GameFly dominates Web for rentals of video games

Los Angeles company adapts the Netflix model to serve gamers for a monthly fee

October 05, 2005|By JULIE TAMAKI

LOS ANGELES -- Sean Spector was sitting in his darkened bedroom at 2 a.m., engrossed in a marathon session on the video game Halo, when he caught an entrepreneurial opportunity in his cross hairs: Why not do for gaming what Netflix Inc. had done for movies?

Spector was nearly done saving the galaxy from alien bad guys when he realized that it took only a few days to play through a game that cost him $50.

"The challenge of being a gamer is that you can never afford to play all the games you want to play," said Spector, who teamed up in 2002 with fellow video game zealot Jung Suh to found GameFly Inc., a Los Angeles-based firm that charges customers a monthly fee to rent video games by mail.

The privately held GameFly has emerged as a leader among at least half a dozen fledgling firms attempting to take the business blueprint laid out by Netflix and apply it to the booming video game business, which racked up $7.3 billion in software sales last year.

Rental companies such as GameFly predict big opportunities over the next year as new game consoles from Microsoft Corp. and Sony Corp. make their debut. New systems generally generate a flurry of buying, but gamers fear that the cost of next-generation titles may rise above $50, thus providing more incentive to rent.

But some industry observers are skeptical of the economic underpinnings of online video game rental firms, which pay far more for games than Netflix pays for movies. They note that the shelf life of most video game titles is much shorter than it is for movies, leaving little value in offering a deep catalog.

"I think GameFly's just toast," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. "I think they're an idea in search of a business model. ... You might want to see Mission Impossible years after it was released, but you don't want to play Madden Football 1995."

Moreover, the companies continue to be dogged by the prospect that one of the titans of the movie rental business - Blockbuster Inc. or perhaps even Netflix - will begin offering video game rentals online.

An executive for Blockbuster, which rents video games from its store locations, indicated through a spokeswoman that this year the company would consider adding games to its online subscription offerings, though he cautioned that the company was satisfied with its current approach.

Revenue from video game rentals totaled $498.8 million last year at Blockbuster, accounting for 11.3 percent of the company's rental revenue, the spokeswoman said. Industrywide, revenue for in-store video game rentals totaled $699 million last year, according to Rentrak Corp., which does not yet tally figures for online game rentals.

Netflix has no plans to add video games to its repertoire, a spokesman said.

Deep pockets

Of all the rental companies, GameFly - which declined to offer subscriber figures or discuss its financial performance - may have the best shot of survival because of its deep pockets. It has received financing from Sequoia Capital, the Silicon Valley firm that provided seed money for Google Inc. and Apple Computer Inc., as well as Lehman Bros. Venture Capital.

The money has allowed GameFly to distinguish itself from the competition by advertising on MTV, Comedy Central and other television networks. The company's subscriptions also are sold at Best Buy Co. stores.

"They're helping out the whole industry" by drawing attention to online video game rental services, said Daniel Anello, chief executive and founder of GameLender, a rival firm based in San Jose, Calif., that boasts more than 7,000 video game titles.

GameFly is run by Chief Executive Officer David Hodess, who founded Cooking.com before taking over at GameFly. Founders Spector and Suh serve, respectively, as vice presidents of marketing and content.

GameFly targets men ages 18 to 35 and moms who rent video games for their kids with three service plans. For $21.95 a month, subscribers can keep two games as long as they like. When customers finish with the games, they drop them in postage-paid envelopes provided by GameFly, which then ships fresh titles gleaned from subscribers' wish lists. Yesterday, the company announced a new system it says will improve delivery times.

In addition to subscription fees, the company recoups the cost of the games by reselling them to customers at a reduced rate. Customers who rent a game and decide they want to buy it can do so with a click on the GameFly Web site, and the company mails them the packaging and the instruction manual.

GameFly stocks more than 3,000 titles at a Los Angeles warehouse that serves as the company's headquarters and lone distribution center. Netflix, by contrast, has 35 distribution centers.

The cost of acquiring the games continues to present problems for the rental companies. GameFly buys games wholesale from publishers and distributors, Hodess said, paying about $40 for each copy of a popular title.

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