Editorial: The secondhand game problem

The industry rumour mill, as a matter of course, always peaks in these final few weeks before E3. Stories – often fantastical and, frankly, ludicrous – attributed to ‘un-named sources’ compete for column inches with less bombastic quotes from genuine insiders. Usually the majority of the stories revolve around next generation technology, even when the current generation is in its infancy. Almost everything in these stories is rebutted by Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo. The truth is usually somewhere hidden in the denials; either in its tone or in what they don’t say. Half the fun of the lead up to E3 is in trying to piece together the clues, to see past the smoke and mirrors. Essentially, it’s like playing a really dull adventure game, one which substitutes mythical creatures for tech speak. On reflection, fun may be pushing it slightly.

This year, I still don’t have a clue which if any of the next generation consoles is to be unveiled at the event. It seems certain that Nintendo will push their Wii U, but whether Microsoft or Sony follow suit and announce what almost certainly won’t be called the Durango or Orbis remains to be seen. What I am almost certain of, however, is that both Sony and Microsoft are deliberately testing the water for the reaction to proposed anti-piracy technology, and that with such technology they are looking to crush the second hand games market.

Rumours began to circulate a few months ago that the next-generation Xbox may not use a physical format for its games. To some degree this seems like inevitable technological progress: we as consumers are becoming ever less attached to physical possessions; music for example has gone through a variety of physical formats, to MP3 downloads and now with Spotify, Napster et al, many people don’t actually own their music at all, while Amazon have successfully nailed the e-book market with the Kindle. Although the TV and film companies need an almighty rocket up their collective rear end to settle on a delivery system that actually works (both in terms of reliability and content), it is difficult to imagine the future as being anything other than streaming and on-demand centred; the venerable DVD and Blu Ray consigned to the history books.

Why, therefore, should the video games industry be any different? Streaming of video games and the death of the physical format are inevitable.  Actually, there are several major ways in which the games industry differs from the rest of the arts, and why we as consumers should be very wary of the possibility of the used games market being squashed:

Spotify Premium costs £9.99 per month for unlimited streaming. Nostalgic arguments about the days of leafing through an album’s artwork, and the general cheapening of the listening experience aside, this represents good value. It also appears to be a very risky price point, with many insiders (including U2’s manager Paul McGuiness. Normally I find a good way to decide whether I am right about something is to think about what U2 or their manager’s opinion would be, and then do the opposite, but here I will make an exception) believing it to be an untenable business model. With a new video game costing about 4-5 times the amount of a new MP3 album, and the difference in production costs far greater than that, an equivalent subscription service for games is unthinkable.

Similarly, an e-book costs about the same as, or a bit less, than a physical book. Amazon have been extremely canny in offering classic books for free. Although obviously there is no second hand e-book market, the combination of free books, and the fact that the second-hand physical book market is always there as an alternative. The consumer has a choice; owning a Kindle does not preclude him or her spending an afternoon in a musty second hand bookshop, and it does not stop them reading whatever they buy. If Sony and Microsoft do take steps to end the second hand games market, keeping up with new technology explicitly means that the only way to play current generation games is to buy them brand new and full priced.

Ever since the Arkham Asylum demo nearly put me off buying what subsequently proved to be one of my favourite games of all-time, I have learned not to trust my instinctive reaction to playing a game for anything less than a prolonged spell. On countless occasions I have been unsure about a game until borrowing it off them for an extended period. The key point is that on many of those occasions I ended up buying the game for myself, which I would never have done through demos alone.

I don’t personally mourn the loss of Game. Though it is sad to see yet more evidence of high-street retailers being decimated, their games were overpriced and, like the big hypocrite I am, I tend to buy all my games online anyway. The odd occasion that I did use their shops was to part-exchange items or buy second hand games. In a similar way to the earlier second hand book analogy, it was nice to occasionally take a risk on a game that you had either read little about, or just weren’t quite sure whether you were going to hate it or not. Also, it was a good way to introduce yourself to the first instalment of a franchise that had somehow passed you by.

I don’t profess to know the way to tackle this issue. I understand the reasons behind considering physical formats to be outmoded. I just believe that Microsoft and Sony need to tread carefully before decimating the second hand games market; for it is likely to lose more than it would gain.