The whole used game debate has reached a boiling point of late, with some outspoken figures in the gaming media wading in with their own strong views on the divisive issue. I actually remain ambivalent on the matter of used games, and am doubtful of the role they have to play in the future of the gaming industry. To that end, I agree with some aspects of the arguments of Erik Kain and Total Biscuit. Other aspects not so much, but I will get into that later.
There’s no denying that GameStop is guilty of some horrid policies, which on the face of it are hurting the industry, not to mention its notoriously poor treatment of employees and customers alike. I don’t even see the appeal in doing trade-ins; what’s the point of trading in my game for $5 which will then be put towards another game that’s only $5 cheaper than a new copy? Personally, I’d only buy a game second-hand if it is substantially cheaper, either because there are few new copies in circulation or the seller is being very generous for some reason. But if everything was available digitally like with Steam, I would never need to buy used because brick-and-mortar retailers would have died off and the bigger profit margins would lead to lower prices, right?
Not quite. This is a naive assumption to make, and one that Erik Kain and Total Biscuit fall prey to.
Adam Gulledge’s article explains in economic terms why the death of GameStop would not bring about a better future for everyone else, but even a simpleton like me can see that Kain is way off in saying ‘Gamestop simply has too much influence over the video game industry’, and ‘competition from online retailers like Amazon is also kept to a minimum’. As far as I can tell, Amazon and other online retailers like Newegg and Ebay offer plenty of healthy competition for new and used games. GameStop are hardly holding publishers to ransom here. If anything, it is the rise of the digital distribution model that is more likely to bring about a monopoly, and another Forbes writer, Paul Tassi, says as much:
…though we may be moving into an age of digital distribution, I think we may be giving Sony, Microsoft and these publishers too much credit, assuming we’ll just slide right in to a Steam-like model. Rather, I think the fear here is that these companies will either kill used games, or make them just as expensive as new ones, and then carry on charging $60 a title for digital downloads.
Gaming Blend’s William Usher, who I champion as one of the few remaining proponents of consumer rights in the games media, casts further doubt over the insistence that the transition to digital games will lead to more competitive pricing on console platforms:
There is no competition for digital game distribution on console… Prices are high now and there’s no reason they would shrink if they no longer had to compete with retail chains. You can’t get Xbox 360 games from any other digital outlet and you won’t be able to get Xbox One games from any other outlet. The same applies for Sony and the PS3 and PS4.
More flaws can be found in the reasoning of Kain and Biscuit in other parts of their arguments. It is one thing to show misguided faith in companies who have done little to warrant it, but I simply cannot stand their incrimination of consumers in the emergence of worrying trends that have taken hold in the industry:
The prominence of used games and the business practices of GameStop are a huge part of the problem… And it’s why we see ridiculous multiplayer elements pop up in traditionally single-player franchises; it’s why micro-transactions are becoming so popular.
Biscuit says something to a similar effect in his video on used games, drawing a false connection between used games and DLC as a necessary means of monetizing them. At best, this is an exaggeration; at worst, this is an attempt at scaremongering and guilt tripping consumers into avoiding used games. The somewhat contrived implication here is that the reason for DLC’s ubiquity nowadays is its importance as a way of compensating for the lost revenue from used game sales. In reality this is just some corporate spiel to make used games a scapegoat for all of the industry’s problems. DLC is not going to magically disappear with the extinction of used games, and it will be as pervasive as ever.
When faced with recent statistics, Kain’s and Biscuit’s claims fail to hold up; used games have been in a rapid decline, while DLC, microtransactions and digital game sales account for an increasing amount of revenue, enough in fact to match the yearly revenue intake from used games. Clearly these are revenue streams whose expansion has nothing to do with the used game market, which was rampant long before their conception.
The digital age of gaming is upon us, and we have already seen it take shape on the PC platform. What unscrupulous publishers have failed to realize though, is that in order to get us to embrace the revolution, they have to draw us in with the proverbial carrot, not beat us with the stick. But judging by the Xbox One’s anti-consumer policies, we are being made to bear the brunt of the industry’s war against anything it sees as a threat – that is, used games and/or piracy – and that does not bode well at all.
When it comes to where we are now, publishers and retailers are engaged in a petty corporate tug-of-war, and the ones caught in the middle are the consumers. Something is going to have to give way in an industry struggling to sustain itself.