To hear some publishers tell it, used game sales are the devil’s work, and we–meaning us consumers–the devil’s henchmen.
We’re buying too many used games, you see, and in our patient thrift, we’re destroying the very thing we’re supposed to love.
Not the games themselves, mind you–first-class game development is flourishing with or without the World of Warcraft’s and Call of Duty’s–but, if we buy the corporate line, the ability of game publishers to reap increasingly massive revenues.
More ‘Fearsome’ Than Ever
The latest “uh-oh, used games” salvo comes from a UK-based analytics company, which just released a report fingering preowned game trading as “the driving force” behind year-on-year declines in UK new video game sales.
“The second hand games market is more fearsome now than it ever has been,” concludes UK trade mag MCV, which noticed the study. “A decade ago the only outlets for second hand games was High Street specialists and the then burgeoning number of UK indies.”
The trend’s not new, of course, and it’s ramping up on both sides of the pond. In July 2009, a Nielsen retail game sales report suggested US used game sales were cutting sharply into new ones.
“Used game purchases have picked up in 2009, and this has increasingly come at the expense of new games when looked at as a share of the total,” said the Nielsen report. “Sales of used games increased by 31.9 percent compared to last year.”
Stepping back to September 2008, Bungie (Halo) audio director Marty O’Donnell predicted smaller studios were in for bumpy financials given the thriving market for pre-owned games.
“It’s hard to gauge the effect of used game sales on Halo, but I’m sure it’s big,” opined O’Donell. “Complaining about sales when you have a multi-million seller is somewhat difficult to justify, but it seems to me that the folks who create and publish a game shouldn’t stop receiving income from further sales.”
And Bethesda’s (Oblivion, Fallout 3) Pete Hines recently put it this way: “We would prefer to participate in the sale of our products, especially when we spend years putting one of these things together and we have to continue to provide support for all these new customers without creating any new revenue from it at all.”
So are these claims fair or foul?
Next: Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Do As I Say, Not As I Do
Game publishers know dissing used sales won’t win over consumers, who view the software they’ve purchased as theirs to resell at will. After all, when it comes to personal property, is a video game different from a book? A movie? A television? A chair? A couch?
Did the film industry whine when the used video market cut into sales of VHS movies? DVDs? Blu-ray discs? Are TV manufacturers miffed each time a Sony, Samsung, or LG flatscreen sells on eBay? Do furniture manufacturers grouse about lost profits from used furniture sales at auctions, garage sales, or consignment stores?
It’s a little silly, then, to bring the issue before consumers. It’s like someone in the press complaining about the occasionally scandalous relationship between public relations flak and game journalists. The latter’s for journalists to sort out. The former’s for publishers and retailers to grapple with. If GameStop or Best Buy or Amazon or Walmart want to cut in publishers on a percent of used game profits, by all means. But intimating that it’s somehow the consumer’s fault for treating games as buyable and resalable commodities like any other is allowing frustration–however justifiable–to trump common sense.
If game publishers are either too maladaptive or greedy to figure out how to continue reaping windfall profits based on changing demographic thresholds for “new” purchases, they need to come up with alternative revenue models. Charging for support, for instance, if it’s really that costly (I haven’t called a video game support line in 15 years) might be one way to offset what Hines is after.
For instance: I have an Apple MacBook Pro. It comes with a one year transferable manufacturer’s warranty. Apple participates in none of the profit if I sell the laptop used before that year’s up (you don’t hear Apple complaining about this). If I want to extend the support warranty by an additional two years, I have to reach into my wallet and come up with roughly $250 extra. If I sell the laptop with the warranty in place, Apple could care less who’s phoning in the trouble ticket. If I sell it without, they’re not obliged to support it at all. No fuss, no muss.
Another more or less inexorable solution involves digital distribution. I have a copy of BioShock on my Xbox 360. I pulled it down earlier this year because I’d sold my original a while back and wanted to replay it in anticipation of BioShock 2. I can’t resell it, because it’s “tethered” to my Xbox LIVE account, and its only “physical” presence involves its aggregate 1s and 0s footprint on my more or less piracy-proof Xbox 360 hard drive. The same applies to PC games purchased from online distributors like Steam. It’s simply a matter of time before physical products are entirely replaced by digital ones.
When that happens, publishers will fully control all once more…as vanguards who only sell digital versions already do.
In the meantime, thank goodness for used games. I don’t know about you, but $60 for one new game is $10 more than my monthly discretionary budget entire.