Thursday, March 18, 2010

More UPCs, EANs, and ISBNs for games

So, I've been looking further into the barcoding process for games, as I discussed earlier in this post about UPCs and ISBNs. It's kind of complicated. Be careful, because we're going to get pretty deep in the weeds now. Make sure to leave a trail of breadcrumbs.

In the U.S., as I mentioned, it's common for games to have both a UPC (Universal Product Code, the general code that identifies nearly all retail products from Parcheesi to peanut butter) and an ISBN (International Standard Book Number, a separate identification code for published material). On American games, the bar code printed on the package is usually the UPC, but the ISBN is listed in number form nearby (often above the bar code).

At right is an example from Settlers of Catan. The block of 12 numbers on the upper left (029877030613) is the UPC, registered to Mayfair Games. The extended part on the right is often used for a suggested retail price. In this case, it would be 42.00 British pounds (the first zero codes for currency, and the other four digits are the price). That seems kind of expensive for Catan, and it's a U.S. printing, so you'd expect it to be in dollars. So, I'm not sure they're using the supplemental 5 digits for a price - it might be an edition code or printing run or something.

Note that the Settlers game also has a 10-digit ISBN at the bottom. This ISBN is a completely separate identifier from the UPC. ISBNs come in two forms, 10-digit (old) and 13-digit (new). The 13-digit ones are now the default, but it's easy to convert. To make 13-digit ISBNs from 10 digit ones, you add 978 (see below for why) to the start and then add on the first 9 digits of the 10-digit code. So, the ISBN above would go from 156905201-8 to 978-156905201-3. The last digit is a checksum, so it varies based on what the other digits are. An image from the back of a real book is at right - it's a pure ISBN (no UPC). Note it starts with 978, and it has the extended code to the side (51900, which means 5=US $, recommended price $19.00).

Further complicating this is the European version of the barcode, known as the EAN (originally European Article Number, recently renamed to International Article Number, but still abbreviated EAN, so as to maximize befuddlement). Here's the code from a German version of a Keltis sequel. You'll note that it's pretty similar to the UPC, but there are 13 total digits. The UPC system (seen on Catan above) has 12. The beginning of the EAN is actually a country code (there's a table of them here and here). Because this Keltis game is a German product, the first three digits have to be between 400 and 440.

However, the EAN is designed as a "superset" of the UPC, which means that things that read EANs can actually handle UPCs, too. If you have a 12-digit UPC, you can make a 13-digit EAN out of it simply by adding a 0 at the start. This is to allow American products to merge into the international EAN system easily. America gets all the EANs that start with 00 to 13, so adding a zero to the 12-digit UPC code is a very easy way to convert your product from American coding (UPC) to international coding (EAN).

Even weirder, the 13-digit ISBNs are also set up to merge into the EAN system, but not via the country they're published in. Instead (and I wish I were making this up, but I'm not), the geniuses who designed this system created an artificial country called "Bookland" where all books would come from. Remember the 978 we added to the ISBN up above to convert it to a 13-digit ISBN from a 10-digit one? The code agencies have assigned Bookland the EAN country code of 978, and then also added the code 979 to Bookland when 978 started to fill up. So, any EAN that starts with 978 or 979 is a book, and you can't tell what country it came from, while for most other EANs, the first three digits will tell you what country the product comes from.

So, why do the American games have both an ISBN and a UPC? The answer is complex, if I understand everything I've read. To be sold in a regular store in the US, it has been standard to have a UPC for your product. That lets the store scan items when they show up, keep track of inventory, and scan your purchase at the cash register when you buy the product. So, games need a UPC to be distributed and sold this way.

However, in the US, the book and publishing industry has relied for years on the separate ISBN system rather than the UPC system. So, because games are published items, and because they are often sold in bookstores, game manufacturers have gotten ISBNs for their products as well, so that stores and distributors that relied exclusively on ISBNs rather than UPCs will be able to handle the products.

These days, UPCs can become EANs by adding a zero, and ISBNs can become EANs by ensuring that they are 13 digits and start with 978. And everybody, from bookstores to distributors to Toys R Us to WalMart, should be able to read EANs. So, the EAN should be a unified coding system for everything.

What's that mean for me and my publishing project? Well, I think I can probably get by with either an ISBN or a UPC, but I likely don't need both. That makes me nervous, because the games I see in stores today have both. However, the European game market has clearly gone with the UPC/EAN model and dispensed with the ISBNs. I think that should probably work for me, but I'm going to research it further.

1 comment:

  1. I checked a number of games I own. None of the following publishers use UPCs or ISBNs:

    GMT Games
    JKLM Games
    most small publishers

    GMT publishes thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of copies of games every year, and they don't use them. I'm just saying that unless you have a lot of capital and plan to be doing huge print run, don't waste your money.