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Whether you’re one of those eco-warriors recycling for the planet, or, like me, you simply wade through games quicker than you earn money, you’re probably pretty familiar with the second-hand section of your favored game store. Well, make the most of it, because if some of the greedier publishers get their way, buying used games in the near future could prove more awkward and expensive for you, and more profitable for them.

Inevitably, the balance of game sales tipped a little further in favor of used titles during the recession, with Gamestop generating a monumental $2 billion in revenue through sales of second-hand games in 2008 alone, equating to around a quarter of its total revenue for the year. Clearly the used game industry is rather lucrative, which is undoubtedly why developers and publishers are once again lashing back, protesting that second-hand gaming is damaging to the industry. Could this perhaps be due to the fact they don’t get a penny of used game profits?

For years now publishers have argued, perhaps rather drastically, that buying used games is tantamount to piracy. What they seem to forget is that the trading of second-hand goods isn’t a new phenomenon, it’s a factor that exists in all economies, and by this reckoning surely the evil folk who buy clothes from Oxfam ought to be imprisoned. And maybe if they lowered the price of new games, people would be more willing to spend money on what is essentially an extravagance.

Whilst the argument between publishers and consumers has thus far been little more than verbal tennis, devious methods – including various forms of DRM (digital rights management) – have begun to emerge that compromise the simplicity and cost of second-hand purchases. Here are some of the underhandedly shrewd tricks publishers are pulling from their sleeves:

Digital Distribution

The digital distribution of software seems like an efficient and cost-effective method of trading – particularly for publishers – and one that may well become the norm in the not-so-distant future. Services like Steam, PSN and Xbox Live, which facilitate the downloading of classic and modern titles, have become a startlingly successful method of distributing games, considering each download (which is invariably priced higher than a used title) has absolutely no resale value.

As each game is attached to the account itself, there is little you can do with a completed game other than simply keep it or send it to the digital afterlife (though you can download it again free at a later date). If hard copies were done away with altogether, gaming could prove to be an expensive pastime and it could be the end of second-hand game buying and trading, rental stores, and simply borrowing games from friends.

Single-use Access Codes

Not content with raking in the fortunes of one of the most anticipated and fastest-selling games of recent years, EA shipped Mass Effect 2 with a single-use code that allows players to access the Cerberus Network, which contains free items, side missions, and characters to download.

Buy the game used, however, and you’ll have to fork out an extra $15 to access the network. This is a pretty sneaky way of collecting a cut after subsequent sales of the game. Xbox Live and PSN are already becoming littered with overpriced downloads and extra content, and this method of using this market to capitalize on the second-hand industry could easily become commonplace.

Limiting Installs

Mass Effect 2 isn’t the first time EA has incorporated DRM into a AAA title, however. Each copy of Spore, one of the best-selling games of 2008, could only be authenticated on up to 3 machines. What this meant was that if your computer needed replacing or upgrading a few times, you were left with a copy of something that’s of more use as a coaster than as something you can play or sell.

EA were forced to upgrade the DRM to allow 5 installs after they were predictably plagued with complaints. Hilariously, 2,016 of 2,216 of Spore’s initial ratings on gave the game 1 out of 5 stars – most of which stating the DRM was to blame for the low rating – which almost seems like the consumers’ way of sticking a middle finger up at EA’s greed. According to Chris Harris, former Maxis developer, the DRM was a “screw up” and a “totally avoidable disaster”.

Multiplayer Restrictions

Perhaps one of the most audacious methods publishers are adopting to profit from used games is to charge users for online functionality. Take the PSP’s recently released SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3, for example: buy the game new, and access to the online multiplayer will be free; buy it used, and if it has already been registered you will have to pay an additional $20 (straight into the publisher’s pocket) if you want to take the shooter online.

Publishers argue that for every person who buys a used game, one potential new sale is lost, and that as profits drop so too do budgets, and the quality of future titles could therefore be compromised. Are these examples of restricting the second-hand industry cases of corporate greed, or are they entitled to a cut of subsequent sales of games?

  1. Publishers argue that for every person who buys a used game, one potential new sale is lost. This is arguably true, though I’m not certain it’s a 1-to-1 ratio like they claim. However, this is also true for every product in existence, from clothing to artwork, and claiming it’s an unfair burden for this particular industry seems a little bizarre.

    As far as the fact that the quality will suffer, it might be true … but doesn’t that imply the current business model of spending millions on game development is unsustainable? Maybe the industry is pursuing the only thing it knows how to do at the expense of the consumer. That seems like an obvious enough sign to me.

  2. I’d be pretty screwed without 2nd hand games. Out of my entire xbox 360 game collection I have only 2 games (Hard copies) that I bought first hand; Halo 3 and Halo 3: ODST.

    Implementing single use codes for games wouldn’t make me buy more first hand. It would probably lead me to mod my xbox or something because I simply dont have the cash to pay for games at £40 a time.

    I actually ran into this problem on the Dreamcast with Phantasy Star which had a single use code for online play. My console broke and rendered it useless.

  3. Great piece, Steven! I agree with many points in here, but also disagree with a few. I can see where you are coming from as a gamer, but I suppose you have to remember that publishers need to make money too if they want to continue pumping out all these lovely games.

    There are strong arguments for both sides of the coin.

  4. avatar Marr

    The games industry built itself up from nothing to bigger than Hollywood despite a laissez-faire second hand market *and* massive piracy. What’s changed that suddenly requires special anti-customer policies for companies to stay profitable?

  5. avatar Ian

    They lose sales every single time you cheap asses pay $54 instead of $60.

    They lose sales, they lose employees from the wake, the games aren’t as good because the developers have less money and less support.

    If you like a game, don’t be a cheap ass; spend $5 more for the shrink wrapped copy and support the devs you claim to love.


    • If I really want a game and I’ve been following it since conception and desperately awaiting its birth, I will actually buy it new. If it’s a game I just kind of fancy having a dabble at, I’ll buy it used – the fact of the matter is, I’d never buy the latter kind of game at all if second-hand games were done away with, therefore they are NOT losing a sale when I buy a preowned game!

  6. Second hand stuff is wonderful for older, no-longer published titles… most of my PS2, SNES, and Gamecube collection right now consists of games I had to get used because you can’t find them new even if you tried.

    However, I hate that people assume greed is the main reason why we are moving towards this anti-secondhand system. The devs, publishers, and distributors pay a TON of money to get these games made and available to us, and not making it back means that people lose jobs and they make shittier/safer games in the future because they have to be sustainable as a business. If everyone bought their games new, the price of games would probably drop much faster than it currently does because they have made back on their investment and hope that dropping a few dollars will catch those hold outs. As it is, I think we will only see game costs go up until second hand and pirating stuff is under better control.

  7. The attack on the used game market is more than a little late. Maybe it’s because the technology finally exists for publishers to make their stand, but it’s impossible not to look at the timing of this offensive and think it a bit peculiar.

    After the NES era died down, popularity of console games tended to fade a bit until the PSX and N64 really picked up steam in 1996. From there, it was a meteoric rise right on through the PSX/N64 era and through the PS2/Xbox/GCN generation. That’s a 10-year span, and there was no griping about used games. FuncoLand, Electronics Boutique, and other chains dealt with used games and the industry was still booming.

    Now that the Great Recession is taking its toll on sales, there’s a saturation of software developers and publishers, and development budgets have skyrocketed, publishers are bitching. Now. After over a decade of prosperity. Sure, publishers may have a point, but threatening to disable what’s been a major cog in the economy of console gaming (while inflating prices back to levels last seen for the N64 back in 1996) is not going to earn publishers any sympathy or understanding.

    Settle it with used game sellers. If GameStop doesn’t want to work something out, CUT THEM OFF. There’s no rule that says that publishers have to sell new product to GameStop, so cut them off and see what happens. Ideally, a deal should be worked out so that a small percentage of a used game sale goes to a publisher, but punishing consumers because publishers and retailers can’t get their act together makes the publisher look greedy– even if there’s a noble cause behind what’s going on.

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