If ever there was an indication that corporate retail game distribution has taken a hit from smaller, independent outfits, this was it. Despite the fact that its official Australasian release date was yesterday, those in the know could pick up pre-ordered copies of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D from EB Games as early as a week beforehand. The retailer allowed customers to collect copies prior to release in what we can only presume was a bid to shut down importers; after all, they could undermine retail sales by getting the game into consumers’ hands earlier and cheaper.

“Our store teams were advised to ensure we remain competitive at all times in regards to the availability of Ocarina of Time,” said Shane Barker, marketing and communications manager of EB Games New Zealand.

There was neither notification for EB’s customers nor any promotion of the early “release”; rather, the break relied on good old word of mouth, and it seems to have worked, raining heavily on Nintendo’s parade. It’s purely speculation at this point, but it’s believed that the broken street date quite literally led to the cancellation of an Australian launch party for the game.

A similar situation occurred last year with the release of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm. Citing “frustration at online retailers shipping the game early”, the aforementioned retailer allowed customers to collect their copies on launch day any time prior to its scheduled release time of 9pm. That may not sound like much of a breach, but it certainly confers enough of an advantage that the title’s many obsessive fans might consider a last-minute pre-order cancellation with a competing outlet. Naturally, a number of competing retailers – the likes of JB Hi-Fi, Dick Smith and Mighty Ape – followed suit.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is the staggering of release dates set by the publisher for any given title, either by region or distribution channel. Invariably, someone will become disadvantaged by such an arrangement. And in an increasingly cutthroat industry, it’s turning into a no-holds-barred contest to circumvent the competition. Gamers are wising up to the fact that independent outlets – with no requirement to secure stock through the official channels – are not bound by the conditions imposed on retail chains. In the case of Ocarina of Time, UK stock became available on June 17th, and these UK PAL versions also just happen to run on Australasian 3DS units. Simply put, there was nothing in place to prevent independent retailers from trumping their corporate counterparts.

“We think that Kiwi consumers deserve a fair deal when purchasing games in New Zealand,” began Che Kamariera of online retailer Mighty Ape, which offered UK versions of Ocarina of Time close to $30 cheaper than the game was listed for at local stores. Mighty Ape also intended to ship the game to customers more than a week ahead of its local release until, rather ironically, the ash cloud put paid to those plans. At the time of writing, those copies have still not been shipped.

“Purchasing games at inflated prices when consumers in other countries around the world pay much lower prices is not a fair deal,” continued Kamariera. “This is why we chose to import Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time from the UK as opposed to securing stock from Australia. Whether we stock from Australia or further abroad, it is still essentially an imported item.”

Ironically, the hand of independent outfits has often been somewhat forced to conduct business in this manner by the exclusivity deals that retailers tend to secure with the local branches of publishers. With retailers consistently guaranteed incentives ranging from exclusive map packs and character skins through to the lion’s share of stock, the little guys are forced to operate outside of the jurisdiction of the local branches of the respective publishers. Increasingly, it seems to be working to their advantage.

“We are not surprised that another retailer broke the street date for this title [that] we were intending to sell ahead of the NZ release date,” added Mighty Ape’s Kamariera. “Obviously, this is frustrating for our customers and us. We have had a small number of customers cancelling their orders, but most customers have retained their orders with us because they prefer to pay fair and competitive prices for games.”

At the same time, we can only imagine the frustrations of the local publishers; their release dates ignored by their primary partners and their local stock constantly in danger of remaining firmly on shelves due to often cheaper, sometimes timelier alternatives.

But can the corporates be blamed for acting in this manner given that they feel backed into an impossible corner? In breaking Ocarina's sanctioned street date, EB Games has set a precedent and sent a message to consumers that, if similar circumstances arise in future, it will likely act in a similar fashion. It’s a tactic that could well be worth the slap on the wrist they’ll likely receive from publishers from a business point of view. When queried about whether Nintendo had expressed any concern over the actions of EB Games regarding the Ocarina incident, Barker of EB had only this to say: “The local Nintendo management team have always conducted themselves with the highest of business ethics. We value our partnership that spans more than a decade. Sometimes they need to make tough decisions and we respect them for that.”

Will this outright disregard of release dates ever be enough to force publishers to reconsider the phenomenon of wildly varying global release schedules? Or will it simply push them to clamp down even further on regional compatibility or even outsourced stock altogether? In this instance, Nintendo wouldn’t comment other than to say only that “the official launch date of Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is June 30th”.

It seems that the tension between corporate retailers and importers – a phenomenon that some are beginning to refer to as the “Cold War” of the videogame world – is coming to the fore. More and more Kiwi consumers seem to realise that they can legally circumvent the inflated prices and unreasonable release dates impressed upon them in New Zealand. The retail sector’s already played its hand. Now all that remains to be seen is whether the publishers will check or go all in.

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Chris Leggett is the former editor of Game Console magazine.