I love game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass and Stadia. It’s so nice to have a huge library of games at my fingertips, and I’m grateful to Game Pass for exposing me to some amazing games that I never would have bought or played otherwise. There hasn’t been a discoverability tool this effective since the days of renting games at Blockbuster. In fact, the more time I spend using these services, the more I’ve come to appreciate the impact that Blockbuster had on my gaming habits and preferences growing up. While I certainly have a lot of appreciation for the modern conveniences that only subscription services can offer, I don’t think any of them will ever be able to capture the magic of a Friday night trip to Blockbuster.
Forgive me if I sound like the old man yelling at clouds, but I think subscription services might be too convenient for their own good. Who among us hasn’t spent hours scrolling through titles on Netflix before eventually giving up and just going to bed. I get the exact same decision paralysis every time I browse through Game Pass looking for something to play. I can’t count the number of times my friends and I have opened up Game Pass, Stadia, EA Origin, Uplay, Epic, and Steam and just stared at hundreds of titles without ever choosing one.
Despite also having hundreds of options, I never once left a Blockbuster empty-handed. Unless I had just read a review, I never knew which game I was going to rent until I got there, yet somehow I always left Blockbuster with a new game to play. It was still hard to choose sometimes, but browsing at Blockbuster was such a different experience from browsing online.
Going to Blockbuster was an event. My family would take me there almost every Friday afternoon and I looked forward to it all week. I’ll never forget jumping out of the car and running inside to find the last copy of Metal Gear Solid 2 on the shelf the week it came out. I don’t specifically remember actually playing MGS2 for the first time, but I remember the joy I had when I found it still in stock. Sometimes I would get there too late to get a new game, which, though disappointing, just turned into an ongoing quest with an even more satisfying pay-off.
And when I got the game home, I actually played it. I knew the game had to go to Blockbuster the following week, so I played every game like it was my job. Nowadays, I just download stuff from Game Pass and let it sit on my hard drive for months until I uninstall it to make room for something else.
Browsing the shelves at Blockbuster was a lot more fun than clicking through a menu on Game Pass. During “Hack Day” in 2006 — Netflix’s version of a game jam — a group of engineers created “Netflix Zone,” a VR app that turned Netflix’s library into a Blockbuster-esque storefront where you could walk around and pick up VHS tapes off the shelves. It’s a nostalgic experience for many, but there was also a lot of value in the physical connection that the Blockbuster experience created between people and media that online services can’t replicate. As convenient as online shopping is, people still enjoy walking around in a store too.
In a weird way, it felt easier to get what I wanted back then. If I have a specific game in mind to play today, I usually end up looking in three places before I find the service that actually has it, then I have to look at three more to make sure I’m not overpaying. If I wanted to play A Plague Tale right now, for example, I wouldn’t know where to start. Was it an EGS exclusive, or was it a timed exclusive and now it’s on Steam too? The EA app says I can play it if I upgrade to EA Play Pro for $15/month, but actually, it’s also available on Game Pass for now extra charge. Sometimes I wish I could just walk into Blockbuster and grab it without having to check and compare a dozen different storefronts.
There was also a social aspect to renting at Blockbuster, which admittedly, had its pros and cons. I always liked talking to other kids about the games they had played when I walked up and down the rows of shelves. I got to know the Blockbuster employees over years too. Some of them were cool enough to hold games for me that they knew I was looking forward to. One guy was intent on making sure that my mom understood exactly why Grand Theft Auto 3 was rated M for mature before she rented it for me. That one might not be my fondest memory of Blockbuster, but it was part of the whole experience that I still cherish.
Online services can never be like Blockbuster, nor do I think they should try. I wouldn’t want a game to be out of stock on Game Pass and I wouldn’t like to have to return my games after a week either. I love that I can get all of these games without having to leave the house or pay $5 to rent them, but I also recognize that something was lost when Blockbuster went away. Maybe it’s just nostalgia goggles, or maybe I’m showing my age, but going to Blockbuster was the all-time best way to rent games.
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