Illustration by Sam Woolley

Have you gone to GameStop over the past few months and tried to buy a new game? Have they told you that it’s not in stock? They may simply be lying to you, fueled by a new program that discourages GameStop salespeople from selling unopened copies of video games.

The program, called “Circle of Life,” gives each GameStop store different percentage quotas for 1) pre-orders; 2) reward card subscriptions; 3) used game sales; and 4) game trade-ins. Each of these quotas is based on the store’s total transactions. Pre-orders and reward cards subscriptions are based on the number of transactions, while used game sales and trade-ins are based on the total dollar value of transactions. If a store’s quota for used game sales is 30%, and the store sells $1,000 worth of merchandise, GameStop expects at least $300 of that merchandise to be pre-owned.

So if someone walks into GameStop and picks up, say, a brand new copy of Yakuza 0 without 1) pre-ordering another game, 2) subscribing for a new rewards card, 3) buying a used game, or 4) trading in some games to help pay for it, then the transaction will knock down all four percentages.

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The more new games an employee sells, the more used games they’ll have to sell to make up for it. In other words, according to salespeople speaking to Kotaku and elsewhere on the internet, GameStop is incentivizing employees to stop people from buying new games and hardware. GameStop staff say the company has threatened to fire people who don’t hit these quotas, which is leading to all sorts of scuzzy tactics.

“We are telling people we don’t have new systems in stock so we won’t take a $300 or $400 dollar hit on our pre-owned numbers,” one GameStop employee told me in an e-mail, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press. “This is company wide and in discussions with my peers it is a common practice. We also tell customers we don’t have copies of new games in stock when they are on sale—for example, Watch Dogs 2 is currently $29.99 new and $54.99 pre-owned. We just tell them we don’t have the new one in stock and shuffle them out the door.”

The Circle of Life program, which began late last year but ramped up in early 2017 according to staff, attaches a specific “COL” score to each employee and each store. Each of the four categories represents 25% of that total COL score. So if a store hits their quotas for pre-orders and rewards cards, but not for trade-ins and used games, their COL will be 50%. If an employee hits all four of his quotas, he’ll get a COL of 100%.

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GameStop staff have told me that corporate managers are monitoring both stores and individual employees, asking everyone to get a COL score of at least 75% by hitting at least three of their four quotas. If a store is hitting their COL targets but one salesperson is not, that salesperson may face punishment or even lose their job, according to company employees.

When contacted by Kotaku, GameStop’s corporate office sent over the following statement: “All of GameStop’s internal programs are designed to provide our customers the best value in all their video game purchases, including new and pre-owned merchandise. With any program, opportunities arise for improvement and we will continue to refine it to equip our knowledgeable store associates to provide a great store experience.”

Customers have long complained about GameStop’s tendency to push pre-owned games and pre-orders, but this new Circle of Life program has taken forcefulness to a new level. Employees across the web are complaining about this new practice, which they say punishes them for doing their jobs. On the GameStop Reddit, employees have gathered to share gripes and tips for hitting their COL numbers so they don’t get fired.

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But these numbers are often out of the staff’s control. During game launch events, for example, GameStop employees will usually sell nothing but new games, damaging their percentages and therefore lowering their COL scores.

“The other day working the RE7/Kingdom Hearts launch we were telling walk-in (non-reserve) customers that we didn’t have the games in stock or that they were only for pre-orders in order to not sell new copies of games,” said a GameStop employee. “It’s that bad.”

A second employee also said they found themselves in trouble after selling a bunch of new games last Tuesday, during the launch of Resident Evil 7, Kingdom Hearts 2.8, and Tales of Berseria. “Now I’m fucked for the week,” that employee said. “Now I have to sell way more pre-owned this week.”

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“Circle of Life” has long been a buzzword at GameStop, which makes the bulk of their profits off sales of pre-owned games and hardware, much to the dismay of video game publishers. In GameStop’s eyes, the transaction of video games is meant to be circular: You buy a game, trade it in, and use the extra cash to buy another game—ideally pre-owned.

Over the past few years, GameStop has gone through a number of policies to encourage pre-orders and reward card subscriptions, so some employees are hoping that the Circle of Life program will soon go away. But for now, it’s leading to a lot of stress.

“This has all been under the guise of ‘doing better for the customer’ and ‘giving the customer what they want/a better value’ which is definitely not true,” said a GameStop employee. “Why would I get reserves if it’s going to lead to a new sale? Why would I sell you a new game that you’re excited about if it’s going to hurt my numbers at the end of the day? Why would I sell you a new system if I’m going to be fired for doing so? It doesn’t make sense.”