Used Games Aren't the Problem

Rumors for the next-gen PlayStation and Xbox point to secondhand circumvention systems, but companies would be better served by bringing accessibility to their business models.

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When gaming archeologists look back on this era of the industry, they will no doubt identify two directly contrasting storylines. The first is about the tremendous expansion of the medium thanks to innovations like touch screens, motion controls, and a design focus on accessibility, where anyone can play, and nobody should be discouraged by difficulty. The other storyline deals with the industry's digital revolution, where publishers can exert previously unheard of control over every aspect of a game, with digital rights management, online passes, post-release patches, downloadable content, microtransactions, and virtual currencies.

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What happens to these shelves if the next-gen systems block used games?

This snapshot of where games are today underscores a somewhat surprising contradiction with the way the industry goes about its business. At the same time games are striving to be more inclusive and approachable for players, the business surrounding them is growing more obstacle-ridden and hostile for consumers.

The latest example of this can be seen in the rumors surrounding next-gen systems. A Kotaku report today said Sony's next PlayStation will thwart used game sales by forcing players to tie physical games to their account. If they trade those titles in, the next person to play them will get a hobbled version of the game along with an option to pay money to unlock the full package. It sounds like an online pass program, but potentially with a lot more of the game locked away. Similar rumors have been surrounding the next Xbox and Sony's PlayStation Vita can already identify secondhand games and prevent players from earning trophies with them. Even though there's an easy workaround for the Vita's measure, it's clear there's no shortage of intent on the part of console makers to discourage used game sales.

"At the same time games are striving to be more inclusive and approachable for players, the business surrounding them is growing more obstacle-ridden and hostile for consumers."

The big problem with the push against used game sales is that it changes the status quo in favor of the publishers and console makers without offering benefits to the consumer in exchange. This could prevent players from sharing games with friends, getting better prices than retailers will offer, or paying for new titles by selling the games they don't play any more. And in return for losing all of that, the gamers get… huh.

It's the same with digital rights management. By forcing customers to jump through hoops to register a game, stay online while playing a game, or install and run unrelated programs on their computers, publishers might delay the onset of widespread piracy. So in return for having their games saddled with potential hassles and a definite lifespan (once the authentication servers are shut off, those games stop working), the players receive benefits like… um…

There's no shortage of developers who would argue that the benefit consumers derive from these schemes is that games continue to be made. Some of the creators behind Kinectimals, Too Human, and Red Faction: Armageddon have not been shy about calling out the scourge of secondhand sales, and making dire predictions about its impact on the industry. The critics of used game sales are right in saying they can cut into new sales, that those sales don't put money directly in the developers' pockets, and that buying new is a better way to support the developers so they can make more of the games you love.

But used gaming is not a threat to the industry so much as it is a threat to the status quo. AAA game development became significantly more expensive with the introduction of high-definition consoles, and the next generation of systems is only going to push those budgets further into the realm of absurdity. Used gaming is a threat to that, because companies look at every player that buys a used copy as one less person in the game's total addressable audience, one less sale to help offset the development and marketing investments those games require.

"Used gaming is not a threat to the industry so much as it is a threat to the status quo."

Between the moaning from the industry and the $2.62 billion in full-year used product sales GameStop reported last week (up $150 million from the year prior), it's clear there's a significant market for used games. And really, GameStop is almost the entire market, which has led to a dysfunctional relationship between the specialty retailer and game companies. GameStop is simultaneously a customer of and competitor to publishers and console makers, buying their goods new on the one hand while directing consumers to more attractively priced used versions on the other. It's like an abusive relationship where the game industry is only sticking around because it hasn't squirreled away enough money to skip town, and it's the rank-and-file gamers who wind up suffering the worst of the fallout.

Dysfunction aside, the used game market is ultimately good because it shows there is healthy demand for games in the industry in spite of the onerous measures publishers are taking to discourage secondhand sales. Maybe certain companies will go under because the missing revenue caused by used sales somehow makes the difference between keeping the lights on and calling it quits. Maybe there will be fewer Call of Duty clones, or fewer AAA bets on original intellectual properties. But the underlying demand for games will ensure that the industry presses on; it's just a matter of what form it will take as it does. And as with any sea change in a consumer industry, it will be the entrenched giants who seek to impose their terms on the market who drown in the tide.

This generation has seen numerous fortunes made by tearing down the walls that previously kept non-gamers from engaging in the hobby. At the same time, many of the industry's largest players have aggressively alienated their core audience by burdening them with schemes, hassles, and obstacles to enjoyment which convey little to no actual benefit to the player. So here's hoping that the console makers have the foresight to identify the twin storylines at work in the industry today, and let that shape a future that's more consumer-friendly, and ultimately more successful.

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