Back in the early 80s, to young boys previously only interested in spiders and mud, the only perceived downside to copying a game was that the little yellow and blue bars took longer to go away before you could get your hands on whatever licensed movie title Ocean had managed to wrangle into 48k. Games cost more than the Beano, therefore simply laws of economics meant that those guys in suits in London would have to miss out on a sale because no element of guilt or social standing was going to keep you and a pixelated two colour Robocop apart.
When I was a little older, in the halcyon days of the Amiga, members of a computer club I joined for the sole purpose of learning Deluxe Paint and Octomed and schooling the kids graduating from the aforementioned creatures and dirt in the fine art of Kick Off 2 started ‘copying’ games for each other. These were floppy disks, and scraping a few hundred kilobytes from one to another – using something called ‘xcopy‘ – was normally pretty quick and painless, and the resulting duplicate caused no problems in relation to load times. Paradoxically, in fact, sometimes it made them shorter.
No problems, then, apart from the fact that for each copy of each game sold, the developers and publishers didn’t make any money. There’s the school of thought that says that the pirates (the title fits, regardless of your consciousness) wouldn’t have bought the game in the first place so there’s no sale lost; there’s also the rather more esoteric, exotic notion that people go on to buy a game after ‘trialing’ it for free. Statistics I’d trust for both concepts are harder to track down than UK hardware sales figures and besides, my thinking is far simpler: both are complete nonsense.
Thankfully, despite there being at least one new generation of gamer, one raised on N4G and top 10 lists of fat blokes in Halo costumes, piracy on my particular choice of gaming device is next to nill. The PlayStation 3, for all its niggles, issues and foibles, still hasn’t been ‘cracked’ – you can’t play pirated games on a normal PS3. Sure, the Xbox 360’s got problems in this area and the current selection of handhelds seem to be suffering more than ever, but Sony, for the moment at least, have got everything going for them with regards to home copying.
Which, you’d think, would make the console a haven for publishers: a sure fire checkbox, a bullet-point for anyone wanting to sell their latest blockbuster, but there’s a problem: the second hand game market. The ability to ‘trade in’ your unwanted games was first opened up to me when I bought a Nintendo 64 – having managed to bypass most of the NES and SNES era the notion that someone else would pay for a game I no longer wanted, and that I would get money for the transaction, was entirely alien. I’m the sort of gamer that likes to hang onto his games, but I have to admit, I’ve made the most of GameStation’s often generous trade-in prices more than once over the years.
Imagine, then, hearing that some developers and publishers have, in the past, objected against the ability for gamers to buy second hand games, and it might shock you to know that some equate the pre-owned market with everything we’ve discussed above. Yes, I’m talking about piracy. Epic Games apparently has a rule for its employees about buying second hand games, and the company’s Mike Capps has said on record1 that his company doesn’t “make any money when someone buys [them] used,” before confirming some figures: “way more than twice as many people played Gears than bought it,” he said.
There’s the relatively new concept of ‘unlock codes’ – a way of ensuring that at least some funds make it back to the publishers for each game sold by locking out the online portion of a game to anyone not buying the game new, with the waters tested by EA before swiftly being followed by almost everyone, including Sony. “Our primary retailer makes the majority of its money off of secondary sales,” said Capps, “and so you’re starting to see games taking proactive steps toward – if you buy the retail version you get the unlock code.”
Other developers are less obtuse, with Blitz Games’ Andrew Oliver suggesting2 that used games are a bigger problem than piracy. “Arguably the bigger problem on consoles now is the trading in of games,” he said. “So while retail may be announcing a reasonable season, the money going back up the chain is a fraction of what it was only a few years ago. This is a much bigger problem than piracy on the main consoles.” Trading in and buying used games isn’t illegal, of course, but is there really valid thought that the perceived problem of pre-owned games is ‘much bigger’ than piracy?
There’s a resurgence just now of the second hand market – it wasn’t too long ago that HMV jumped on board, their racks of bright orange plastic straining under the weight of similarly stickered games, testament to the notion that the gaming public are quite happy swapping their unwanted games with fellow gamers. But last week I noticed my local Tesco was also doing the same thing, an exercise in logistics, given the distance between the shelves and the nearest manned desk, I’d rather not think about. Still, there they were – second hand games, and cheap too.
But as the supermarkets, music retailers and specialist game shops embrace what is presumably a rather shaky market, it’s the publishers and developers that are really taking the initiative. Some may moan that Tiger Woods 11, for example, requires a one-time code from the back of the box before playing online, but the fact is that the publishers need some way of recouping at least some of the money each time their latest big budget game is sold on without profit to them, and I’m tempted to think that the current online locks might extend to the single player experience too before long.
And then there’s the console manufacturers themselves, with Sony’s PSPgo in particular at the forefront of the company’s way of thinking. The PSPgo only allows you to play games you’ve downloaded from the PlayStation Store – you can’t sell them on and you can’t trade them in – effectively it’s a closed market but it means that prices can be much more keenly controlled and even once massively reduced to the point of an impulse buy (relating loosely to the difference you’d pay if trading something in against it) the publishers still get something back for each sale.
Is the second hand market as much of a problem as we’re lead to believe? I don’t think so, no, but whilst it’s a blessing for a sometimes struggling retail market, it’s certainly a problem for the publishers who only see the profit from a game’s sale once, regardless of how many times that game is traded in and swapped. The question worth asking though is why is the gaming industry so outspoken on this issue – does the same rationale apply to buying a second hand motor car (which the manufacturer sees nothing of, financially), or, indeed, a house? Or, perhaps more appropriately, a book, or a DVD?
Could there be a future where the publisher still gets a small percentage of the pre-owned sale? Possibly, and if this could in some way extend to the hard working developers that put these games together too then I’d be a happy bunny. As it is, I’m off to go play in the mud and chase spiders.