There's been a lot of chatter this week about used games, mostly spurred by the news that Xbox One games will come with one-time registration codes, meaning you can't just swap them with your friends or trade them at a GameStop.
Microsoft has promised some sort of ecosystem for used games, but the Xbox manufacturer has been sketchy about the details, probably because they're not finalised yet. Still, by the time we get our hands on the Xbox One, the concept of a "used game" as we know it may no longer exist.
Some think this is a horrendous, consumer-unfriendly move. Others argue that it could help the video game industry stay alive. Today, Ben Kuchera wrote an interesting article over at the Penny Arcade Report, concluding that the death of used games could lead to a healthier video game industry:
Without the used market sucking up all those sales and all that consumer money, it's very possible we'll see Steam-style sales on older or bundled games on the Xbox One. It's not a sure thing, but killing used games is going to free up a ton of money for companies to try new ideas in terms of sales and pricing. The people who get innovative and take advantage of this structure will thrive. The rest are likely to slowly choke on the new economics of game development.
It needs to be made clear, if all the studio closings and constant lay-offs haven't made this explicit: The current economics of game development and sales are unsustainable. Games cost more to make, piracy is an issue, used-games are pushed over new, and players say the $US60 cost is too high. Microsoft's initiatives with the Xbox One may solve many of these issues, even if we grumble about it. These changes ultimately make the industry healthier.
I don't disagree with many of Kuchera's points — in fact, I've made some similar arguments about how a world without used games might not be so bad — and he's totally right that the current state of the video game industry is unsustainable. If Microsoft could facilitate a digital network as affordable and convenient as Steam, it will hurt far less when they rip away our right to borrow video games. And, hell, maybe that will happen.
But I can't help but feel as though used games, like piracy, have become the scapegoat of an industry desperate to explain away its dire financial straits. Big publishers like EA and Square Enix are not consistently struggling because customers go to GameStop for cheaper games. Activision is not closing down studios because we sell their products on eBay. THQ went bankrupt because they doubled down on uDraw and busted, not because people traded in too many copies of Homefront.
The video game industry is running headfirst into a wall and blaming the wind.
There's a post on NeoGAF, brought to my attention by Wired's Chris Kohler, that really stood out to me today. (Warning: it's a bit lewd.) Here's a relevant excerpt, in which GAFfer Burai sarcastically lists a number of missteps that used games are almost certainly not responsible for:
But no, it's all used games that did this. Used games made Capcom make some horrible design decisions on DmC and piss off the entire fanbase. Used games made Activision and EA flood the market with guitar games and accessories long after people stopped caring. Used games made Microsoft make a fourth Gears of War game that nobody asked for from a developer nobody cares about. Used games made Sony pump out another God of War game after they spent the past few years flooding the market with HD remasters. Used games made Sony make a Smash Bros clone with no appealing characters to help sell it. Used games made Bizarre Creations make James Bond and racing games no-one wanted. Used games make publishers shutter studios the moment the game they were working on goes gold, before they've even had a chance to sell a single new copy, let alone a used one.
I could go on. And on. And on. You could write a book about every single executive level screw-up this gen and yet these same people with their million dollar salaries and their shill puppets still try to insult our intelligence and blame used games and awful, entitled consumers for companies shutting and talented people losing their jobs.
We are watching an industry full of exceptionally smart people continue to make exceptionally stupid decisions. Job insecurity and volatile working conditions have become the norm. Video games are getting more and more expensive, and expectations are becoming less and less realistic. Games like Tomb Raider and Hitman Absolution sell millions of copies, yet Square Enix sees them as failures, because the world has gone insane.
Maybe it's inertia. No matter how many times we point out some of the biggest issues in gaming — bloated budgets, poor executive decisions, toxic reliance on Metacritic — nothing changes. Publishers blame used games and piracy, and they have convinced Microsoft (and perhaps Sony) to create a console that fights both used games and piracy, at the expense of our rights as customers. Yet publishers can't seem to take a step back and wonder whether they're even addressing the right problem. They're trying to fix a gunshot with a band-aid.
Let's say used games go away forever. Will studios really stop shutting down? Will publishers' profit margins really start going up? Or will the video game industry just find something else to blame?