Chain stores across the country, including outlets of the Gamestop chain (which operates under the Gamestop, Babbages, Funcoland, and Software, Etc. names), began selling Wizards of the Coast's new Star Wars Trading Card Game: Attack of the Clones almost two weeks before the official street date of April 23rd. Among retailers that confirmed to us that Gamestop was selling the products as early as April 10th were Jeremy Mueller of Amazing Stories in Vancouver, Washington and Dave Wheeler of Dragon's Lair Comics and Fantasy in Austin, Texas. The street date for most Episode II merchandise is April 23.
When Wheeler heard about the early sale of the Attack of the Clones game, he went to the Gamestop store involved. Using a combination of a gift certificate and cash, he bought samples of the starters and boosters, then photographed his purchases with the receipt. The enterprising Wheeler then called Lucasfilms, asked to whom he should report license violations, and sent in his information.
Not only were game retailers piqued by the early release in other channels, which has been a long-time complaint of pop culture retailers (see 'Wizards of the Coast Readies New Street Date Policy'), but also by the way the release was handled. The last straw for some was the e-mail sent by Wizards of the Coast to direct retailer customers on April 15th, which read in part:
'Star Wars shipping in 1 week:
While the new Star Wars TCG has a release date of April 23rd, due to
licensing issues we will not be shipping it out until Monday April 22nd. This is not only to protect us, but also to protect all of you. If someone were found selling Star Wars early, not only would it deserve action by us, but it could also draw down the wrath of Lucas himself. The Star Wars product should be arriving in your stores by the end of next week, however.
May the force be with us all.'
Mueller of Amazing Stories noted the e-mail, as did Chris Powell, the general manager of the Lone Star Comics chain in Arlington, Texas. Powell indicated that he'd heard of early releases in his area as well. 'We heard of local early releases, but didn't verify them, as other reports indicated that the problem was present in other places,' he said. 'Combined with their refusal to ship product to hobby stores prior to the on-sale date, [this] was enough to convince us that this was a product with very little potential at Lone Star Comics,' he continued. 'Their stated policy of shipping to arrive at our distribution center on the day of release (day before at BEST) meant that they wouldn't reach our individual stores until after they had reached other venues.'
Describing the situation as 'insulting,' Powell canceled orders on the product for all eight Lone Star stores and the MyComicShop.com mail order division -- a total of about fifty boxes of boosters and 200 Starter Decks, plus additional orders on sell-out. His plan? 'I'll spend the time and money with someone who deserves it,' he said.
We talked to Wizards of the Coast spokesperson Don Williams, who said that Wizards was aware that release dates had been broken. He said that, '...in every case, we've sent out a letter and asked the retailer to pull product and they have done so.'
We also asked Wizards' Williams about the disparity in shipping dates between the channels. He said that 'longer lead-time stores' were shipped sooner, while 'short lead-time stores' were shipped closer to the street date. Asked whether, given when product was hitting the streets, some chains had far more time than they needed to process the goods, Williams said, 'Yes.' Gamestop is not a direct Wizards customer; purchases were made through an intermediary.
We asked Wheeler, of Dragons Lair, whether he thought the early release by Gamestop would negatively impact sales. He said he wasn't sure whether there would be erosion or not, but noted that expectations had been fairly low in any event. Having seen the cards, he predicted a 'moderate success' for the game, although 'not gangbusters.'
Coordinating the release of its new CCG with Lucasfilm, which is notoriously difficult and detailed in the planning for what amounts to a multi-billion dollar event, represents a new level of difficulty for Wizards of the Coast, which as noted above has had problems in the past with street date policies. This most recent set of problems seems to have been caused by a shipping window for Gamestop that was too long, coupled with a shipping policy for hobby stores that seemed arbitrary and unfair in comparison. The results were violations of Lucas' street date policies and angry game retailers in response. WotC obviously still has work to do to develop shipping and release systems that work across all of the channels into which it sells.