The ubiquitous Redbox in the corner of your local grocery store will now exclusively rent movies, cutting off a long-standing route for acquiring physical copies of new games at affordable prices. As reported Tuesday by Jay Peters at the Verge, Redbox quietly phased out video game rentals without notice, but the company’s customer care team confirmed the change on Twitter.
Redbox’s game rentals were basically the last of their kind: Customers could rent a physical copy of a recent major studio game—like God of War, Borderlands 3, or the latest Call of Duty—instead of having to pay for a full copy, usually in the realm of $60. For a lot of people who like to try before buying, or who just aren’t able to make that kind of purchase but really wanted to play a particular new game, Redbox filled a much-appreciated niche. Even in an era where more games can be downloaded online and tech companies are racing to launch video game subscription services, the Redbox was a comforting analog way station, the 21st-century version of the Blockbuster at a local strip mall.
This service’s sudden and unexpected disappearance is more than a little frustrating, and somewhat puzzling. Redbox—itself a bit of an anachronism in the Netflix era—vaguely cited “various factors like changes in the industry,” which likely means video game rentals were simply no longer worth the shelf space. What is clear is that there’s now no readily accessible rental service for physical video games. Sure, there are mail-order rental services like GameFly and iFlipd, but GameFly is a subscription service. And there are already way too many of those. Meanwhile, some of iFlipd’s one-off rentals are still gated by its Turbo membership, locking the most anticipated games behind a monthly fee. (Granted, iFlipd’s Turbo membership is still in beta.)
This shift now leaves consumers with limited funds a most unenviable choice: to purchase major video game titles sight unseen (which can be very risky for such a high-price purchase), or to hold out until enough reviews, spoilers, praise, or backlash accumulates to persuade them for or against a purchase—and by then, what’s even the point? My worry is that this will turn off all but the most physical-copy-loyal, cash-flush, or otherwise persistent users from many games—especially games that could use some word of mouth and toe-dipping, such as Devil May Cry 5. It’s basically a death blow to casual blockbuster gaming, and it almost happened without notice.
Personally? Redbox games were around when I was a poor reporter who didn’t casually write about games, and they made staying current on games much easier. Sharing a physical copy while gaming with my friends was as close as we could get to the days of convincing our parents to rent that Nintendo 64 game for the weekend sleepover. And if I didn’t like it, it was still a low-cost, low-risk investment that ultimately went back to the kiosk. Right now, gaming, like so many industries, is undergoing some big shifts in how distribution works. Not every consumption pattern will survive the changes—including mine.
The one silver lining is that some of Redbox’s offerings for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are now for sale to own at a discount, reportedly through the end of 2019, while supplies last at individual kiosks. They include recent titles like Jedi: Fallen Order and Death Stranding—which I snagged from my local Safeway kiosk for a cool $39.99, a $20 discount on a new copy.
Correction, Dec. 12, 2019: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post misidentified iFlipd as a subscription service for game rentals. It has a premium membership system, but it does offer one-off rentals.