The Games You Won't Sell, The Games You Can't Sell

Buy a game. Play it. Decide whether to keep it or sell it back. That's the current cycle of a gamer's gaming life. In the near future, that third choice may evaporate. You may soon never sell a game again.

Two events this week, one of them involving one of the most famous franchises in gaming history, the other involving one of the biggest gaming publishers, demonstrate the two approaches being taken by game makers in what one might call the War On Used Game Sales. Sega announced that its next major Sonic The Hedgehog game would be downloadable. EA inadvertently leaked that its early February single-player Dante's Inferno game would be supported with a multiplayer expansion available in April.

The Sega move made it likely that the next big Sonic game that gamers buy will be one gamers can never sell.

The EA move made it less likely that February purchases of Dante's Inferno would want to sell that game back any time before April.

The moves represent the two tactics of this war, though it's not right to call it a war. After all, what kind of war has the potential - emphasis on "potential" - to make its victims happy? Or well, to strip them of something many gamers believe is their right.

The Won't Sell Approach It's no secret that video game companies would prefer that their customers don't sell the games they buy back to stores. The gamer who spends $US60 on a game and sells it back for $US30 enables the game shop they sold it to to sell that same game again for $US55. None of that second sale profit goes to game publishers.

Gaming retailers such as the giant GameStop like that used-game sales cycle. After all, a year ago GameStop was reported as taking in $US2 billion per year - nearly half of its revenue - from the sale of used games. GameStop has argued to me and others that publishers should like it to, as gamers are more likely to buy new games with the help of that $US30 they made selling that $US60 game back. Publishers, through their actions, clearly don't buy it.

So, you're a publisher unhappy with this. How do you keep a gamer from selling a game back? One way is to keep your customers busy with the games they buy. Make the games longer. Offer them adventures that will last more than a weekend. Make the games more fun, experiences they'll never want to part with. Or try this: Keep adding to the game, week after week, month after month.

The additive approach appears to be the one favoured by EA at the moment. Last fall, the company announced that people who bought role-playing game Dragon Age could expect to enjoy access to two years' worth of downloadable content, some of it that would cost money, of course. Those who liked Dragon Age and finished in by the end of November would therefore have reason to hang onto the game through not just December but all of 2010 and much of 2011. One imagines that EA believes gamers wouldn't want to sell a game like that back.

Dragon Age wasn't a one-off. In January, EA announced that Mass Effect 2, through a service called the Cerberus Network, which also promises free and paid future content expansions for the game, though not for any defined amount of time into the future. Again, EA's hope would appear to be that gamers wouldn't want to part with the game.

This is the approach close observers should have seen coming. In June, EA CEO John Riccitiello told Kotaku what kind of game company EA would be transforming into:

"In Fiscal 10 [EA's financial year, ending March 2010] , we're still a packaged goods company that connects to a lot of online services and features. But it's still a packaged good at its core. I think while we'll have big packaged goods sales in Fiscal 11 and 12 - they'll be larger in this year and continue to grow - we're going to feel more like an online services company, with a disc as an enabler of service." [Emphasis added]

Imagine that: A disc game that keeps on giving. It sounds exactly like the approach for Dragon Age, for Mass Effect 2 and now even for Dante's Inferno.

That third game, Dante's, might be a surprise candidate for EA's disc-plus-more approach. But it's a fitting one, given the fate of another game made by the same internal EA studio behind Dante's, Visceral Games. Visceral's first game, Dead Space, was released in 2008 to critical acclaim and sales that clearly could have been better. How much better? Former Visceral Games executive producer Glen Schofield revealed the missed sales on an EA podcast quoted last year on Kotaku:

We looked at how many we sold. We also looked at - we didn't have online which is one of the big features that you need to have to kind of keep it in the house a little bit longer these days. But then we also did studies on sort of how many unique users there were on the PSN network and Xbox Live. And realised, you know what, there's over three million people that have played Dead Space. Maybe we've only sold 1.5 million or whatever the number is. But there's something there because that means that, ok, there were a lot of used sales. So there's a lot of people when I go out and talk to [them] … it seems that everybody has played it or heard about it or whatever. [Emphasis added]

What Schofield was saying then was that copies of his team's game were leaving "the house", getting sold back to shops and being re-sold by those shops. The same copies of Dead Space were passed around until, by his calculations, as many as twice as many people played the game than paid EA to do so. It's no wonder that EA would want Dante's Inferno purchasers hang onto their games at least for a few months.

There are other ways to keep a gamer from wanting to sell a game back, which could more positively be defined as ways to ensure a gamer wants to keep their games. Multiplayer modes are important for that, ensuring that players of, say, Activision's Modern Warfare 2 would want to hang onto a game that can feel different enough session after session. That's a classic hook for keeping a gamer attached. Fewer games lack such hooks. Sometimes the lure is a multiplayer mode added to a single-player formula, as is the case with next week's BioShock 2. Sometimes that lure is the promise of future downloadable content, as with next month's single-player Heavy Rain.

None of the above methods, all designed to make gamers want to keep their games, appear to be a problem for gamers. They don't block the sale of a game back to the shop. They just make it less likely that you would want to. That's the Won't Sell approach.

The Can't Sell Approach But then there's other tactic that is also increasingly popular with game publishers, one celebrated not just by Sega but by EA and many more. That's the shift toward selling customers more of their games digitally.

The digital sale of games has been championed by future-looking gamers and game-makers alike. It promises a graduation of gaming technology to the shelf-saving convenience of MP3 music libraries and ebook readers. It matches the transition of cherished TV and movie programming, which consumers went from possessing on clunky VHS tape form to sleeker DVD disc form to, increasingly, purely digital form. Yet to have all of one's games digital would be to have all of one's games in unsellable form.

Will gamers who want to keep the newly announced Sonic 4 forever, never selling it to a gaming shop or in a garage sale? Better hope so, because none of the gaming platforms that will run the game, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and WiiWare allow a customer to sell back their games. The same is true for any games downloaded through the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. These are the games you can't sell and there will be more of them. Just yesterday, publisher THQ announced that it was turning two of its studios into creators of purely digital games. Capcom and Konami have found success with the release of new downloadable games, revivals and sequels of classics such as Mega Man and Castlevania, none of which consumers can sell back.

Two Tactics, Similar Results The gamer-won't-sell and gamer-can't-sell approaches to publishing games both have their benefits. The first approach expands games, makes them last longer even as it raises suspicions about what is being withheld from a game only to be released later. The second approach saves gamers gas or subway fare, allows access to games more swiftly and keeps shelves at home clear for houseplants and framed pictures of loved ones. Both approaches might tick some gamers off and both approaches appear to promise pain for the game shops that trade in used games as well as those gamers who depend on shopping for games sold at discounted, used prices.

Which approach will become the standard for gaming? It's hard to say, as early 2010 shows both the can't-sell and won't-sell approaches both gaining publisher popularity.

Of course there's a third way to handle this, a surefire technique to keep gamers from selling their games back: Make the games free.


    well if they simply stopped overcharging for the sake of it

    and stopped doubly overcharging for some games in aus on steam

    80 US for bioshock 2 in Aus after coversion will make it more expensive than some shops will retail it for(and theve already saved costs on the physical media involved)

      Try this

      That takes you to the US storefront with US prices (not just prices in USD) and SEEMS to be able to do transactions with my Australian account but I've not tested it yet. Might be worth trying for such a big discount, if they kick up a stink about it just say you clicked a link on a website to take you to the store and didn't notice it was the american one

    With the Dead Space example, it's quite a cynical way to look at it. What about people with dual accounts? Multiple gamers in a household? Brothers and sisters, etc? The only way they can properly track if it's been resold is giving each disk a unique identifier, and that's too difficult.

    Out of the two, digital seems to be where they'll end up. Cheaper to produce, cheaper to sell while increasing profit margins. And you eliminate resale. It makes business sense.

      Digital Distribution is all well and good, but what about the gamers that can't/won't buy games that way. People without a credit card, no internet and people who don't see owning a game as important as just playing it while it's fun.

      I think the devs and publishers will feel it in their hip pockets if they commit to a digial distribution framework too heavily.

        You better believe it, total digital distribution is coming. It's only a matter of time. It doesn't matter if people don't have credit cards, that's why they have MS point, Wii point and PSN cards available at retail.

        They will just bide their time until a significant amount of game sales are digital and ultra fast broadband with big downloading caps are widely available (Australia still lags behind in this department). Then they will switch everything to digital downloads. And they will probably not reduce the price even though their production costs will have been significantly lowered.

        I personally would rather have a physical disc, but once they take away that option we won't have a choice. If we want to keep on gaming we will be forced to download whether we like it or not.

        What about people who won't replace floppy drives?
        What about people who won't buy a DVD drive?

        Remember how it took something like 5 years of waiting for publishers to abandon CDs in favour of DVDs "just in case"? How many expensive video cards and CPU upgrades did people buy to play games in that same period yet were apparently too cheap to buy a DVD Rom that cost all of $50? At some point, they become too small a group to be relevant and when that happens, its a case of adapt or die.

        "Sir, sir! We just learned that EVERYONE who doesn't have the internet have boycotted our game"
        "My GOD! Quick, increase the marketing budget, we have 7 lost sales to recover!"

      The deadspace example also ignores rentals and friends trading games. Even with multiplayer games, people will often lend games to friends to share the experience.

    Another factor is length of time for DLC. GTAIV is a good example where I (and I'm sure many other PS3 users) did not hold onto the game for nearly 2 years for the DLC
    there are other factors at work here like exclusive or timed-exclusive DLC, but two years is too little, too long to keep my interest.

    Also the long wait for DLC for Soul Calibur 4, to find out that the on-disc content was not free and overpriced.

    Needless to say I traded them both

    publishers seem to forget that by not allowing reselling (which i thought was illegal) means gamers have alot less cash on them to buy the next new game that comes out. i used to be a serial new game buyer. Id buy a new game on release, play to im finished, sell and use the money to help buy the next one. Now I cant sell most of my games, so I usually now just wait for sale days and only buy the occassional new game on release. All my friends are in the same boat.

    Next they're going to tell us that car manufacturers are disappointed in the used-car market due to the missed income potential.....

      They probably are, but I would pay to see someone digitally distribute a car.

    The developers are making an assumption that the majority of gamers are okay with spending more if they don't have a choice to get all the games they want.

    I'd imagine most gamers are on a fixed budget for games purchases and stopping them from trading in their used games to buy new ones isn't going to increase game sales by that much, it just means people are going to be buying less games.

    A better tactic would be spacing out the releases more evenly over the year.

    I'm fine with digital distribution, but I am concerned about prices. Its a no brainer that digital is cheaper to 'produce' - no physical media, manual, case, shipping, retailer mark up etc - yet currently downloadable games such as those found on PSN that have a bricks and mortar counterpart are the SAME PRICE. Or the silly prices found on the XBL on demand service.

    Gamer networks need to sort something out with ISPs whereby game downloads do NOT count towards DL limit. PSN demos are regularly over a gig these days, never mind full games.

    Then they need to drop prices where it creates the impulse for someone to buy digital over hard copy, and forget all about constantly having the consideration of being able to trade in the game at some point down the track. I bought PSP Monster Hunter Freedom Unite for AUS$32 (and put it on 2 PSPs)- Ive never seen it under $59 in stores.

    Regular and good-quality DLC is also crucial- extra levels, characters and unlocks keep you interested when you have clocked whatever was on the original disc. But waiting too long to release it can lose your market. There are so many games across every genre now that people will not wait even a month, they will just buy something new.

    There is a major issue I don't think the game companies have considered yet that should keep Digital Distribution from being a major force until the next Console Generation: Space.

    If I download 6 games of 10 GB each and fill the PS3's Hard Drive, I either have to delete a game and lose it forever, or if I have a digital authentication spend another 10 GB of bandwith cost to get it back. If I am legally allowed to back it up (to an external Hard Drive, for example), what is the difference between piracy and reinstalling the game on a Friend's PS3 to play it there.

    They're setting up some very murky legal waters and I have no doubt they intend to take advantage of every possible aspect of them. I don't believe they realise how much they're asking to be taken advantage of by incentivising hacks on systems like PSN or XBoXLive.

    Keeping gamers playing by adding content is admirable and to be applauded, forcing them to delete things they rightfully owned with the potential of never getting them back or having to pay extra to do so is not.

    im seeing a big problem here with the digital distribution thing.

    much like Chris Ryan said there is an issue with games being QUITE LARGE. its fine for the more hardcore pc gamers because they tend to have large internet plans and more importantly very large HDDs so they have everything they need to get it digitally and i know many people who do.

    the problem lies with console gaming and indeed with casual gamers and parents. you cant give a 5 year old a 2 GB game for christmas. you cant wrap it. you most non internet heavy familys dont even have enough dload data in a month to dload such a game and if you happen to have bought an xbox 360 arcade you just dont have the HDD space to put it anywhere and even those of us with bigger hdd on our 360/ps3 can only hold a certain no. befor we have to start deleting stuff ...and then if we want to play it again we may not have to pay for it but we WILL have to dload it again. and thats a pain in the arse.

    my point is that digital dlaod only works with small casual games (atm at least) it will be a LOOOOONG time befor consoles and the internet in general can legitimatly handle this kind of system.

    My biggest issue with digital download is the state of the internet in Australia. Besides the slow speeds, a lot of ISPs have low cap limits and high costs for going over that limit.

    I'm fortunate enough now to have a 100GB off-peak limit, but that's from 1am-1pm, so in order to download games I'd have to start my download at 1am in the morning and leave my PC on overnight. My PC is on all day as it is, so I'd like for it to have some down-time.

    And considering how many sales are made during the holidays and for birthdays, like it's been said before, I'd be pretty pissed off if someone gave me a gift I'd have to download myself.

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