A few thoughts on used games and online passes

I keep hearing the argument that used games are stealing from publishers and arguments from developers vilifying anyone who buys a used game as stealing bread from their table. Both have valid points, I won’t gloss over that.

Technically, as the argument goes, whenever you buy something used, you’re not putting any money back into a manufacturer’s/publisher’s/developer’s/author’s/etc. pocket. It’s not getting back there because the middle-man selling you that used item is only looking at getting a profit for themselves.

True, used games won’t pay back the people who deserve the money. At the same time, a used game can also be argued to lower the bar on accessibility especially if a person is leery about investing in a game they’ve never heard of before and for which a demo is unavailable. And they can make fans out of players that may have never chosen to take a chance on them in the first place.

Fact: not everyone may have the means or the inclination to spend $60 on a new game they have had little experience with. Even after reading reviews, or even playing the demo (which not every game gets), it’s still a lot of money to spend on something they may still not like despite loading up on others’ opinions.

It’s also not exclusively a “poor” thing. Some people are more than willing to spend money on buying a console and focusing on the genres they are safe with. They can also be a lot more leery about stepping out from what they know into uncharted territory.

Some might venture out and buy a used console, but then support it by buying new games afterwards. Not everyone’s situation is the same, though arguments like the above tend to whitewash everything about used games into the same predicament.

Used games can also serve to make fans out of players that wouldn’t normally jump into certain titles. Granted, not everyone will feel the same way, but because of this system, certain games probably have more fans than they would have without it.

The problem is that there seems to be an increasing “theft” tone being delivered into the debate. There is no white or black to this issue.

If a friend wants to sell me his copy of Ratchet & Clank for a good price or someone wants to send a copy of Skyrim to a good home on Ebay, I might bite. The same if they want to sell me a used book, movie, or music CD. The used market has always been around.

But it’s also no secret that game production often runs razor thin margins especially because of titanic development costs and that used games frequently compete against titles that are still at retail prices. It also doesn’t help that places like Gamestop brazenly set their used game prices close to that of new retail copies which further fuels the kind of ire that developers and publishers often point at to “stab in the heart”.

I’m singling out Gamestop because of how large a part their used games market plays into the fiscal reports. Their pricing model is also a clumsy application of the sort of psychology that explains why people are more receptive to seeing $9.99 as opposed to $10.00 at the local grocery. It’s particularly chilling to see people part with a relatively new title for $25 only to see it on a shelf later for $47.99.

More lately, however, the rise of the Online Pass has incited even more debate over this issue.

Online Passes are among the newest trends being adopted by big publishers to monetize the aftermarket. Basically, they reward new game purchases with everything that the game should come with. In most cases, online content. Buying a copy used usually means that the buyer will miss out on these little extras and have to purchase a separate pass in order to access them.

Multiplayer has traditionally been on a free ride for as long as many people remember, especially as it grew from being a PC-centric advantage to being something that consoles could actually do themselves.

It’s a big plus to many games, something that EA has recognized with their early efforts at restricting online play with their own pass program to try and reduce backend costs and force some kind of return. Since they have their own servers to run, it makes sense from that aspect. At the same time, it’s not really going to win any fans who are used to having MP as a part of the overall experience regardless of whether the title may be used or not. To many, especially those that remember having only to pay for Xbox Live on the original Xbox as well as their ISP costs, it’s a galling development.

This has also extended to extra content which players buying used or renting the game might miss out on because of one-use codes like the online passes.

On the other hand, it’s also being positioned as a reward system for those that buy new. The recent brouhaha over Amalur’s content lock has been argued as such by Curt Schilling, the head honcho for developer 38 Studios.

I’ll admit that the “reward” approach makes sense. It’s certainly less confrontational than “gouging” or “greed”, though players are also upset over the idea that content “on the disc” could be locked out because they bought it used. In other words, their purchase rights extend straight through the plastic to everything that should be there.

Or does it? We technically don’t “buy” the actual game – we buy a license to play the software that is on there. When we sell a game, we’re actually selling the license to someone else. At least that’s what the legalese implies on the software agreements in the back of most manuals nowadays.

So is as company like EA justified in restricting the purchase power of gamers that opt for used?

In their eyes, and based on the rules they set out for the sale of their game, they are. And I don’t blame them. Seen from another perspective, online passes for content such as what Amalur and Batman: Arkham City unlock in new copies makes sense – it’s free “DLC” that players would get otherwise without having to buy it extra on top of their new purchase.

The line that many people seem to be drawing this on, though, is on the multiplayer aspect that passes can block out. F.E.A.R. 3 does this along with Red Faction: Armageddon, though they offer a time limited trial before urging you to buy an online pass (which I think is still something of a garbage approach) to get through the toll booth set up by THQ.

At the same time, playing online also incurs its own costs. Patches, infrastructure management, and anything else related to the online portion of a game cost money to back up. As pointed out before, EA runs its own set of servers to run their online games so in their view, buying new helps to fund their support model. Buying used doesn’t though they are then tasked to deal with anyone jumping into their space.

And not every publisher insists on locking multiplayer down, only certain ones do and, it seems, only with specific titles. Syndicate, due out later this month, won’t have an online pass despite being published by EA, perhaps realizing how clumsy an approach like this is turning out to be.

So who is right and who is wrong? In a way, some gamers feel entitled to everything which avoids the obvious problems that publishers and developers have to deal with in trying to finance their next big hit or maintain the network.

At the same time, publishers and devs attacking the used game market as a whole seem by calling it “thievery” seem to be ignoring the conditions and benefits that it leaves open for gamers without deep pockets or who wouldn’t even step into a store or touch a certain genre without it – or the sales that follow.

It’s an imperfect method to getting a game into the hands of those that might not otherwise play it, but it also has the potential to bring in new fans. At the same time, the kind of pricing the Gamestop slaps on used copies especially so close to its initial release as a new game is doing no one any favors, but there are alternatives ranging form Ebay to your friend that has just finished a game you are interested in owning.

But theft? Hardly. No one in “stealing” anything – not the publishers with their online passes who are trying to find ways to monetize a market segment benefiting only certain players (like Gamestop), nor the players for buying used games. Injecting an emotionally charged word like that into the debate serves only to introduce a degree of ethical murkiness that libraries and movie rentals are apparently left out from when they compete with Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, or Amazon.

And surprise! Not every developer is a “bad guy”. The guy whose words I quoted above with “stab in the heart”? Those words were spoken by the creative Chris Avellone, the dev behind many fantastic WRPGs including Planescape and Fallout: New Vegas.

On the surface, his statement seemed leveled at the used market as a whole, but he went on to explain:

“When I say “market,” that’s too broad for what I mean, and I should clarify. I’ll refine that by saying that I wish people would be more careful of the market who they re-sell to, as some institutions I have no respect for and I don’t believe they deserve the re-sell business that are given to them – not only because of their business practices with regards to used titles, but other practices those institutions are engaged in that makes me no longer shop there. That said, the concept of selling used games is not to blame and people are free to sell to whoever they want. “

Instead of throwing stones at players, it might be better for both sides to take a step back from the rhetoric. Maybe then, some won’t be so quick to judge a developer or a customer that wants to stab either position in the heart.


One response to “A few thoughts on used games and online passes

  1. Pingback: From the pages of the past! Ads of yesteryear – More Used Games « World 1-1·

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