Thursday, January 26, 2012
The New Xbox To Restrict Used Games? It Could Happen
An interesting article on the Wired magazine website came to my attention today, and it presents an interesting topic of discussion among gamers. For a while now, it's been known that the gaming industry, namely the developers and the publishers, absolutely despises the used game market. The hate it with a passion and have taken steps to limit content to first-time buyers or people willing to pay extra for a DLC code if they purchase the game second-hand. Opinion is divided on whether or not this is a good move, however there is speculation now that the next generation of the Xbox console will restrict, if not totally lock-out, used games from the console. Rather than discuss the article in detail (you can read it here), I will simply weight in with my thoughts on the matter.
If the rumors turn out to be true, the new Xbox (or "Xbox 720" as some are calling it) will either require games to have one-time use DLC codes to access the full game, or they may circumvent the physical media by releasing full games as digital downloads that are only usable on one console. The Wired article points out that the new Playstation Vita has already adopted this practice and is offering all games in both physical cards and lower-priced digital downloads. The Xbox Live service currently offers a selection of games exclusively online though the Xbox Live Arcade, with full retail games coming up later on it's "Games On Demand" service. Given the prevailing desire on the part of consumers to go all digital, as they have with music and movies, it is not a far leap of the imagination that the same will apply to video games. While it is unlikely that physical game media will die out altogether, the shift of focus to downloading may prove to be a win-win for the game developers and Microsoft. Lower overhead, faster access for gamers and money that would have otherwise gone to used game retailers lining their coffers. For gamers, this is a dubious proposition.
As a gamer myself, the ability to purchase video games used means that I can purchase more games and save some money. Like many people, spending $60 on every new release is not something that I can afford to do, so the used game retailers fill this void nicely. There are also games that go out of print or become rare, so buying them used is often the only option available. By having the games move to digital format, we would be limited to what is available online and shopping around would not be an option. We have had no choice but to accept that content will be held back via online passes and DLC codes, however restricting an entire game pretty much puts us at the mercy of Microsoft and the game publishers.
Once I read the article, I did an informal survey of my Twitter followers (follow me here) and found opinions to be mixed. One one hand, some people are adamantly against it and view it as Microsoft "shooting themselves in the foot" and "screwing over gamers". Others concede that the used game market brings in millions and developers should be entitled to some of it, and some are indifferent because they don't purchase used games. From my perspective, I get it as a capitalist, but I bemoan it as a gamer. Every used game was purchased at full retail at some point, therefore the publisher and developer received the money they are entitled to for the sale of that game, as well as any subsequent DLC that is purchased. The used game market represents potential income that they are only just starting to tap into. Musicians don't get royalties from used music, authors don't get royalties from used books, and car companies don't get royalties from used car sales. You could argue that used game sales are a different matter because of the money they bring it, but I think the same principles still apply.
On the side of being a capitalist, I understand why they are doing it. This is a case where the game developers found a way to hold back content for those who either buy new or are willing to pay extra. If Stephen King held back the last few chapters of his new book and limited it to only those who purchased it from the Kindle shop, I imagine people would be far less tolerant. The game companies will have you believe that used game sales "cheat" their bottom line and they are suffering big losses, however the losses come from money they could be making instead of projected revenue they have lost. As the Wired article also pointed out, used games are often sold or traded-in to fund the purchase of new games, so the used game market does have an oblique benefit in the grand scheme of things. Having said all that, game companies exist to make money and this is their way of making more. As a business model, this is hardly unique and I can't completely fault them for it.
So the big question is whether or not these rumors about the next Xbox console are true. It's way too early to tell and Microsoft has a policy against commenting on rumors and speculation. Based on the steps already taken by the gaming industry to curb used game sales, it is definitely possible, however the risk of jilting gamers in the process is strong. Adding to the potential risk of such a movie is whether or not the competition follows suit. If Microsoft adopts this policy on the new Xbox but Sony does not with the next Playstation, the scales of consumer confidence can radically tip in one direction. Also of interest will be the response from retailers like Gamestop who will no doubt be affected. Love them or hate them, Gamestop is a main distribution stream for both used and new video games, so drawing their ire is a risky proposition. Either way, these are all "what if" scenarios at this point. More information that confirms or denies this news will only come with time.