Why Amazon's Game Trade-In Program Won't Work

Amazon wants your used games, it's ready to pay your shipping costs, and you'll get an Amazon gift card back in the bargain. All you have to do is identify which of your games are worth $10 or more (to Amazon), pack them up and send them off, and Amazon handles the rest. What's more, the company's even willing to pay you a buck or two on top of GameStop's buy prices for the exact same games.

Sound like a sweet deal?

It's not. And here's why, to concur with GameStop's Dan DeMatteo, Amazon's initial salvo in the burgeoning war between video game publishers and retailers has "zero chance" of success.

In a word? Instantaneity, which Amazon's process by definition lacks. Used game customers want cash or product in hand and the ability to compress and control the transaction. Amazon's process protracts the transaction, adds tedious intermediary steps, and removes a critical sense of immediacy from the equation.

Here's how trading in a used game works today: You head to the nearest dealer, hand your stuff in for inspection, then walk away with swapped-for games, store credit, or a slightly smaller amount of hard cash in your wallet. Short, sweet, and — crucially — instantly gratifying.

With Amazon's program, you're transacting in a cloud, and a smallish one at that. Have something older than PS2-era in your stack? Say Square's Xenogears for the original PlayStation? Maybe a vintage copy of The Legend of Zelda for the NES? Perhaps Splinter Cell for the original Xbox? Sorry, Amazon's not interested. Its accept list only covers about 1,500 relatively recent titles. I realize GameStop has similar platform strictures, but back when I lived in Nowhere, Iowa, I was never more than a mile or two away from an indie used games store that dealt in everything from Atari 2600 carts to stacks of original GameBoy games and systems. I see them everywhere I travel, be that in the States or internationally.

But say your stuff's strictly current. Next, you'll have to print out the packing and shipping labels, which means you'll need a printer ready to hand. Once you've got that sorted, you'll have to hunt down a box, packing tape, and if you're responsible about it, some decent packing material, e.g. newspaper, pellets, plastic, foam — whatever it takes. If it's a small enough box or envelope, i.e. for just a game or two, you can probably slip it in your mailbox for pickup. If it's a larger box, say for a dozen games or more, chances are you'll have to drive them on to the nearest postal center.

And then you wait. Let's assume fastest possible shipping time and say it takes a day for Amazon's third-party handler to receive your bundle. Then someone has to physically pop your package open, sort through and verify you didn't ship a bunch of coasters, then pull the trigger on a gift card credited to your account. Since the service is in beta (it just launched yesterday) it's anyone's guess what those last few steps add up to in process time. I'd venture an educated guess that if you ship on Monday and they receive it on Tuesday, you're looking at Wednesday or later before your online money meter fills up.

Note I said "transacting in a cloud" earlier. No big deal when you know beforehand what you're after, e.g. whatever book or DVD or music CD floats your boat. But trading in used games is a more nuanced and fluid endeavor. Every time I visit a used games dealer, there's someone else doing the should-I-or-shouldn't-I trade-in tango. If you're an old hand at trade-ins, chances are you know what I'm talking about, e.g. the guy (or gal) who's got the tower of titles at the counter, wandering around the store looking for something to trip their interest. They'll chitchat with the sales staff about this or that game and even waffle over something beloved in their pile (Final Fantasy VII comes to mind), something they're not entirely ready to part with.

And of course there's that inestimably pivotal sense of instantaneity when the store is physical instead of virtual, of controlling the process from doorstep to storefront and back again. You can make it happen all in a day — an hour or two even — if your local used games store's near enough.

Amazon's deal subtracts all of that, then leaves you to sit and wait and wonder whether the body at the other end of the line's going to concur with your definition of "good working condition."

I'm all for online dealmaking, and I've no love for retailers like GameStop, who routinely gouge their customers on used game pricing, or who force ludicrous system bundles down throats when new platforms launch.

But I'm not persuaded Amazon's program's the answer...especially not in a market that's shifting toward instantly downloadable content. There's a window of opportunity here, before gaming goes completely and entirely digital (oh yes it will — it's merely a matter of when) but playing the mail-order card, Amazon's going to miss it.

Matt Peckham realizes there's still the "is trading in used games ethical" elephant to grapple with. His position: It's as ethical as any other aftermarket reselling, and anyone who disputes that instantly fails economics 101. He's respectfully not changing his mind at twitter.com/game_on.

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