One man’s trash is another man’s game

Used game sales have always been a hot topic item in the gaming industry. As games get more expensive to produce and distribute, it just seems to get hotter. Couple that with the fact that publishers are trying to get a piece of the used game market, by offering online passes that are free for new game buyers but cost used game buyers, and you get the conditions for a riot within the consumer base. The latest episode of Feedback on G4tv.com centered on this issue, and it got me thinking.

The Problem: A game is developed, published and released to the general public. Gamer A buys the new game, but, because it only has a robust single player experience, Gamer A completes the game and takes their used copy to a retailer, trading the game in for either store credit or cold hard cash. Gamer B isn’t willing/able to purchase said game at the $60 price tag, so they go to the used game retailer and purchase it for a reduced cost. What is happening now is that the publishers are charging an additional $10-15 dollars for an “online pass,” which locks some sort of content behind a digital barrier to anyone who didn’t buy the game at full price. Most typically, the locked content is online functionality, such as multiplayer, but in the case of our example, it is just a collection of weapon skins, perhaps a challenge map of some sort, and a batch of DLC that enhances the game.

As a real-life example, consider both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3, as I feel they are respectively good and bad examples of how the publishers are trying to tap into the used game market. Anyone who purchased a brand new copy of ME2 received an access code to the Cerberus Network (online pass), which acted as a gateway for downloadable content. The content was a bonus mission, some armor and weapon sets and a new companion character with associated quest.

Although this game was complete without the bonus content, this was an enjoyable perk for people who bought new, or even purchased the network pass if they were invested in the game. Without this extra content, no player would feel their Mass Effect experience had suffered – but everyone is attracted to the concept of free stuff, even if it’s only a perception of free stuff.

Looking at Mass Effect 3, I was personally disappointed by the lack of bonus content when I opened my brand new copy of the game. Those with the extra cash and the foresight to have ordered the limited edition received a large batch of goodies, including day-one DLC access to a bonus companion character and associated quest. The $60 version of the game, however, gave you no goodies for buying new, but came with a built-in deterrent to buy the game used: its online pass.

This online pass wasn’t a network for DLC, it was access to the multiplayer, which players were told through the game’s marketing that, in order to get the very best possible ending, they needed to play. It’s easy to see how that might thoroughly annoy a lot of consumers: not only do you get no reward for showing brand loyalty, you are then penalized if you’re not able or willing to pay $60 for a new copy of the game.

A good example of how used games can help encourage would be thus:

Gamer A comes into a used game retailer looking for a cheap game to fill the time between their favorite franchise releases. They’re just looking to fill some time and not willing to spend full price on a title they are unsure of. Gamer A buys a game and discovers that, actually, they kind of love it. It isn’t perfect, but it has great qualities and they want more when another title or iteration of the franchise comes out.

Gamer A knows they want to own this next iteration the day it comes out and will happily pay full price for it. The developer and publisher have just earned a loyal fan who will support them and the products they produce. Used games are a great market for capturing the imagination of a consumer, as the risk is relatively low, but could potentially lead to great gains for the publisher and the gamer, should a franchise be in the cards. If the gamer wasn’t blown away by the game, the publisher has lost nothing, as that gamer would never bought the title new in the first place.

As an artist, I understand how important it is for someone in the creative industries to be paid for the work they’ve put in, but, as a consumer I am more inclined to support a brand if my loyalty is rewarded. I don’t mean that to say I want a massive batch of content that took considerable time to produce, but I wouldn’t hate a couple of optional armors and maybe a free gun or two.

I wholeheartedly feel that publishers and developers should be paid for the work they’ve done; after all, they made a game that I will spend hours, weeks or months playing. On the same note, there are secondary (used) markets in just about every entertainment medium and they often support and bolster the primary release market. Publishers need to work with retail outlets, such as Game Stop, to come up with a method of used game sales that benefits everyone, without punishing the consumer. Games are art, but they’re also a commodity – and in fairly depressing economic times, most people need to mind their nickels and dimes.

The Solution(s): Company A releases their brand new AAA title bundled with an online pass that offers a bonus of some sort, be it cosmetic or gameplay enhancing (such as new character skins or a bonus mission). If the game is multiplayer, it includes a bonus map and weapon pack. Gamer A, who buys the game brand new, receives all of this content at no extra charge and have a great time with the extra features.

Gamer B can purchase the game used, but, because they haven’t bought it new, doesn’t get access to any of that content for free. They can either opt to pay for it as DLC or purchase an online pass, which gives it to them for around $10. If Gamer B opts not to buy the pass, they still have access to a great game and may potentially look forward to the next iteration of the franchise or the next game from this developer/publisher and will more than likely pay for an online pass with the next game, so as to get the goodies Gamer A received for buying this one new.

The publisher has now made their profit from the brand new copy sold, and will keep Gamer A as a loyal fan of the franchise/series/publisher/developer who will almost certainly buy any of the DLC released later.

If Gamer B loves the game, they will then purchase the online pass, which will be roughly $10, and subsequent DLC, adding up to another $20 to $30 for the publisher, the same amount they would have spent for a brand new game. If Gamer B didn’t love the game, they will pay nothing more than the amount they bought the used copy for, and the publisher is out nothing. They made their money when it was bought brand new and it would be no different to the consumer keeping the title for themselves and not selling it on.

The only other solution I can think of is for publishers to lower the cost of their games on the outset, reducing it to perhaps $40, thereby making the initial cost threshold less of a risk. Without knowing the exact nature of costs involved with creation, distribution, marketing and shipping of this type of physical media, on top of development, I have no additional insight into how publishers might lower their costs, thereby nullifying the used market for games.

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