But don't interpret that to mean Wal-Mart will just fade away. The company owes its current supremacy to its embrace of high tech logistics, and that attitude remains strong; Wal-Mart, along with the Defense Department, is the chief force behind the imminent adoption of radio-frequency ID tags (RFIDs or "arphids"). So it's possible Wal-Mart itself might move into online games.

But in the digital distribution era, Bentonville's unquestioned domination of electronic games will still decline. It's simply too easy to get online without their approval; online is the realm of the infinite shelf. "New opportunities will open up at the micro-studio level," Bartel says, "where small teams, both casual and professional, first-party and third- party, will be able to develop, market and sell compelling gameplay and new intellectual properties within the frameworks created and supported by the larger players."

Then, like the great trusts and monopolies of the early 20th Century, Wal-Mart's dominion will finally fade.

Allen Varney designed the PARANOIA paper-and-dice roleplaying game (2004 edition) and has contributed to computer games from Sony Online, Origin, Interplay and Looking Glass.

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