Many, many rumours continue to fly around the internet concerning the future of Microsoft and Sony's game consoles. One of the most contentious and repeated assertions about the next iterations of both the PlayStation and the Xbox is that neither will easily support used, rented or secondhand games.
Gamers and developers have gone back and forth for weeks now on whether the next generation can and should accommodate used games, and who gets hurt if they do or don't. In an opinion piece at GamesIndustry, developer Richard Browne asserts that the hidden costs of used games are crushing the industry and adding to consumer misery.
Citing an anecdote about a colleague being nearly unable to purchase a new copy of a game at his local GameStop, Browne issues his challenge: what are the real costs of used games, that consumers say make their hobby more affordable? His answers:
The real cost of used games is the death of single player gaming. How do I stop churn? I implement multiplayer and attempt to keep my disc with my consumer playing online against their friends.
Browne cites Ninja Gaiden 3 as one (but not the only) example of a recent game in which the multiplayer mode is completely superfluous. He asserts that the multiplayer has no reason to exist in the universe that the Ninja Gaiden franchise has posited, and that its development must certainly have taken away from the core game.
The real cost of used games? Let's take someone like Tim Schafer. Tim works his genius in the video game medium primarily through selling fantastic stories in fantastic worlds, and primarily these experiences are single player games. Tim walks into publisher X and puts his latest, greatest piece of work on the table with a decent mid-range budget. It doesn't stand a chance.
Browne goes on to mention Schafer's spectacular Kickstarter success, but where many are optimistic about the future of crowdsourcing, he sees only disappointment. Digital delivery and smaller-scale games are no Brütal Legend, Browne asserts.
While this is true, he provides no reason why digital delivery itself, rather than store retail space, is in any way an evil. Nor does he provide any specific reason why larger-scale games (AAA, big-budget titles) could not move to digital distribution in the future — in fact later in the piece, he encourages it. Plenty of games in recent years have seen success through Steam, the PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade; the lack of a major disc-based release doesn't seem to be terribly detrimental to either consumers or developers in the gaming world of 2012.
Similarly, Browne claims that the variety of games available is "shrinking", and while the examples of sameness he cites in aged franchises are correct, he once again seems to be overlooking the existence of any game that does not suit his thesis. He writes:
Some single player games naturally have been launched with great success in the past year or two; Rockstar have had such fortune with Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire. Both these games take a different tact to combat churn - they're absolutely huge and take weeks to complete. Guess what? Making those games was extraordinarily expensive. The risk for the publisher on such products is enormous. So we now have a situation where risk is being eliminated from a publisher's purview.
Both games were enormously expensive, but both risks also paid off for Rockstar, in critical acclaim as well as in sales. To discount their existence, and the success Rockstar has enjoyed in publishing different games from many of their competitors, weakens his point.
As for a culture of risk in game design, Browne's observation that most big publishers and big franchises release iterative games, rather than innovative games, is correct. Big-budget games are expensive and when tens or hundreds of millions of dollars are on the line, as Hollywood sequels have shown us, it's easier and less risky to make something that has proven popular before. And again as Hollywood sequels have shown us, the delicate balance of risk and reward in creative media is hardly unique to the game industry.
Browne is, however, accurate in his final conclusion:
Give us no used games, give us digital access to software on the day it launches to retail. I don't think we'll see even a minor drop in sales; in fact, I think we'll see it rise.
While used games may or may not feature into the future of console gaming, digital distribution most surely will. And when there is no physical disc to purchase, by definition it cannot be sold secondhand. But the trend towards digital distribution, which seems all but inevitable at this stage (though not necessarily quick), doesn't guarantee that more games will be sold, or that publishers and distributors will see more money. For many gamers, the choice isn't between buying a game new for $US60 or buying it used for $US30; it's between buying it used for $US30 and buying it not at all.
The model under which GameStop operates does seem doomed to an eventual decline, as every gaming platform slides gently away from its reliance on discs and moves toward an all-networked future. But while discs are still the law of the land — and until reliable broadband reaches the entire country with network cap issues resolved, they will be — blaming consumers for seeking discounts when they can seems short-sighted. Having Microsoft and Sony "go nuclear" and disabling secondhand discs entirely would be one solution to one problem, but seems likely to create just as many other problems in its wake.
The Real Cost of Used Games [GamesIndustry International]
Top photo: GamesIndustry International