Blockbuster adds games to its by-mail program; we put it to the test

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Blockbuster finally rolled out its game rental program yesterday (we lasted talked about the service back in April). I decided to be your guinea pig. I've tried GameFly in the past but found the turn-around time for returning a game and getting a new one sent was too slow for what the service cost.

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So off I went to blockbuster.com to set up an account. The site was horribly slow yesterday, but we'll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that the announcement was causing a surge in traffic. Blockbuster offers a 2-week trial and I set up a 1 disk-at-a-time account for $8.99/month (plus tax). For $3 more I could've had a 'Total Access' membership that allowed me up to 5 in-store exchanges, but I no longer have any Blockbuster stores conveniently located near me. This fee compares very favorably to GameFly's pricing, which is $15.95/month for 1 disk (though they give you a $7.00 discount for the first month). In addition to credit cards, Blockbuster lets you pay via PayPal, which I thought was a nice feature. On the other hand, their system only allows letters and number in the password field: no punctuation. They should fix that. Anyway, with my account all set up I skipped past the movies (I have Netflix for those) and started browsing the game section.

There's no way to sugar-coat this: the new game selection was pretty awful. Many of the games I was interested in were either not available by mail yet, or weren't available at all. Worse was the fact that the site promoted games it couldn't supply. Under their big "New Releases" promo, Madden 11 figured prominently (since it released yesterday) but when I went to rent it I found it wasn't available via mail until November 23, 2010!! Some games simply weren't available by mail at all. For instance, as of yesterday the PS3 version of Singularity was marked as not available by mail (though the 360 version is, or rather, will be). Whipping through the XBox 360 "New Releases" section this disappointment was repeated over and over. NCAA Football 11 - 10/26/2010, Crackdown 2 - 10/19/2010, Singularity - 10/12/2010, Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 - 10/12/2010. Even titles from last spring like Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption aren't available yet (8/31/2010 for both of those).

Maybe this is a case of them still ramping up the system, but the pattern of availability dates seems to suggest there's some kind of mail-rental blackout period after a game launches. This would make sense if you consider all the copies of games Blockbuster buys for its brick and mortar stores. Once a game is no longer 'hot' they could funnel excess store copies to the 'by mail' warehouses for use there.

In the end, I went all the way back to last winter and added Bayonetta to my queue. Seemed like a perfect rental game. That title they had with an immediate availability. In fact if you're not worried about getting the newest releases there're plenty of games available now. If the turn-around time is acceptable the service could be worth keeping just to fill in the gaps on older titles you missed during those crowded holiday seasons.

Of course I can't fully report on the experience yet since I haven't received my first disk. In fact they haven't even sent it yet. I'll update this post to let you know when it arrives and what kind of condition it is in, and then again to report on what the turn-around time is like, so bookmark this page if you're interested in learning how well the service works without committing your own cash.

Here's my progress so far:

August 10, 2010: Signed up for trial membership
August 11, 2010: Blockbuster says 1st disk sent
August 13, 2010: First disk arrives
August 16, 2010: Disk sent back to Blockbuster after a weekend of fun
August 17, 2010: Blockbuster notifies me they've received the disk
August 19, 2010: Blockbuster ships a new disk (to be fair, the top couple titles in my queue were "Short Wait" titles which might explain the delay in shipping a new game to me)

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