Sometimes game developers’ sense of entitlement sends clouds of cartoon steam from my ears. Case in point: Quantic Dream’s co-founder Guillaume de Fondaumiere, who seems to think his company has “lost” sales of between €5m and €10m ($6.8m and $13.6m) to the secondhand sales market. Guillaume arrived at that range by comparing the number of players registering trophies on the PlayStation Network to the number of actual sales. That’s a defensible metric for gauging secondhand sales, but the notion that anything was “lost”? Indefensible.
I’m about to put a used car up for sale. It’ll be the second time since it rolled off some dealer’s lot with a handful of miles on the odometer that this car’s been sold used (I was the first secondhand market buyer). Neither the car’s manufacturer nor the original dealer’s going to see a penny of whatever I end up selling it for. That’s how the secondhand market works. I probably don’t need to remind anyone the used market for automobiles is massive. And yet you never see automobile manufacturers griping about all the “lost” sales foisted on them by nefarious used car dealers or private owners availing themselves of some local paper’s classifieds.
Likewise, just about anything else that’s a tangible retail object (unless we’re talking something like Monsanto’s Roundup Ready seeds—don’t get me started). When I want to offload books, I donate to a surplus store that’ll resell them, or hold a garage sale, or dial up a bulk purchaser who’ll give me pennies on the dollar to box them up for recirculation through a service like Amazon.com. The same applies to video tapes, discs, music CDs, musical instruments, furniture, clothing, art, desktops, laptops, printers, and [insert anything else here].
What’s unique about the video games industry? Oh right, nothing. A physical game is a retail object. Since it harbors easily duplicable digital code, there’s an anti-piracy angle here that is perfectly defensible—no one’s entitled to thievery—but reselling physical products is both legal and ethical. It’s also none of the publisher’s or creator’s beeswax.
Sure, a publisher can sell a product digitally, ala Steam, and lock out the used market. Publishers are also entitled to complicate reselling by giving games unique activation codes (think MMORPGs like World of Warcraft). If customers don’t like the fact that they can’t resell a digital or code-locked game, they don’t have to buy it. No one’s forcing them to, and nowhere is it written that we’re entitled to whatever someone’s selling—that’s no more the case than the notion a reseller has a right to siphon money from used game sales.
I’m fine with the retail object disappearing. You won’t find me griping that I can’t resell a song I bought on iTunes or a movie I watched on Netflix. For the latter, I pay a basic subscription rate, I watch some movies every month, and everyone’s more or less happy. That may be where games are headed: either to subscription-based online-only access or digital-only artifacts you can’t resell (though Steam’s digital trade-in beta is intriguing). And if developers or publishers manage to eke out some kind of profit-sharing deal with a mega-retailer like GameStop while we’re still transitioning to an all-digital model, fine, no problem.
But this notion—echoed unthinkingly by some in the media—that used game sales equal money “lost” to a game’s creator, is just a non sequitur. It smacks of entitlement, of “we deserve royalties on every sale of anything we make,” of reconceptualizing a secondhand market that’s been around for millenia (and, for good reason, paradigmatically intractable). That’s simply delusional thinking.
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