Used gamers are pirates now?

by CyberKnight

One thing that makes us Mad as Hell around here is the war on used games.  Game publishers lately have been eyeing the money trading hands in the used game market, looking at the handsome earnings pulled down by GameStop in particular, and started asking, “How can we get our hands on some of that money?”  JediChric touched on this a bit on the last post, referring to EA’s “Online Pass” feature that requires each owner of any copy of their sports games to purchase a unique code in order to play the game online.

THQ is one of the combatants in this war.  They recently announced that upcoming game Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 would require an access code for online play, just like their earlier game UFC 2010.  The code, as before, will be included with new copies of the game, but gamers who purchased the game used would be required to purchase a unique code for $10.  In an interview with CVG, THQ’s creative director Cory Ledesma said, “I think we’re following suit with other publishers in having a strategy where we reward new game buyers with bonus content.”

If the fact that online multiplayer has changed from “included feature” to “bonus content” doesn’t make you Mad as Hell, maybe this will.  Responding to criticism, Ledesma went on to thumb his nose at used gamers:

“I don’t think we really care whether used game buyers are upset because new game buyers get everything. So if used game buyers are upset they don’t get the online feature set I don’t really have much sympathy for them.”

“That’s a little blunt but we hope it doesn’t disappoint people. We hope people understand that when the game’s bought used we get cheated,” he continued.

Over at Penny Arcade, Jerry “Tycho” Holkins rose to his defense, saying (emphasis added):

If I am purchasing games in order to reward their creators, and to ensure that more of these ingenious contraptions are produced, I honestly can’t figure out how buying a used game was any better than piracy. From the the perspective of a developer, they are almost certainly synonymous.

Unfortunately, Holkins couldn’t be more wrong.  I’m a software developer as well, so, using the same criterion he puts forth, my perspective is just as valid.  And here’s the naked truth:  What happened is you lost a customer, the person who decided they did not want to keep your product.  The first mistake is thinking the first customer was yours for life.  The second was the common, flawed assumption that the used game buyer was your customer to begin with.  The fact that a person buys your game used, or even pirates your game, does not mean that person would have bought the game new if the used/free opportunity had not been available.

Any marketing exec worth their title will tell you, too, that there’s even value to be had when your product gets around without money getting back to you.  Terms like “mind share” and “brand recognition” are real concepts in marketing and can — and quite often do — result in sales and real impacts to the bottom line.

I like to use as an example my own experience with Left 4 Dead.  Before it was released, there was a public “preview” (or “beta” or “demo” or whatever they call them now), which I decided to play.  Good for me, because without the demo, I would have avoided this game like a zombie infection, since I don’t usually go for survival horror games.  What I found was a very fun game, well worth the price of admission.  The demo, however, didn’t stay around long.  A friend of mine completely missed it, and thus missed his chance to try it out.

After seeing me play it online for a while, this friend of mine decided he wanted to try it out.  But, no demo was available, and he wasn’t so curious as to want to spend money renting the game.  So, I loaned him my copy of the game.  (That’s right, I didn’t even sell it to him; what percentage of that transaction should Valve be entitled to?)  He was able to play the full copy of the game, offline and online, free and clear.  Did that cheat Valve out of a sale?  They didn’t have a sale to begin with.  Not only that, but, after playing Left 4 Dead, he was more interested in getting his own copy of upcoming Left 4 Dead 2.  So, not only did this not cheat them out of a sale they didn’t have in the first place, but it won them a potential sale they didn’t have before.

Ars Technica weighed in on the debate, in their own way; their article not only highlights Penny Arcade’s post, but the comment that analogies to other industries (cars, books) that are often brought up are an automatic fail, because games don’t degrade with age or prior ownership.  The article, of course, completely ignores used CDs and DVDs, which have failed to kill the music and movie industries.  The argument is also wrong:  games do degrade with age.  Any parent who has had their young children scratch a game beyond payability will attest to this.  Anyone who has bought a used game, only to find it scratched to unplayability (either immediately, or at just that critical spot on the disc that loads before the final boss), will also confirm this.  So will anyone who has bought a used game that lacks a manual or proper case.  Also, as games age, their technology becomes outdated, so that it pales in comparison to newer games.  Additionally, the online multiplayer population for most games decreases over time, making it more difficult to find a quality online match.  I challenge anyone who thinks that “games don’t degrade with age” to argue that Perfect Dark Zero is worth the same $60 today as it was on release, and, once that person has paid their $60 to play (since the developers deserve it, right?), to find a quality online multiplayer match.

I shouldn’t close without a reminder that every attack that aims at the used game market has substantial collateral damage.  So even if you hate megacorporations like GameStop and want to see them hurt for whatever reason, remember that they’re simply operating on very fundamental concepts.  Those concepts are what are under attack, and when they go, not only will GameStop suffer, but you’ll suffer, too.  You’ll suffer when you want to sell your games outside of those megacorps, whether you do it on eBay, Craigslist, your own garage sale, or on the sidewalk.  You’ll feel it when you try to trade games with a friend, when no money changes hands.  You’ll realize it when you try to rent a game from GameFly or Blockbuster.  You’ll understand when your Xbox dies, you buy a replacement, and you’re unable to play online because the code was tied to the old console on a previous account and you can’t use the “License Transfer Tool” for another six months.  You’ll get the picture when you try to give the game to your family member to use on their own console in the same house.

Call it what it is.  It’s a money grab, plain and simple.  If developers are going to act like spoiled babies when citizens exercise their consumer rights to buy and resell product at what they think is a fair price, and try to “force” consumers to pay by taking away other rights and conveniences, then I really don’t have much sympathy for them as I take my gaming dollars elsewhere.

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