Monday, June 24, 2013

Used Games

With the recent announcements of the Xbox One and Playstation 4, there has been a lot of attention given to the used games market, and what policies would be put in place regarding the ability to sell used games for these platforms.

It's well known that the major games publishers do not like the used games market, since they do not get a cut of these sales, and there have been various attempts at diminishing this market, such as EA's Online Pass program, which made each game ship with a single use unlock code for online access, and required a purchase of around $10 to unlock online features if that used copy was sold to someone else. Since EA has the policy of including online features on every title, this amounted to decreased selling value of all EA titles in the second hand market. EA has recently cancelled the program.

It's easy to paint the publishers as the evil entities in this discussion, particularly since they do a spectacular job themselves of constantly reminding us that they are only in the industry to make profit, with little to no interest in promoting the creation of good games for their own sake. However, it's important to acknowledge that games retailers have been a big part of the problem, with a track record of pushing the sales of used games (at often only a very small discount to the brand new copies), and making it harder for consumers to buy new copies. This results in higher profits for the retailers, but reduces profits to the publishers, and thus to the developers, putting an increased strain on the industry.

The third side of this triangle, that is generally overlooked, is the consumers. How much responsibility do we have for the current games sales landscape? After all, we cast the final vote with our wallets, and while that doesn't give us dominating power, perhaps we are more responsible for the current state of affairs than we like to admit.

When Microsoft announced that the Xbox One would not support used games (or more correctly, would allow publishers to define the policy for their titles, which in practice would amount to the same thing for most titles), there was a huge uproar from the community. Sony capitalized on this, announcing at E3 that they would completely support resale of used games. Microsoft was then forced to backpedal and announce the same.

But, while all this strong support for used games is happening on consoles, the PC gaming landscape is vastly different, and has been so for a while. Steam has grown to become the centre of PC games distribution, a hub for digital purchases, and increasingly for physical purchases. Several of the last PC games I bought, such as Bioshock Infinite, Hitman Absolution, and Remember Me, all required Steam to play.

Why does this matter? Steam does not allow resale of used games. Every game purchased is tied to an account, and can never be resold. Steam has been going now for about 8 years, and this feature of the system has become embedded in the PC gaming landscape with very little resistance from gamers.

Why do console gamers care about their right to resell games they've purchased, while PC gamers have so happily given it up? The console market relies heavily on used games, as much as publishers don't like to admit it. It matters to teenagers and young adults that they can trade in their games towards the next purchase, effectively reducing the cost per game to these people, while older gamers with more disposable income are generally happy to purchase full price and keep their games.

The PC gaming landscape no longer has this feature. It used to be possible to sell used PC games, but no games retailer will accept them any more. Thanks to many of them being tied to a Steam key, they are useless to sell anyway. The physical copy you buy in the store is nothing more than a Steam unlock and physical data backup of a digital purchase, with zero resale value.

Given these facts, is it any wonder that piracy is so rampant on PCs? Sure, it's much easier to download an illegal copy of a game for PC than for a console (which requires a hardware modification), but creating a landscape of "full price or pirate" doesn't exactly help. Add to the fact that I can pop down to my local video store right now and rent any of the latest Xbox 360 or PS3 games for a couple of bucks, crank through it in a weekend, and return it, but I can't do this either on the PC.

We've created an ecosystem that heavily supports piracy on the PC, and we, the consumers, bear a lot of the blame. The allure of 75% off Steam sales is all that it takes for us to happily give away the right of first sale, not thinking about the long term consequences of our actions. PC gamers like to think they're a more sophisticated crowd than the teenage and dudebro console crowd, yet this console crowd seems to have a better grasp of consumer rights and maintaining a sales landscape that has a place for consumers of all income levels.

If we want quality PC titles to keep being made, and to stop the PC games market from being a 95% piracy afterthought, perhaps we need to question the unwavering support for Steam and trading our rights to buy occasional stuff on sale.

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