There’s an item of controversy that’s infected the video game industry: The idea that buying used games somehow steals bread from the mouths of starving developers. This, of course, is lunacy.
The secondhand market has always existed and, God willing, will always exist. Discussion on the topic lately has been focused on video games, but the exact same principle could be applied to any commodity.
Think about it—If I buy a used car, am I robbing Ford or Honda the sale of a new one? If I borrow books from my local library, will book publishers or Barnes & Noble go bankrupt? If I decide to buy a house, whose children will not be able to go to college because I didn’t contract my home be built from scratch upon virgin soil?
It’s just another way for production companies to blame the consumer for their sales not meeting expectations, rather than taking ownership of their own short-comings. If a game’s retail sales don’t meet expectations, consumers are blamed for buying the game used. It’s easier to accuse your customers of being cheap, rather than improving the value of your product or retooling price points.
GameStop has been especially held under fire throughout the controversy. They’re an easy target because they are easily the most popular venue to purchase used video games. (Also, they’ve earned a shady reputation through some of their business practices.) But let’s remember that there are other channels by which the secondhand marketplace exists: eBay, flea markets, garage sales, etc. And of course, exchanging games between friends!
That, I believe, is the crux of this issue. Publishers hate the idea of people sharing. They react as a vampire would to a crucifix. This is because “sharing” involves ownership of property. I’ve bought a game—I own it—and am currently not using it. My buddy wants to play, so I let him borrow it. Maybe I need some quick cash, so I sell it. To publishers, I’ve committed a perversion of commerce. They believe that the only way that a second person should be able to experience their product is by also purchasing their own copy.
You know those FBI warnings at the beginning of home videos? They don’t just talk about producing illegal copies; there’s also a section about playing the video in public view “without permission”. This is because if you projected the video in front of an audience, the movie industry sees that as dozens of sales of that video lost. From their perspective, each individual should have seen the video only by buying it themselves.
The design of user agreements has grown more subversively sinister. They don’t just come with software these days—more and more electronic devices come packaged with one. According to most of these user agreements, you have not purchased the product; you’ve purchased a license to use that product. And you may use that product only if you sign in agreement to the terms and conditions that the company has laid out.
You don’t own anything you buy anymore. Your “property” is quickly becoming “possessions”. The companies that reserve the rights to your possessions own them and you’re merely renting it, with the risk of revocation or penalties issued to you for “abuse”.
The rising champion on the side of the publishers is digital distribution. By ridding merchandise of physical substance, it minimizes the potential for it to change hands between consumers. If DLC is allowed to completely phase out tangible media, then the corporations will have complete control over their products with us at their mercy.
Often I hear pundits in video game journalism lauding digital distribution. They site such reasons as, “I’m so glad that I don’t have this physical thing filling up space in my home,” or, “I hate having to go to a store in order to get my games.” Shut up.
I’m so sorry that you have to endure the chore of leaving the house. Of course downloading directly to your machine is more convenient (depending on network traffic). I like to think of it as a very small piece of my time that I invest to obtain something that I will own. If it’s worth acquiring, then it’s worth putting out some effort on your part to procure.
But if you’re an especially lazy character who insists the world be served to you, then there’s always the option of ordering online. You may have to wait a little longer, but your purchase can be delivered directly to your door.
As for saving storage space, just throw the cases away. Discs don’t take up a lot of room by themselves. Some people prefer to use large CD wallets instead of storing their games, movies, or music on their shelves. Better still, recycle the emptied spool of recordable discs. The argument that digital distribution is a godsend for preserving space is bullshit.
Journalists in the video game industry, of all people, should understand the value of tangible media and the secondhand market. They have intimate access to the video game industry, deeper than the most savvy consumer. There’s an implied responsibility in the role of journalists to bring to light any diabolical strategies companies set into motion. If nothing else, it’s fair to present legitimate pros and cons of industry trends. The concert of acceptance by the mainstream video game media with little question of the risks to consumers tells more of submission to their corporate masters than the Jeff Gerstmann controversy.
Through DLC, publishers the sweetest arrangement in that they reserve the soul ownership of their products in exchange for any accountability. When publishing to physical media, developers were under pressure to complete the best, most stable build of their product before it’s due to be pressed. They had one shot to get it done and done right. Now they can shovel lame, broken rubbish, justified by lower prices and fixing it after the fact.
DLC has opened consoles up the same vice that’s plagued PC gaming for decades: Patches. Now the most reputable developers can get away with dishing out products that are just good enough to release for purchase. They rake in the initial sales while buying themselves weeks (even months) to actually finish the project and patch their faulty product. On occasion, the developers will sell content that couldn’t be previously finished along with fixes, labeling them as “expansion packs”. Yet for some reason, most consumers tolerate this.
The last point I will address on this topic is of the price points. By removing the production cost of discs, cartridges, jewel cases, manuals, etc., publishers are able to sell downloadable games at a reduced price. The idea is passing the savings on to the consumer. So far, most distribution services have done so-so in exercising this principle. Many publishers have not yet figured this out, pricing their games too closely to their store shelf counterparts for them to be attractive.
Additionally, the prices of downloadable software will only remain low as long as it’s an alternative. If tangible media is phased out (as the corporations would love to see), they’re then able to justify charging whatever they want. For now, we have the option to spend $50 on a physical product (like a video game or DVD) that we can own forever or spend $20-30 on a digital copy. In turn, the digital version will only work as long as the playing device and subscription service are operational. If DLC becomes the only option, prepare to again pay $50, but for a lesser product.
Unlike what Steam has demonstrated for PC games, console distribution services like PlayStation Network or Xbox Marketplace are hesitant to offer limited-time bargains or free content (such as game demos). Valve has proven that their business model can be successful, but console companies appear too fearful to embrace this new philosophy.
I do believe that digital distribution has its place in today’s market. It helps independent developers make their products more accessible. It reduces the price of episodic games, ports of titles from previous generations, as well as smaller, more “disposable games”. Digital distribution also makes perfect sense for rental services.
All of that being said, I would never wish for tangible media—or at the very least, the right to purchase and own property—to fade away into the night. I use digital distribution services myself and I appreciate them as an option. They are not a solution, since consumers have no actual problem. Corporations do and will look for any way to take our money in exchange for practically nothing. Meanwhile punishing us for their shortcomings…but only if we let them.