What to do About Used Game Sales

For whatever reason, the game publishing industry has recently decided that used games are a terrible thing, despite the fact that used sales exist in every other medium, and have existed in videogames since their beginning. A cynical observer would be tempted to opine that it’s only an issue now because we now have the technology to prevent used game sales; the advent of always-online games, complicated DRM, etc. have made it very easy for publishers to prevent people from playing a game that’s already been played by someone else.

The reasons behind this sudden rise in anti-used game evangelism aren’t what we really need to be worrying about, though. The fact is, publishers aren’t going to quit whinging about it now that they’ve started, until something is done about it that pacifies them. It’s in our – that is, the consumer’s – best interest to make sure whatever is done about it also benefits us. Or at the very least, doesn’t hose us.

The current rumors would indicate that next-generation console hardware simply won’t play used games, but this quite frankly seems improbable. Even so, we must consider the effect that such a hardware decision would have on the industry. The short answer is that it would make it unimaginably worse for the consume. Such a system would mean that buying a popular game on launch was the only way to ensure you would actually get to play it. If you wait until later, it might be sold out, and with no used game market, you either wait for a re-release/reprint or you simply…don’t play it.

So what are our alternatives? Well, there’s a few, and they range from being slightly less egregious to being actually pretty acceptable. Here’s the most probable ones that come to mind:

1. Games could come with a code similar to the “online pass” that many games come with now, except it would be for the entire game. This way, a purchaser of a used copy simply pays their $10 and gets a new code, allowing them to play the game. This is closer to the “slightly less egregious” end of the aforementioned spectrum, and has a few complications involved in it.

The biggest problem with this system would be what happens when the online pass-style code becomes unavailable. Inevitably, curated networks like Xbox Live disappear after awhile, as the original Xbox Live already has. Once the network is gone, where does one get their online pass from? Eventually this just becomes a similar problem to banning used games outright; as these systems age, new copies (or in this case new online passes) will simply cease to exist, and anyone looking to play older games they missed out on is screwed.

2. Retailers of used games can give publisher a cut of their profits from used games sales. Given the incredibly stingy payouts these stores give to customers trading in used games, the profit margin on used game sales is enormous. If publishers can make profits off used game sales in a similar manner to new game sales, much of their objection to the used market disappears.

The issue many publishers will have with this model is that it does nothing to prevent craigslist/eBay/flea market sales of used games, which would still occur and wouldn’t give the publishers anything. It would be interesting to know what percentage of used games are sold independently vs. at game stores, but I suspect publishers would use this as an objection to this arrangement regardless of how the statistics pan out.

3. Retailers could buy an online pass for games that are traded in, before they resell them. This is sort of a hybrid of the first two options, in that a similar online pass-style code would be used to activate used game copies, but the ball would be in the retailers’ court to provide that code. Retailers would have to buy the codes (possibly in the printed card form that they come in in new games), and would have to restock these codes into games that get traded in. Providing a hardcopy of the code dispels worries about the online content for the games disappearing, and frees the consumer from having to pay that $10 on top of the cost of the used game.

The downside with this one is that the independent market goes down the drain. Craigslisters would not have access to buy the codes directly from publishers, and thus used games bought from other players rather than from retail outlets are completely useless.

4. Consumers can vote with their wallets and keep used games restriction-free. This is the option that is best for consumers, but it’s also the hardest to execute. Gamers are notoriously weak when it comes to boycotts, and saying “If your game isn’t playable by the next player who I sell it to, without further cost on his end, I’m not going to buy it.” only works if everyone does it. Given the recent history of attempted boycotts due to publishers screwing over their customers, it seems highly unlikely such a unified resistance would be possible.

I must emphasize that this is the best possible course of action from the consumer standpoint, however. The best system of used game sales is the one we have now, and the one every other medium has had forever; when you’re done with something, you simply pass it on to the next person, for whatever they’re willing to give you for it. You bought it in the first place, you have the right to resell it.

Ultimately, the way the solution to the current used game issue will come about is dependent on how much effort we as consumers are willing to put into making sure we don’t get screwed. If we stand idly by while DRM restrictions get worse and worse, we may well end up with consoles that simply don’t play used games at all. Maybe not this coming generation, but surely the ones that come after it, if the forward march of draconian DRM continues unresisted. It’s our responsibility as consumers and as devotees to the videogame medium to make sure that games continue to be as freely available to ourselves and to each other as possible, and the consequences if we neglect this responsibility may prove to be disastrous to our own interests.

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