Let’s start off with full disclosure. I have bought many, many used video games in my life. I worked at an independently owned game store for several years, and pushed high-profit used games all the time. I am an avid user of Goozex, an online game trading service that has become my main avenue of expanding and reducing my collection over time.
Still, I’ve become pretty torn by the debate raging within the gaming community about the issue of used games, which has been ongoing for years and was inflamed around this time last year by a series of blunt comments from THQ’s creative director for wrestling games Cory Ledesma, who equated a used game purchase to “cheating” the company out of profits. I can absolutely see where Cory is coming from, but I don’t think it’s as black-and-white as the industry (or gamers, to be fair) would like you to believe.
I’m very uncomfortable with the brand new practice of charging used-game customers for access to multiplayer gaming. It’s easy to understand the developers’ stance here; if they’re going to be losing out on a share of the $60 purchase, they should at least be able to get something for their hard work. Still, the concept as put into effect seems less like a “fuck you” to Gamestop and more like a punishment for gamers. What if you’re on the fence about buying a multiplayer-focused game, and borrow it from a friend to check it out on your own? Screw you, give us $10 for the privilege of playing. More importantly, what if the console on which the game’s multiplayer code is registered craps out? How exactly does this work? Shouldn’t there be some more transparency to this whole process?
An unintended beneficial side effect could be a general demand for higher quality in multiplayer modes. After all, if you’re going to have to pay for a used copy of a game and an unlock code and (in the case of Xbox Live) access to online multiplayer, it had damn well better be an absolute revelation of an experience. Throwaway multiplayer like that seen in Dark Sector (to throw a random game under the bus) would probably get even less play than before.
As it’s been pointed out by writers far smarter than me, Gamestop (and all of the companies it has absorbed over time) has changed over the years from an electronics retailer to an upscale pawn shop. They give customers pennies on the dollar for their trade-ins, only to sell the same game to someone else for a huge profit. Used sales have become far and away Gamestop’s biggest source of profit, and without them the company would more than likely collapse under its own massive size in a few years.
Their reserve system is a well-oiled machine too: Gamestop employees are required to get a certain number of pre-orders a day or they’re severely reprimanded. The company intentionally only sends enough copies at release to cover the pre-orders, and does everything it can to get those new copies right back as soon as possible as trade-in so they can sell them used for even more money. I have a feeling that they’re not very concerned about the negative effect they’re having on development studios and the publishing companies that release their games.
Who loses in this Cold War of sorts between publishers and Gamestop? We the customers, of course! The main reason why people buy used (besides being absolutely mauled by Gamestop’s cash register drones) is to save money. Gaming is an expensive hobby, and in the era of consoles foolishly releasing at $600 and the price of admission rising to $60 a pop, we need every helping hand we can get.
Length of the experience relative to price is also important; if I’m dropping $60 or even $120 for a single game, I expect it to last more than a few hours. All developers should take a lesson from Valve’s Orange Box a few years ago: they packaged a full-length, previously released game (Half-Life 2) with two short expansions (Episodes One and Two), a multiplayer-only extravanganza (Team Fortress 2) and a three hour cultural phenomenon called Portal. All five games were available individually, but putting them all together in one box was genius. Valve is no stranger to innovative thinking, though. Their Steam online service is leading us into the future of digital distribution.
Developers, publishers and retailers need to step back and see who they’re really hurting before they escalate this battle. Customers vote with their wallets, and if digital distribution really is the wave of the future, then a lot of people have much to worry about. Your thoughts, readers?