A customer approaches a salesperson, two boxes in his hands. Each says "Microsoft Musical Instruments" on the cover, but they've got different cartons, covers and color schemes. They're obviously two different editions.
Or are they? The salesperson tells the customer that he's pretty sure they're identical CD-ROMs in different packaging. The customer frowns. "But how will I know which to buy?"
This Christmas, such questions are echoing on a thousand shop-floors across the land. The 1995 holiday season is widely viewed as a make-or-break crisis for the consumer multimedia industry -- and most of the smart bets are on "break."
For years, this business waited for a critical mass of CD-ROM drives and appealing "content." Now there's an "installed base" of many millions and a selection of titles in the many thousands. Yet everyone expects a shakeout. Prepare for a January barrage of headlines declaring "The CD-ROM is dead" -- RIPs from the same folks who once stoked the multimedia hype. New formats that pack in more data are looming, but they require new hardware, and the public may be getting tired of continually replacing its equipment.
The woes of the CD-ROM industry are well-chronicled: inflated prices, mediocre titles, incompatibilities and bugs. And now, just as CD-ROM makers thought they'd finally entered the consumer mainstream, the Internet has stolen their industry's high-tech thunder.
The Net's rapid ascent toward mass-medium-hood has served as a neon reminder of where the CD-ROM peddlers have flopped most spectacularly: distribution. The gross realities of the physical world have shanghaied them and their plans to conquer the media universe.
Multimedia art and entertainment doesn't need to exist in any form other than pure digital information, and the owners of "content" will no doubt thrive selling their stuff on the networks of the future. Voyager, the Knopf of multimedia companies, is already doing good business at its Web site.
But today's CD-ROM producers have instead found themselves mired in real-world retail nightmares. Stores can't stock enough variety, salespeople don't have enough expertise and floor demonstrations are frequently busted. Customers can't find what they want -- and when they do, they frequently end up returning it.
For a look into the black hole of multimedia retailing, we turned to a friend of SALON who works in the CD-ROM department of a large entertainment retailer in California -- surrounded by overflowing shelves, undereducated customers and the sounds of malfunctioning demo computers. We don't want to endanger his paycheck, so let's just call him Eep Throat.
The conditions he describes aren't universal, but they're certainly prevalent. And they go a long way toward explaining why a lot of multimedia companies won't be handing out Christmas bonuses this year.
SALON: How do you help people sort through the chaos?
EEP THROAT: The thing is, we're not paid enough to be able to afford the products. So sometimes people will ask questions, and I can say, I've read about this, but I really can't tell them if it's good or bad.
I go through the magazines. That's basically how I learn about this stuff. But I'm not supposed to read magazines on the job -- I've been reprimanded. It would help if the companies regularly sent retailers packets of reviews, and more and better demos.
There's a title called "Portrait of a Serial Killer." And instead of sending the buyer a demo of it, they sent a paperback copy of the novelization of the movie "Copy Cat," saying, our CD-ROM is just as thrilling as "Copy Cat!" That doesn't help.
SALON: There are so many lookalike products, where you look at the back of a box and can tell they want you to think, "This is just like 'Myst!'"
EEP THROAT: I tell people that William Shatner's "TekWar" game is "Doom with a Toupee." I mean, if you really like Shatner, well then, he can be your guide through it. The Prince CD I call "Myst: The Musical."
I will be pretty blunt with people. With music CD-ROMs, of course, they go for the Prince, they go for the Bowie. And I ask, do you
like this artist a lot? Then maybe that's OK. But if you really want to get a good music CD-ROM, get the Residents' "Freak Show." We actually have sold lots of "Freak Show" -- we have trouble keeping it in stock.
SALON: What else sells?
EEP THROAT: Certain titles are perennial sellers, like "Myst" and "The Seventh Guest" and "Doom."
Sometimes the breakthrough products are surprises. There's this twisted trivia game called "You Don't Know Jack." It's actually funny, which is rare with computer games. And it's multiplayer.
SALON: Where do you make the most money?
EEP THROAT: We have low margins on most multimedia to stay competitive. We make the biggest profit margins on porn. And it's even more difficult to give people guidance with that. First of all, most people will not ask -- they just gravitate to that section and look and grab.
Some are just collections of still images, and people are very disappointed -- they want something that moves. Then there are porn films that have been transferred into QuickTime movies. We sell those for around $50. You can get a lot of the same ones on video for $12.95, and the picture's bigger and better. The only advantage of the QuickTime version is you can quickly click to your favorite scene. But you might not recognize it.
Then there are the "interactive" porn titles. I've seen some of these because there are so many returns on them. People get very frustrated with "Virtual Valerie" when it freezes before she'll climax. We sell five different editions of the "Penthouse Interactive Virtual Photo Shoot" at $69.99. We don't need to charge that much, but that's what people are willing to pay.
SALON: In general, what do you hear back from customers?
EEP THROAT: People are often disappointed, frequently with the products that have the biggest advertising budget -- like this new Rolling Stones "Voodoo Lounge" CD-ROM. You get to know that certain titles are real hazards, like the Prince CD-ROM.
We get tons of returns. And our normal policy is, once it's open, it's yours -- we'll only exchange a defective. But of course, it's not defective -- it just doesn't work on their machine. And it's mostly with the Windows products. Most of our staff has Macs, so we're not Windows experts, and anyway, we don't have the resources to do real tech support. And the customers get frustrated because they'll call tech support at most companies and it'll be busy, or no one answers, or they'll tell them to take it back to the store.
SALON: Who decides what you carry?
EEP THROAT: There's a main buyer at corporate HQ, and he puts in the initial order. But he's not really familiar with the market here. I think he ordered ten copies of "Bad Day at the Midway," the sequel to "Freak Show," which we sold out in a few days. And then I think we got 40 copies of "Ms. Metaverse," this cheesy beauty-pageant thing, which we won't sell in a few years.
SALON: Why are the boxes so huge?
EEP THROAT: The retailers and manufacturers seem to think you need a big box to sell it even though it's this tiny little thing in there. People think, maybe there's a big manual or something. But it's just air.
Now some companies are using oddball packages like egg crates to try to stand out. We just got in "Marathon II" and it's this weird triangular-shaped box -- there's no way you can get it to stay on the shelf. It just falls. You try to artfully stack them on each other, but some customer will pull one off the shelf and they'll all fall down at once.
It would be nice if everyone standardized on Voyager's narrower, smaller box. We can't fit all the titles on the shelves. After Christmas, we're going to have to drop the number of titles we sell.
SALON: It seems really hard to find a specific title. There isn't much organization.
EEP THROAT: There's one section for Mac, one for PC/Windows, and one for hybrid disks that run on both. So right there you have three areas, in addition to whatever game machines you carry. We try to keep games together, and within the games we put the sports titles near each other, and the "Doom"-type shoot-'em-ups together. If a company is well known, like LucasArts, we'll put all their stuff on a shelf together. But mostly it's just a big flood of titles and no system at all. Sometimes we'll run out of something and not even realize that we have it in our stock room.
SALON: Demos make a huge difference in selling titles, right?
EEP THROAT: A lot of people want to see something run before they buy it. "The Day After Trinity" was really easy to put on the demo station, because it's a 90-minute movie, so every hour and a half you would just restart it. We had been selling one or two copies a week. But the week or so we had it on the demo station we sold about 12 copies. If you translate that to hundreds of shops all over, that can make a real difference. But often we have to tell them, we don't have a demo. That happened with "Rebel Assault 2."
We basically have not had all our demo stations working at once since we opened. We spend a lot of time on care and feeding of the machines. They're all Windows.
Our Windows 95 demo stations are a disaster. On Apple there's something called At Ease, which allows you to block off parts of the computer. With Windows, anybody can type "alt-control-delete" and get out of the shell program. People just have an urge to mess around with the machines. They need to click. They start banging on the keyboard even though it's obviously not doing anything. And the first thing they want to do is to try out the Microsoft Network or try to get on the Internet -- even though there's no modem!
SALON: So you give people a peek at a CD-ROM and the first thing they do is head for the exit.
EEP THROAT: Actually, it would be really good if retailers had a machine hooked up to the Web. Often you can get much more information from a company's Web site than from its boxes.
And the Net can augment a CD-ROM, too. When people ask, say, should I get "Doom" or "Dark Forces," the other salespeople will ask how much they're into "Star Wars." I tell them, yeah, "Dark Forces" is neat and has a "Star Wars" theme, but with "Doom" you can go on the Internet and get hundreds of what are called WADs -- add-ons that let you, say, shoot Barney. Time Warner even has a replica of their 39th floor.
I bought a CD-ROM drive a little over a year ago, and it's basically been a $250 paperweight. I spend more time on a computer than I should, online, for $15 a month.
Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com. MORE FROM Scott Rosenberg
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