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Why Aren't Games Worth Keeping?

Next-Gen editor Colin Campbell takes a firm stance on behalf of publishers against game retailers that sell used games, calling the practice 'parasitic':

Used game sales are, in fact, a separate business to the game industry, one that is parasitical and offers little or no benefits to the business as a whole. If you look at the share-of-effort or the share-of-investment or the share-of-creativity that goes into making a game and bringing it to market, you have to wonder if this is a system that anyone could describe as being fair and just.

Predictably a lot of gamers find this position offensive. I do, and I don't even buy used games. I think if you buy a console game in a box and you want to sell it at some point, you should be free to do so. If a retailer wishes to assume the risk associated with used stock, and their clients are willing to buy it, more power to them. Calling the practice parasitic is simply missing the point. It's the kind of mentality that leads executives to take "sales we didn't make" and call it "lost revenue". It is disingenuous.

However I think the real problem here is one that Campbell's editorial doesn't even bother to tackle: which is that the fault for this practice falls squarely with the developers and publishers and with no one else.

As a consumer product, console games share quite a few characteristics with DVDs. They use the same media (at least so far). They require special hardware to play. They can be used over and over.

The most expensive games still cost less to make than the most expensive Hollywood movies, despite all the hype about increased costs. DVD players cost less than consoles and DVD movies cost less than games. Of course consoles are more complicated than DVD players, and DVD movies have a correspondingly wider market.

There is, however, no getting around the simple fact that the only incentive to buy a brand new console game at full price, as opposed to buying it used or merely renting it, is the same as for DVD movies: because you wish to keep it. You wish to have it. You wish to make it part of your collection, because you wish to play it over and over.

The existence of a significant market for used console games should tell developers and publishers two things:

  • Too many purchasers do not see lasting value in console games.
  • New games are priced out of the reach of a significant portion of their target market.

These realizations form the two sides of the market.

The seller who paid $60 for that AAA Xbox 360 title plays the game through and sees no reason to hold on to it. He or she would rather move on to another game and not look back. This represents a failure on the part of the developer and the publisher to deliver sufficient value for money. A gamer sells the game after playing it because it is not worth playing again, or because he felt it was not worth the price he paid and therefore wishes to regain some of the money spent on it, or because he perceives that some new game will offer him more enjoyment than several of his old games.

For the buyer, the games available for purchase at full retail price do not deliver sufficient value for money. The game is the same, new or used, so the only difference is likely to be ancillary materials (manual, etc) and possibly media quality (scratches). If the difference in price between the used and new copies of the game is so great that enough prefer the former to the latter then the initial price point is too high.

It is unclear what Campbell wants done about this. He seems to grudgingly acknowledge that it is legal for you to sell your game, and legal for a reseller to sell it on to someone else. It sounds almost as if he wishes this weren't so:

Legally, there’s little room for manoeuvre. The First Sale Doctrine protects resellers from shifting copyrighted content – which is why it’s okay to buy second-hand books or records. Games are seen in the same way by the law, even though games are different.

A law banning the sale of used games, Campbell? Is that what you're looking for? You're kidding me, right? Why?

More revenue, that's why. For good purposes, of course:

It is indisputable, that with the added revenues otherwise lost to used sales, publishers would be able to invest more in product development and market growth.

There is absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that publishers would use increased revenues for that purpose. They are just as likely to add it to the bottom line, pay management bonuses, shareholder dividends, or do anything else with it that they may legally do with it. This appeal to the gamer-- please, help your game publishers expand and grow so that they can survive and keep making the games you like-- is nothing short of abominable.

As so many times happens in these situations, like a blind squirrel, Campbell does eventually find a nut. Problem is, he completely fails to recognize it:

Unlike books and other media, games have a short life in the hands of consumers. Books, DVDs and CDs are keep-ables, sometimes for years. Games, once they’re played out, are often not.

Earth to game developers: This is your failure. If a game that costs three times as much as a DVD of Lawrence of Arabia is not worth keeping at least as long as that DVD then it was not worth buying, and no one should be surprised when that copy gets passed along to other users so that gamers can share the costs. If you want people to pay that price and not sell that game, give them something worth keeping. Stop making game development about an endless parade of increasing pixel counts and framerates. Stop making games that are made to be played once and then put back on the shelf because they play out the same way every time. Stop treating story and character like poor stepchildren and put real emotional conflicts into gameplay.

I'm honestly shocked that games have this problem. All an author has at his disposal are words. The same words people use every day. The same words used in endless combinations in newspapers, books and magazines. A book is the same every time you read it and yet people still re-read them. Some people do keep them, but some people do sell them-- despite Campbell pointing out that Borders and Barnes & Noble don't stock used books, there is a used book market. Just like games, some books are worth keeping and some are not. All but coffee table art books cost less than your average next-gen console title.

A game should offer infinite possibilities. A chance for things to play out differntly the next time around. The emotional depth of a novel. The visual impact of a Hollywood film. The intimacy of character offered by serial drama (if one chooses to do episodic content). With all these capabilities how is it that games still aren't worth keeping?

My advice to game publishers and developers?

Stop whining about lost sales to the used market. If your product was compelling enough to keep, there'd be no sellers. If the product was priced appropriately for your market, there would be no buyers. If $60 is your pricing floor, then people unwilling to pay that are simply not your customers. Get over it. The used market serves those clients because you don't. Somehow preventing retailers from stocking used games would not convert those people into new game purchasers. They are in the used market because the new market does not deliver sufficient value for money.

My advice to Colin Campbell? Quit sucking up. If you want to do some good for gaming, hold developers and publishers accountable for delivering good value for money. Don't ask gamers to subsidize their continued production of games that aren't worth keeping.



Next thing you know car manufacturers will want to ban reselling second hand cars for the same reasons.

[quote=VVV]Next thing you know car manufacturers will want to ban reselling second hand cars for the same reasons.[/quote]

You know... it's funny. While writing this piece that same analogy occurred to me. The idea of car manufacturers appealing to consumers to buy new instead of used (or perhaps hinting slyly at legal constraints against the used car market) struck me as completely loony, just as this rant against the used game market does.

However, something struck me as wrong about it. Perhaps it's just the vast differences in the nature of cars and games as products, or the huge difference in pricing. Something stopped me from using it.

I think it takes a pretty deep analysis to point out the flaws in it-- but there's still nothing in it that justifies the article's central point.

I thought... well, car companies also get revenue from parts and service, and those streams continue even if the car is sold by the original owner to a third party without any portion of that revenue going to the manufacturer. Then again, parts and service are available from unrelated third parties. So that's not it.

Cars cost so much more than games that nobody is going to buy more than they need, and cars (usually) fill a need more than just a want. On the other hand, it is conceivable that for some households, $400 for a console and $60 for a game are large expenditures, and for those households, buying one new game and then trading on its value to purchase further used games and so on is a legitimate model. Unless they've illegally copied the games along the way, nothing wrong has been done here. This is a marginal portion of the market. If used game sales were eliminated, it's possible a good portion of this market segment would be lost-- they'd simply not buy the console.

I think the real difference is what a consumer gets out of a game purchase, and what the developer expects to deliver. As mentioned in the article, the shelf life of the product is at issue. I think the best comparison is really an annual magazine, or other periodical.

A developer fully expects when it sells you a game that this is an entertainment with a finite shelf life. You start playing the game, and at some point you decide you are finished and stop playing. Developers are fine with that. What they have a problem with is you monetizing your copy of the game by selling it to someone else. This increases the total number of people who have had the game playing experience, without increasing the number of copies sold.

Yes, the original seller no longer has the game-- but the developer fully expected that copy to languish at some point anyway. As long as it sits on your shelf, unused, the absence of that copy on the open market means that any new player who wants to experience the game has no choice but to pay full retail price. In other words, by virtue of having created the property, the developer believes that if anyone has a right to monetize the play experience after you've finished with it, it is them-- and not you. One can imagine the game purchase then not as buying a disc in a box, with which you may do as you like (within reason) but a non-transferable license, a contract between the developer and you that provides you with permission to play the game.

There are a number of problems with this. Can friends and relatives play? Can you play publicly? If you do, can you charge for either of those? Certainly one can see the advantage of distribution methods like Steam. With Steam there's no CD to sell. You could sell a computer with Steam content on it, I suppose, but if you wanted to retain access to that Steam account, I suspect you'd have to de-authorize the old one, locking that content up. Same for XBLA.

Of course, publishers can't go this route whole hog without cutting out their retail partners, which they aren't yet willing to do.

There are products that actually benefit from the "used" market. Publications do. When selling advertising content, periodicals estimate how many people other than the purchaser view the content they publish, because this increases the potential audience they can claim to deliver. I suppose advertising-supported games would remove developers' complaints about the used market, then.

Okay, so now to make this relevant to Halo and Bungie.... I'd say that with Halo 3 (more than the previous Halo games) Bungie has shown an attitude that transcends this idea of play stopping at some point. Multiplayer extends the life of the game. The theater mode has single-handedly DOUBLED the amount of play time I get out of Halo 3, because I get just as much satisfaction out of watching a campaign run as I do playing it. I get to see things I couldn't while playing, admiring the scenery and the enemies, as well as watch my play for mistakes and patterns.

I've no idea how many people will eventually play Halo 3 as a rental or as a used title. However, I do think that Halo 3 shows that if you build a game for the long haul, and not just the short-term, developers will be rewarded with enough initial sales that complaining about the secondary market becomes... well, secondary.

Postscript... Do US lending libraries stock console games yet? That'd put a dent in the market.

Rampant for over se7en years.

[quote]Postscript... Do US lending libraries stock console games yet? That'd put a dent in the market.[/quote]
Oddly enough, a friend of mine just returned from a trade show for librarians discussing the uses of electronic media, including console games, in libraries. He was demo-ing Guitar Hero, I believe. Some libraries are lending console titles, just as most lend CDs/DVDs, or at least have rooms in the library with consoles and games available to the public.

Then, of course, there are the game cafes; I knew someone who started a cybercafe with PCs and Nintendos back in the Goldeneye days, so they've been around for quite a while. I think he negotiated some sort of commercial license for the games, instead of just buying carts/discs at retailers... I know he didn't stock Playstation games because of Sony's position on commercial use of their consoles at the time.

-- Steve

this is most definitely agreed.