Thanks for the DSi, GameStop, and sorry for contributing to your irrelevance

I've been to more than a dozen midnight video game product launches now, and I still get taken aback by how upbeat GameStop's employees are when doing such a launch. But at last night's launch of Nintendo's DSi, I couldn't help but feel sad.

I showed up at my local store hoping to buy two DSis, but without any real expectations of leaving fulfilled as I hadn't pre-ordered Nintendo's newest portable. That's generally the reason why these midnight launches take place: to give the pre-order customers an 8-hour jump on general product availability for being supporters of GameStop.

Showing up without a pre-order is like crashing a party, but I did it anyway.

The line was only four customers long when the clock struck midnight, and was led by a man in sweatpants and flip-flops arguing with the cashier about his $25 down payment not being included in the price he had just paid. The cashier was a soft-spoken girl in a Super Mario Strikers jersey who looked like she had reached the end of a 12-hour long coffee buzz.

Even though she was about ten minutes beyond frazzled, she dealt with the man as quickly and quietly as possible, printing numerous receipts, and circling the man's down payment in hi-liter. By the time I walked up to the register, the archetypal video game store employee: a slightly overweight guy with greasy black hair, glasses and goatee, was locking the store's door behind me.

I told them I hadn't pre-ordered a Nintendo DSi, but would pay cash if I could get two of the "general availability" units. The frazzled girl looked at the goatee guy without a single hint of annoyance and they both shrugged. After a quick whispered conversation, they told me they had to count their stock against their pre-orders first, and they would see.

This particular store had 8 units that weren't already claimed by pre-orders, and they cheerfully sold me two. All the while, both employees were laughing and chatting as if they were just hanging out on a Saturday night, not coming to the end of a 16-hour shift (which both of them were.) I couldn't help but feel sad as I walked back to my car that, with happy hearts, they had just sold me game consoles that will ultimately contribute to their businesses' irrelevance.

All video game consoles today have their own online stores, where users can download games directly to the machine, without having to go to GameStop to purchase a disc. The existence of such online shops does not pose an immediate threat to the video game store, since downloadable titles are not generally as high-quality as disc-only releases. However, since the Nintendo Wii and DSi offer less power and storage than their Microsoft and Sony competitors, the quality of downloadable Wiiware and DSiware is not too far off from the quality of physical releases.

Some die-hards still argue that pure data purchases will never replace physical media. But as far as the video gaming realm is concerned, one only needs to look at the iPhone for evidence that the mainstream adoption of download-only gaming has already taken effect.

The most telling aspect of this shift is actually right on the chassis of the DSi. Since the advent of the Game Boy Color, Nintendo's handheld platform has offered backwards compatibility with the previous generation. The DS featured games on small cards, while maintaining compatibility with Game Boy Advance games that used a secondary slot. The backwards compatibility for the DSi is the DS cart slot, and instead of some new cartridge port, there's an SD memory slot where downloaded games (and media and so forth) can be stored. Furthermore, every DSi purchase includes 1000 free points toward purchases in the DSi download shop, encouraging users to sign up to the new "Club Nintendo" (formerly known as "My Nintendo,") which is the company's loose equivalent to the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live.

So anyway, I just wanted to thank the staff of GameStop for being so helpful, despite the fact that they were selling devices that will eventually come to be their replacements.

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