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Used Games: What's The Problem?

Cheap, but who's losing out?

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.

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86 Comments
  1. BrendanCalls
    Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc - YOHIMBÉ!!!
    Since: Forever

    Great article nofi, agree with you in the main
    Unfortunately, this country has a habit of just bending over and taking this kind of injustice. Guaranteed it wont happen in some other counries because they wont accept it, but we will.

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 09:23.
    • bajere
      Member
      Since: Aug 2008

      thats the problem with todays country, we have no real say in anything anymore. people who have no interest in the subject in question make the decisions, usually the wrong ones!

      Im against all these codes and locks, but not for the fact of the argument that ‘its mine as i bought it, so i can sell it’ attitude. Its the fact that i love gaming. and gaming to me is a social exercise (real social exercise, face to face! not facespace, txt talk or cross game chat), so when the day comes that i cant take a copy of my game round my mates house with a bottle of JD and a pizza, is the day gaming has truly died!

      Publishers should get the money directly from the company’s selling the second hand games, and leave the gamers alone. we game for fun, we borrow mates games, we game over each others houses and we don’t always want to play with ‘online friends’.

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 11:24.
  2. 3shirts
    Member
    Since: Aug 2008

    I just don’t understand why this has suddenly become a problem. People have traded used goods of all types for as long as they have traded goods at all.
    In fact I do not believe this is a ‘problem’ at all, simply an opportunity some sneaky marketer has spotted to make extra cash now that game use can be ‘tracked’ via online gaming.

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 09:29.
    • gaffers101
      Member
      Since: Oct 2008

      I agree. It’s only because some aspects of games can be restricted via online or downloadable content that they can do this. If publishers aren’t careful they could end up with this back-firing as people boycot games that they can’t trade-on in the future.

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 09:45.
      • BrendanCalls
        Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc - YOHIMBÉ!!!
        Since: Forever

        Im am curently on a boycott of anyone who has announced “Online Pass”-esque business plans. I am still renting their games but that will end once the online pass’ are introduced.
        I suspect (or hope, if Im realistic) it will be hitting the wider news-press in the next couple of weeks as people start to trade Tiger Woods 11.
        I have written to my MP and to cabinet members about this issue but they don’t care because they seem to think its to combat piracy. No matter how much I told them it wasn’t, they didn’t listen

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:12.
      • TSBonyman
        Member
        Since: Dec 2009

        With regards Tiger Woods 11 you could be right – i’m quite disappointed with it so i can see myself trading it in for the next decent game that’s released.

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:28.
    • psychobudgie
      Member
      Since: Nov 2009

      I completely agree. If I pay £40 for a game and after a week decide it wasn’t worth the £40 I paid and I decide to sell it to someone else, that’s my prerogative. What the games companies are doing is very underhanded. If they want to charge more than once for media they should take more care to put something more substantial on said media. Battlefield and MW2 are prime examples where the single player campaign is barely worth £5 never mind £40.

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 09:47.
      • Foxhound_Solid
        Is a smart cookie.
        Since: Dec 2009

        Some valid points here…

        I would have rather the games were increased in price slightly overall then have to deal with this code unlocking shat.

        Silly really, accountants have got involved and things are starting to look a little bleak, however it would help erase piracy i suppose, unless it goes the other way and people simply buy the codes with their pirate games…..

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:09.
      • BrendanCalls
        Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc - YOHIMBÉ!!!
        Since: Forever

        Your right Foxhound-Solid, we are at that tipping point where people who have no interest in gaming are running the business that fuel gaming.
        Kotick as an example, he’s a business man not a gaming man. He doesn’t have any affiliation or common ground with people like us

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:18.
      • ScottW-1976
        Member
        Since: Dec 2009

        Difficult to argue your point about the SP campaigns, although I do think MW2’s is far superior to BC2’s. As I have played somewhere in the region of 180Hrs of online MP with the 2 games mentioned though I have no issues with their VFM.

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 14:59.
  3. sesameseed
    Member
    Since: Mar 2009

    What would happen if I bought a game, played it for a bit, decided I didn’t like it then took it back for a refund? That’s where this scheme falls apart, and statutory rights become an issue!

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:07.
    • cc_star
      Team TSA: Writer
      Since: Forever

      You can take them back unopened & unused for a refund… nowhere in your statutory rights do you get the right to use something and then get a full refund because you made a poorly researched purchase.

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:30.
      • bajere
        Member
        Since: Aug 2008

        it dose happen though. I got a game and took it back within the week as i completed it fast, the store were more than happy to just give me a store credit. So that games unlock code is now used. i think we will see a zero tolerance on taking games back soon.

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 11:41.
      • bunimomike
        Member
        Since: Jul 2009

        Which can only be a good thing as you were taking the piss (and getting away with it). :-) Enjoy it while it lasts.

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 11:54.
      • 3shirts
        Member
        Since: Aug 2008

        Actually, if you buy it online, the distance selling act comes in to play. This states that you must be granted a seven day ‘cooling off’ period during which, if you return the item in satisfactory condition, you get a full refund. I have had cause to speak to trading standards in the past and they specifically stated that this is intended for you to ‘try’ the item so any seals/packaging which need to be broken to do so cannot be counted ‘damage’

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 19:16.
      • cc_star
        Team TSA: Writer
        Since: Forever

        Some items are excluded from the distance selling regulations, videogames are one of those exclusions (if unsealed)

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 19:20.
  4. minerwilly
    Member
    Since: Feb 2009

    I picked up Uncharted 2 AND Dead Space for a total of £12.99 on Saturday from Cash Converters !! I dont sell my games but out of 40 games I own I just counted 3 that I actually bought brand new Battlefield BC1 , Battlefield BC2 and Valkyria Chronicles.
    Untill this article I never even thought about it and I have to admit that I dont see this trend changing . Its all about cost , if the Games retailed for £19.99 new then I wouldn’t think twice about buying them .
    Another worrying trend is that I no longer buy Single Player only games and now just rent them and finish them within in the seven days as they have no replay value . Heavy Rain was a classic example of this , I find though that if i enjoyed it enough that i keep an eye out for a cheap 2nd hand copy over the next 24 months (just like what i did with U2 on saturday) .
    In school we always used to share our Sinclair Spectrum games on our Cassettes but i still used to buy a high proportion of games particularly the budget titles like Codemasters £1.99 and £2.99 range !! Dizzy and Booty (pre Beyonce meaning) spring to mind as two gems . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVmjRyqg8QY

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:09.
    • lewis
      Member
      Since: Feb 2010

      You are 100% correct. The price of the games is the main factor in all of this. Games are unreasonably priced. Over £40 for a new release is ridiculous. A lower price point would fall into a wider demographics budget range, and equate to more new sales of any product. One publisher needs to go first though. Imagine if the new FIFA game this year was released at £19.99. Everyone who thought twice bout getting last years release on launch would just make the purchase straight away, and those people who would have waited for a pre-owned copy to become available at the £35 to £25 price range would be making their purchase and all the money would be going to the publisher. Games are expensive. two Christmases ago we had an issue in the gaming industry where too many games were competing during the winter period. Lots of decent new releases were hurt through low games sales, and that is down to gamer’s budgets. If I wanted to purchase myself 3 games over the Christmas period I would have to fork out over £120 for them. In fact I will not be purchasing 3 games over Christmas. I’ll probably just get the one, but if the RRP on all games was £19.99 3 games would cost me £60. I would purchase all three games, and increase the initial sales of the release window for all three games.

      Publishing/distributing games has been brought down in price for the current formats. The major costs go into marketing/producing a game. This is what publishers are afraid of when people talk about reducing the cost of games. If we priced games at £19.99 would the sales during the release window increase helping the game make profit? Probably yes. Would it deter people from trading in their games at this low price point? Probably yes (I don’t trade in my DVDs or Blu-Rays which are price at a similar price point, and have less longevity that a video game. Other people may be different.)

      The sad truth is that all these decisions are made by fat wealthy men who sit in board rooms. They have probably never even played a video game in their lives before. They worry about how much profit each game makes, and that’s it. This is why the video games retail industry is stuck in the mid 90’s business model of firing out ridiculously priced games trying to etch some profit from the few people prepared to pay for these over priced products. One day they may get it right, but not before they fuck themselves over royally first.

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 11:48.
  5. scavenga
    Member
    Since: Jul 2009

    If not for trade-in shops, I would not have had the opportunity to play 1/8 of all the games I’ve played.
    And I would be stuck here with Lost Planet 2 (shudder).

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:10.
    • John Malcolm
      Member
      Since: Apr 2009

      I quite agree. I happily will investigate a game I’ve heard about/read a review about if it’s going cheap in Cash Convertors/Amazon/Cex etc, but at full (overblown) price it stays on the shelf.

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 13:00.
  6. eirekun
    Member
    Since: Sep 2009

    Ah, I don’t like this one-time code trend (smells of ‘games-as-service’ to me).
    Anyway, I finished Mirror’s Edge the other weekend after picking it up for 7 euro. I loved it & now if/when the sequel comes out – I’ll pick up a new copy day one. Without the 2nd hand market, EA would lose out on a future sale of mine. Dead Space is another example. I hope companies factor that into their thinking.

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:13.
    • STILLCANTTHINKOFAGOODPSNNAME
      Member
      Since: Mar 2010

      spot on i played the dead space demo ages ago and hated it then a month or so ago i saw it on amazon(fuck game and gamestation their not getting my money) for tupence watched a review and took a punt on it. thought the game was brilliant and cant wait for the sequel

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 12:35.
      • stonyk
        Member
        Since: Dec 2009

        Exactly. As a Lovefilm member I buy ALL my games using this service. Good games get purchased, bad ones don’t. From now on I’ll only be buying Mario, Zelda and Call of Duty games because they are the ones I’ve bought before and I trust them to be of quality. Anything new won’t get a look in.

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 15:02.
  7. TSBonyman
    Member
    Since: Dec 2009

    Decent games become profitable almost immediately or within a few months of release. Nowadays with DLC games lifespans are being lengthened beyond what they were and the publishers have more reason to want to retain control over sales.
    It’s obvously the retailers that are the ones profiting from this (athough with so many closing you’d wonder how profitable it actually is for them) so the obvious solution is to come to some sort of agreement with them to share profit from used sales with the publisher. Instead the publishers have decided to penalise both the retailers and gamers which ultimately makes for an unpleasant experience for many gamers on a budget (the ones who saved up that extra cash and chose a PS3 over 360 for the free online gaming for instance).
    I buy most of my games new but i rarely play the online element – perhaps i should just buy 2nd hand then? Clearly not, as i wish to support the people who put the hard work into creating the game so that they have resources to create even better games in the future.
    This is an issue between the publishers and the retailers imo so they should be discussing a solution instead of a penalty.
    If single player games are locked down it won’t just be the end of 2nd hand games but rentals and lending to your friends also. If it happens with games what’s to stop it happening with cds and blurays?
    Sorry if my comment rambles a bit.

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:20.
  8. xdarkmagician
    Member
    Since: May 2009

    This is just classic, every month theres a new threat to the industry that’s even more dangerous and costly then the last. Next they’ll be complaining that too many people wait for the first price drop before buying a game. Tell the industry to make a game that takes longer then 6 hrs to beat or has some replay value (free DLC)(and not like BC2 by just removing normal content to be offered as free DLC later on and then brag about somewhat free DLC to vips) and maybe people won’t trade their games in the day after they buy them. Anybody who buys used games regularly knows that alot of the used games for sale are shit and deserve to be traded. Also every huge sport franchise out there will take major loses if they stop offering trade-in specials, do they think people are going to pay full price every year to basically just update some players names.

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:23.
    • BrendanCalls
      Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc - YOHIMBÉ!!!
      Since: Forever

      I like your anger, have you considered a job with the Darkside, its cool as f**k. You can strangle people with your mind and if you excel in you role you could become a Sith lord.
      Plus we have a kick-ass dental plan

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:37.
      • xdarkmagician
        Member
        Since: May 2009

        I’ve always been attracted to the shadows :)

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:43.
  9. ericzap
    Member
    Since: Apr 2010

    I’m starting to get the feeling that most game devs are whining pos.

    Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:26.
    • nofi
      One for all.
      Since: Forever

      What a ridiculously misguided feeling.

      Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 10:31.
      • ericzap
        Member
        Since: Apr 2010

        Okay, change most to some and devs to publishers. How bout that? I guess used games are a problem and it may be worse then piracy (volume wise, this console gen) but as long as used games are there and cheaper, most gamers will continue to buy. It was late, I was starting to get mad at everything, okay?

        Comment posted on 12/07/2010 at 21:28.

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