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Shamus Buys Used Games

Shamus Young over at The Escapist (of Shamus Plays LOTRO and now Shamus Plays Champions Online fame) has weighed in on the THQ-Penny Arcade-The Internet discussion on used games.

He agrees that buying used is "not cheating" (thanks Shamus for joining Tycho in begrudging us our legal rights, we appreciate it) but still has a few bones to pick. Personally I think many of those who spend a lot of time writing about games on the Internet, and consequently end up spending plenty of time interacting with game developers, are speaking more from a sense of sympathy with individuals and studios crying out they are in financial dire straits than any well-reasoned position on the matter... but I digress.

I think this situation is shaped by three simple facts:

  • Developers and publishers want to earn a living.
  • Gamers, like any consumers, want the most value for their dollar.
  • GameStop has taken advantage of the fact that used games are - in a gameplay sense - indistinguishable from new copies.

Ledesma is talking about a real problem. An unknown (but obviously large) portion of the money being spent on games is ending up in the hands of retailers instead of going to where it can fund more games. But the language he's used to describe the problem is really unfortunate.

A few points in response:

"Unfortunate" is an understatement. There's a word for what the concept of "cheating" implies within a commercial transaction, and it's "theft" (not to be confused with "piracy" which is something else again). So, yes, I suppose it is "unfortunate" that in defense of revenue that Ledesma's company is in no way entitled to, he felt it necessary to accuse used game buyers of theft.

It's interesting how point #1 refers to the suppliers, and point #2 refers to consumers, and point #3 refers to... GameStop. By name. GameStop stands in this debate for the entire body of resellers, new and used. They are described pejoratively as "taking advantage" of the fact that, like movies, books and music, used is just as good as new in video games.

Developers, oddly enough, only want to earn a living. They are not described as "taking advantage" of the fact that many people want to play video games. In this way, the wording is already slanted against resellers and towards producers. There's nothing new about this: resentment against merchants and traders, as opposed to craftsman an artisans, is centuries old. Old enough that anyone in this day and age practicing it ought to be aware when it creeps into the text.

Consumers, oddly, "like any consumers" only want best value for their dollars. Why aren't they described as "taking advantage" of the fact that resellers like GameStop get much less margin on new games sales compared to what they can make on used games sales?

These descriptions are all functionally equivalent. It's just odd that the actions of the first two parties were described positively and the third was described negatively.

I'm not "cheating" a manufacturer when I buy a used television, car, dishwasher, or whatever. People buy and trade used music and movies all the time. (Although those media producers would love to put a stop to it as well.) Bob has purchased something he doesn't want anymore. I want it. I give him money, he gives me the thing. We're both better off and neither of us "cheated" the guy who made the thing, because that guy has already been paid.

Thanks again for recognizing the first sale doctrine without mentioning it. There is no cheating here, no theft. What we do have is a growing sense of entitlement on the part of developers who think the market owes them a living. It doesn't. If they cannot make enough through the distribution channels available to them to cover the costs of making their products they should either reduce costs, increase prices, or both. They are not entitled to a slice of the used game market until they have contracts in place to provide that, and there is no legal mechanism for forcing resellers to enter into such agreements if it is not also in their best interests.

But videogames are in a uniquely bad position. Like movies and music (and unlike books and cars) a used game is indistinguishable from a new one. (Provided you don't damage the disc, obviously.) At the same time, videogames are really crazy expensive. I don't bother with used movies and music because it's generally not worth the hassle to save 10 percent of the purchase price on a $10 item. But when the item is six times that amount? Yeah. I'll take whatever savings I can get.

Actually, no, videogames are NOT in a uniquely bad position, and every fact in the paragraph underscores this point. Videogames are in the same position as movies and music-- and books. You buy a book for its content, not for the media itself-- just like movies, music and games. Just like those products, either the media is in good enough condition to be sellable, or it isn't. The only difference is that probably a smaller percentage of used game discs are sellable, compared to books, because when a game disc suffers damage that is noticeable, the entire product is worthless. A book with some pages missing or damaged might well sell at an increased discount, but might still be sold.

About EA's Project Ten Dollar, to bundle free DLC with new games that used game buyers can buy separately:

Note the only person who isn't punished by this system: GameStop. Nice one.

Yup. I noted that yesterday. PTD affects used game buyers, but not used game sellers-- not the resellers, and not the users who bought the game new and then sold it or traded it in. Rather like DRM, it inconveniences legitimate purchasers and has no effect on others.

The thing that movies have that games don't is a graduated pricing system that lets people pay according to how much they care about a given title. If you're anticipating a film, you can pay top-dollar to see a single showing in the theater. Or you can wait a couple of months, pay a bit less, and see it at the cheap theater. Or you can wait until it comes out on DVD and watch it until you go blind. Or you can wait until the DVD gets marked down. Or you can wait until the movie appears on cable. The less you care, the longer you wait and the less you pay. Games should have been doing this as a matter of standard procedure years ago.

This is also wrong. Games, like any other good, does have a graduated pricing system: it's called patience.

I spend a lot of time out of the US without easy access to gaming stores. I put six titles into an Amazon.com cart a few months ago. Most of the games were new releases near the $60 price-- between $55 and $60.

I only pulled the trigger on the transaction earlier this week, and by that time only one title was still in that range. Most had fallen to $45, $35, or even $25. Only one was still over $55. All are "new" purchases. I got the benefit of the graduated pricing system for games because I didn't need to buy games immediately after release. So I can get a discount for caring less.

The existence of special and limited editions with extras also means that if I care more about a given title, I can pay more for it and get more.

No first-run theaters for games? There used to be. They were called arcades. If developers don't make games for arcade cabinets anymore it's because it's not a viable business model. If and when theaters cease to be a viable business model, they'll close, and that won't mean movie studios are entitled to a slice of used games, or that used game buyers should somehow be proactively looking for a way to give more money to developers.

No cable channels for video games? I guess developers should invest in cloud gaming providers. I'm not sure that's a viable business model either.

Case in point: Modern Warfare 2 is one of the most popular videogames in history. It sold really well. I'm not really interested in it, though. Not my thing. But if I saw it on the shelf for $10 I might let it fall into my cart just to see what the fuss was about. What the heck, right? It's ten bucks. But the game is ten months old and is still retailing for five times that. In that same span of time, the movie Avatar went from theater blockbuster to weekend rental. In another year, Avatar might appear somewhere on premium cable for "free" and end up in the DVD bargain bin for $9. And a year from now, new copies of Modern Warfare 2 will still be fifty bucks.

I'm not sure I see any particular reason that new game prices should decrease at the same rate as films. As pointed out, films have more competing channels of distribution, and start out costing less than games anyway.

Even so, I think the central premise is wrong. Game prices do fall. Halo 3 was also a pretty popular game, and it sells new for between $15 and $30 now. COD4 was pretty big, and sells new for $20. Gears of War 1 was a pretty good game. New price today, according to Google? $16. Is there any particular reason why it has to fall to $10? A drop to $10 represents a much bigger percentage discount on the cost of a $60 game than it does on the cost of a $30 DVD. That game prices do not fall that far, or take longer to fall that far, is reflective of different channel distribution and different initial pricing, not some unique property of video games as a product that consumers must seek to compensate for in order to maintain the viability of game developers, which is the undercurrent that moves this entire debate.

Gamers who buy used aren't "cheating" you. They just don't want to pay that much. There is no reason to not do business with these people once you've made your money from the core fans.

Or you can just keep whining for gamers to pay extra in a bad economy when a cheaper alternative is readily available, while at the same time haranguing them with DRM and micro-transactions. I'm sure you can re-shape the long-understood consumer behavior of the average human being if you can just make them feel guilty enough.

Sarcasm off.

I'm not sure why, but Shamus is essentially arguing that the blame here lies on the developers and publishers, and yet has gone to great lengths to disparage GameStop and bolster the argument that games are somehow special, and the rules of the market shouldn't apply to them the way they apply to other, similar kinds of goods.