The used-game debate
It’s the topic du jour, but it’s an interesting and extremely important one worthy of discussion. It’s also vastly more complex than most of the black-and-white discussion that appears to be taking place. Used games sales – throttling the game-development industry or simply part of a consumer’s right to buy or sell an item as they see fit?
What eventually prompted me to write my thoughts about this matter was this now-notorious blog post by Jameson Durrall of Volition (the dev behind the Saints Row and Red Faction games). He’s posted a rare insight into how developers feel that the used-game market hurts their business. Subsequently, he (mostly) cops it from a bunch of angry, defensive gamers in the comments section.
Fundamentally, I see major signs of self-victimisation from both sides of the argument, both of which appear to plead poverty. And if any kind of resolution is to be found, I feel that both sides need to meet somewhere in the middle. But that’s clearly going to be a tall order.
The consumer’s denial and sense of entitlement
Purely as a consumer, my obligation is simply to myself, and this generally entails purchasing an item for the cheapest price possible for my own benefit. This is typically regardless of whether that price is fair to the producer of the content.
As a gaming enthusiast, things are a little different. There’s a certain respect afforded to those who produce my favourite games that doesn’t want to see them shortchanged. In fact, it’s in my best interests to ensure that the games I appreciate are successful so that future entries in a series are not only more likely, but also that they can improve upon the foundations established by their predecessors. As an enthusiast, if I’m eager to play something, I personally want to be there from day one, and the full retail price is something that I’m generally happy to pay for that privilege.
Of course, with a constant abundance of blockbuster releases and the price of games being relatively high, this means that I have to be more selective about which games I will buy. For instance, I’ve recently missed out on the likes of Batman: Arkham City, Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and other highly praised games because I’ve chosen to invest my moderate disposable income elsewhere. As far as I’m concerned, that’s life.
The chief argument against critics of second-hand game sales is that a second-hand market exists for virtually every other kind of physical good you can think of. The most common example cited is that of used books and libraries. What these critics appear to conveniently overlook is that the used-book/library analogy isn’t an entirely fair one.
Game retailers actively facilitate the second-hand market to a degree that’s far above and beyond that of a second-hand book store, where you’ll generally only stumble across a book that you’d like by chance. A fairer comparison would be if chains like Borders or Whitcoulls facilitated the sale of second-hand books in their stores and provided incentives to turn around your first-hand purchases as quickly as possible; you know, “read and return your book within seven days to receive 60% of the retail price back”. With this kind of system, cheaper alternatives are presented directly in the face of consumers who might enter a store otherwise fully ready, willing and able to buy a good brand new. This type of service pretty much indisputably affects the volume of first-hand sales a retailer would make. And you simply cannot compare the initial capital investment required and the overheads incurred in the development of a game to that of publishing a book.
But it’s in our interest, purely as consumers, to deny that this is the case, and to fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo. In my opinion, this is generally what we saw in the comments section of Durrall’s blog post: consumers wanting to quash a thought process that threatens their ability to experience as many games as possible for as cheaply as possible.
However, I’m not completely blaming the consumer for this situation, and some other things could certainly be done from the industry’s side of things to lessen the consumer’s dilemma and better a developer’s chances of gaining an adequate remuneration.
Do publishers really have to release so many games?
Clearly, publishers expect to profit by shipping ‘x’ number of copies of their game and retailing them at ‘y’ price. But the recent spate of studio closures and redundancies over the last couple of years suggests to me that many publishers are clearly getting that equation seriously wrong. If your game fails commercially, the used-game market may not be exclusively to blame. Granted, it’s an easy scapegoat, possibly legitimate in some cases. But maybe some games just aren’t such a financially feasible proposition. It’s sad, but it’s a commercial reality.
Let’s refer back to Volition, a studio owned by THQ, a publisher that’s experienced more than its fair share of financial woes of late. As mentioned earlier, Volition is behind both the Red Faction and Saints Row franchises. THQ has admitted that the latest Red Faction, Armageddon, was a major disappointment in the sales department. Maybe it’s me, but I feel like the signs have been there for a while that the Red Faction franchise (now five games deep) was never gonna set the world on fire. Saints Row, on the other hand, has gone from strength to strength critically and commercially over the franchise’s lifetime of only three games, with the latest expected to ship between five and six million copies in its lifetime. Perhaps publishers and developers both need to show a little more nous in terms of the projects they back.
As far as Red Faction is concerned, maybe Volition should have either shelved it by now or — bringing me to my next point — launched it at a lower price point.
Gaming’s pricing structure needs to change
I may be a minority, but I do feel there’s an argument for the $150 price point we’ve occasionally seen for some games in recent years. I don’t think that Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is necessarily that argument for me personally. I’m unlikely to pay $150 for a Call of Duty game again myself, but I can appreciate that a game with such high production levels must require a massive investment in its development. And with the amount of time many people continue to spend in its multiplayer suite, it’s probably well worth the outlay for the millions upon millions who’ve chosen to pay for it.
However, Fallout 3 was the first time I’d ever spent upwards of NZ$130 on a game, and to this day I still feel it was worth every cent. With such an expansive, detailed open world ready to explore and countless hours’ worth of unprecedented explorational freedom, I can appreciate the sheer amount of time and effort that has gone into realising it. Like a prized painting for an art enthusiast, I’m content to pay what many may see as an inflated price for this particular work.
However, there are some publishers that are simply doing themselves (not to mention the developers they represent) a disservice by pricing some games at the standard $100 mark. With consumer dollars ever limited, some games will simply never gain traction against the heavy hitters at that price. Not only this, but some games are simply not of the high quality standard of others at this same price point.
Another obvious way for the industry to combat the used-game market is to make digital versions more compelling. Provide a significant discount on a day-and-date release compared to a physical version; not only does it provide an incentive for consumers to go “first-hand”, but they can’t sell it back to a retailer and, thus, contribute to the used-game market.
The answer lies somewhere in between
When all is said and done, while I sympathise with the developers who wish to see an end to the used-game industry, I think that a certain responsibility also lies with them. There’s absolutely an over-saturation of gaming properties right now (not to mention the recent “annualisation” phenomenon), which means that gamers’ wallets and loyalties are spread further than ever before. From a consumer’s perspective, it often comes down to going exclusively with one title out of many or hunting out a cheap, second-hand copy of other games. The industry needs to strive to place the consumer in this situation as infrequently as possible.
Fundamentally, however, the right, fair financial choices need to be made on both sides of the equation.
As long as the used-game market exists, I have no real problem with people using it. I personally purchase second-hand games very rarely, although I have recently traded in quite a few of my own games to aid me in buying some new releases. But I would not feel hard done by if I was unable to do so in the near future; I don’t really feel I have the right to feel hard done by over such a development. If there’s really a case for the argument that the second-hand market is hurting the industry — despite strong consumer denial that this is the case — then I think an industry-wide move to curb such a market is perhaps fair enough. But if it happens, the industry also needs to concede somewhat, meet consumers somewhere in the middle and make their titles more accessible by reducing prices.