Buy Pre-owned? You're Killing The Industry
The great used game debate rages on, with the UK’s biggest high-street retailer, GAME, introducing pre-orders on used products. Is this a step too far? And should the average gamer care?
Used Or Abused?
If ‘videogames as art’ is the most tired debate in the industry, the popularity of used games runs it a very close second. The conversation has bounced back and forth between publishers and retailers for several years, the same points are made time and again, yet the situation remains the same. Gamers who don’t nourish their hunger with second-hand goods are now as rare as quality on ITV. And while trade-ins certainly help to fund the purchase of new products, if you’re looking for a game that was released more than six months ago there’s an excellent chance you’ll head straight for the used section – and it’s probably because the staff in the shop pointed you in its general direction.
However, the popular high-street retailer GAME has just upped the ante with a new scheme that will offer pre-orders on used games. If you’re willing to wait seven days after a new game’s official release date, GAME will set aside a used copy to sell you for as much as £16 less than the RRP of £49.99. Of course, the vast majority of games are widely available at £39.99 on launch day, so the actual saving is unlikely to exceed £6 on any given product. The scheme is in a trial phase, but it includes high-profile titles like Homefront, Crysis 2 and Dragon Age II.
Needless to say, the industry’s major publishers and developers are less than enthusiastic about the idea, and closer inspection only reveals more potential problems. For a start, the fact that GAME is guaranteeing used copies a week after launch is a strong incentive to encourage its customers to trade in their games. The industry’s main fear is that retailers will begin to promote used products more than new ones – an accusation already levelled at shops like GAME, and which it openly disputes. If this scheme is widely implemented, that fear will become an incontrovertible reality.
Publishers often speak of the responsibility retailers have to establish and preserve good relationships with the companies that make the products – a logical enough standpoint, but it ignores the vast difference between the profit margins on new and used games. It would be easy to brand the retailers as greedy, but representatives from the biggest names in retail suggest that second-hand sales are what keep their businesses going. “We don’t like being in the used games business,” GameStop Nordic’s managing director Niall Lawlor claimed during a Game Developers Conference (GDC) panel, “but we have to be there. We would have to exit the games business otherwise.”
So far, the industry’s response to what they see as a full-on crisis has been relatively constructive. Both EA and THQ have embraced DLC as an incentive, offering free day-one content to consumers who buy new games. Some still bemoan the idea as evidence of exploitation, but that view has little or no logical basis. If it is the right of the consumer to buy used games, and the right of retailers to sell them, it follows that publishers have the right to give their most loyal customers a reward. Granted, there’s very little else publishers can do to combat the problem, but it deprives gamers of very little they should rightfully feel entitled to.
Even so, the concept has a limited shelf-life, because it entirely ignores the problem that is behind the meteoric rise of the used game market; ‘Project Ten Dollar’ and its ilk exist to preserve the traditional videogame price-point of £40 to £50, when it’s the high cost that drives so many gamers to buy used products in the first place.
In a panel at this year’s San Francisco GDC, Epic’s Cliff Bleszinski claimed that, “the middle class game is dead,” and for the most part he’s right. The great majority of modern games are either very expensive or very cheap, with a paucity of options in between, and if the industry really wants to change the buying habits of the masses, this issue should be at the top of its list. Far too many publishers waste money on spurious features and unnecessary multiplayer modes to justify a £40 price tag, when they might have increased the chances of success by focusing their efforts and launching at a lower price-point. Would Singularity have sold more if it was single-player-only and cost £25? Would Medal Of Honor have been a greater success if it ditched its campaign and launched as a £30 multiplayer game? We can only speculate, but the results would at the very least shed new light on a situation that is steadily turning into a stalemate.
The industry hopes to combat both piracy and the second-hand market by shifting the bulk of its business toward digital distribution, but that misses the bigger picture. A digital future is an opportunity to develop a completely fluid pricing structure, so that developers can create games with any budget, and consumers can find entertainment for whatever they want to spend. If publishers can see past their own financial reports, all-encompassing behemoths like Call Of Duty, Halo and Gears Of War will soon be the only games to carry a £40 price tag, and our favoured pastime will be far cheaper to pursue.