Using this code, the idea was he would be able to secure his copy. So, at 7:45 the next morning he trundled into town only to discover, much to his surprise, that a large queue had already formed in front of the store stretching down the street. With some slight apprehension he joined the back of this worrying large line and waited patiently. A few minutes before opening, one of the student shop-floor whores emerged from behind the safety of the steel shutters with the announcement that due to limited number of available copies, only those who had put down a deposit would be guaranteed their copy. Jubilation ensued from some whilst despair surfaced with others. This was followed by some heated arguments and even some pushing and shoving. In the midst of the mayhem a voice was suddenly heard calling from the distance. A few stores down the manager of a local Dixons store could be seen emerging from beneath the shutters. "We have San Andreas in now for only £35." he could be heard calling. Puzzled looks were exchanged between customers. Do you stand root in the GAME queue and take your chance, or do you make a break for it and take a chance on Dixons? In the blink of an eye a few of the crowd made a run for Dixons. Panic ensued. The end result? Dixons and GAME were sold out in moments leaving many a copyless punter standing bemused in the middle.
It's the sort of scene that would have been unimaginable in Britain only a few years ago, but the fact that we're now seeing it is symptomatic of the shifting role of gaming in British society. Big game releases have of course always caused excitement within the gaming community. Importers have for years enjoyed frenzied launches of import machines amongst the hardcore gaming community, but this situation is very different. We're not talking the obscure hardcore here. We're talking about a high street non-specialist electrical appliance retailer, for a start, and simply a bunch of normal folk. These aren't the sorts of guys that will take a week off work following the launch of some obscure Japanese RPG. We're talking about regular Joe's, people who after their early morning shop front confrontation would most probably make their way to the office as normal and not touch the game until they get home from work after a few pints. In other words, these aren't obsessed, "geeky" hardcore gamers. These are "normal" folk that watch football on a Saturday, wear expensive branded clothing and also happen to play games.
It's all symptomatic of the fact that gaming is now more mainstream in Britain than it ever has been before. The kids that grew up playing Super Nintendo and Megadrive are now 20 or 30 something's that as well as holding down regular jobs and having girlfriends also own a PS2 or an Xbox. The fact that when discussing the subject last night with my parents over dinner they knew what San Andreas was is an indication of how gaming has permeated the mainstream. A typical weekend shopping bag is now just as likely to have a copy of Burnout 3 in as a Robbie Williams album or a pair of Nike's. I'm not arguing that this is good or bad (that's an entirely different discussion), merely pointing out gaming is now actually achieving the stature in this country that many have craved for years. Grand Theft Auto is undoubtedly a large factor in this transformation, a title that enjoys both critical and commercial success whilst being expansive, compelling, amazingly deep and overwhelmingly fun. If nothing else Rockstar should be commended for that.