Secondhand games aren’t the problem.
Last week, we brought you a fascinating (and contentious) argument that suggested the secondhand market for videogames was killing our hobby. We're revisiting the conversation this week with a quite different look at the same issue, courtesy of resident intellectual Conrad Reyners. As with Aylon's article, Conrad's views (below) do not necessarily represent those of NZGamer.com.
Secondhand games aren’t killing the industry. In fact, it's quite the contrary - they are helping it grow.
Last week, Aylon published a piece that vented his frustrations with secondhand games and the gamers who buy them. I could see where he was coming from; having a market in secondhand titles does remove revenue from the bottom line of major developers. But what concerns me with that line of reasoning is the lack of analysis about why there is a market in secondhand games at all, and what benefits (as well as problems) that market might create.
Perhaps a little historical context is appropriate. If it wasn't for secondhand games, there probably wouldn’t be a thriving video games industry today. That might sound like a hyperbolic statement, but it's not.
Gamers who are a little longer in the tooth will remember the days of tradeable cassettes and floppy disks. In its earliest days, gaming was a niche hobby dominated mostly by enthusiasts. Titles like Doom, Rise of the Triad, or Quake were offered as shareware, or simply traded amongst friends. Prior to that, in the primordial 1980s, early console titles were mailed between fans both within countries and around the world. Even before the Internet, gamers were trading their experiences with each other.
This culture of sharing and exchange was absolutely vital to making gaming “mainstream”. It opened up the gaming experience to a wider number of consumers, and meant that more and more people could take part in its simple pleasures. Second, third, or even fourth-hand titles made this happen.
But those are the old days, what about now? Sure, a robust market in secondhand games might have lit the flame that set the industry alight, but do they still have relevance?
Yes. They do. And here’s why.
The business environment for gaming is undergoing a revolution. Old business models, that equate sales at stores to market success, are rapidly losing their importance.
I can see why developers might take Aylon’s side and bemoan profits going to EB Games and not to their bottom line - but to be honest, that kind of griping is symptomatic of companies that don’t understand the structural shift taking place in the way games are delivered to consumers.
Games are now being sold to consumers as an ongoing experience, one that can be continually updated and improved on. This is an approach that is being used for both the blockbuster online titles, and the more humble singleplayer experience. What this means is that the actual sale of games themselves is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
Take World of Tanks for example. A title that is fun, addictive, and has a pretty decent amount of development thrust into it. And it's totally free. Why? Because compulsive gamers spend thousands and thousands of dollars each month buying addons, items and better, faster tanks.
That kind of model is the way of the future. Steam, and the steam library is halfway there - but before long most titles will do away with money upfront, and create far more subtle (and lucrative) ways of taking your cash.
In the face of all that, who can blame gamers for picking up a secondhand title, especially when the developers that have their head’s screwed on know that there’s no harm done.
In fact, entrepreneurial developers should be encouraging resale - for the simple fact that it exposes more people to your product. This makes great business sense for two reasons. First, in a market where money is made through micro-payments and licencing, rather than through cash-up front, the more people with your title the better. Second, the more people experiencing your game, the greater your brand power and the larger your market share becomes.
Have a think about it. Do you really think that Blizzard would be the same without World of Warcraft? Not only has it brought in mountains of gold, it has also improved the reputation of the company. And that matters. When StarCraft 2 was delayed for the umpteenth time, the gaming press didn't savage the creative team - instead, they sagely nodded their heads and held their tongues, because they knew the wait would be worth it.
And it was.
That kind of feedback loop is a lucrative consequence of brand power and reputation. There’s only one way to get that - and that's having more and more people playing your games.
The inevitable consequence of this line of thought is that games will become “google-ised”. Whether or not something is secondhand may quickly become irrelevant. The future of gaming may become awash with free digital titles that you pay through the nose to pimp out. Whether or not that's a good thing is a debate for another day, but it's a debate that leaves the angst over secondhand purchasing gasping in the dust.
But we aren’t there yet. Moving to a micro-payment model runs contrary to the hard-nosed accounting of many gaming executives. They still see units sold as the yardstick for financial success. But even in light of that, there are a raft of reasons for traditional business models to support secondhand purchases.
The first is the most obvious. Gamers that purchase their games secondhand are still buying games. Gamers actually paying for things is something we should support. If in doubt, just ask Kim Dotcom. Sure, the profits don't go directly to the developer, and the retailer takes a huge cut - but it's much more likely that a gamer who buys his or her tier 2 titles secondhand is doing so because they are pinching pennies for that one big release they are holding out for.
To lump these gamers in with pirates, torrenters, and script kiddies is unfair. It alienates a segment of the gaming customer base that is still making an effort, and that's something we should fight hard against.
Moreover, not every gamer is awash with cash. Games are expensive - and some more than others. Colour me socialist, but my idea of the gaming community is still rooted in that egalitarian idea of sharing, communicating, and playing - together. The more people in that mix the better. And if that means that some gamers have to wait a month or so to get a title for $10 less, then so be it. If you are buying ten games a year at a ten dollar discount, thats a hundred dubloons you’ve got spare. That’s one more title you can afford that year. That's not just one more game, its also one more community member, one more purchaser and - most importantly - one more gamer to play with.
Imagine Counter-strike, or the Battlefield series, without secondhand gamers. They’d have died instantly. I don't want that, ever.
At the end of the day there is a practical reality. Sure, secondhand games siphon funds off developers. But such a barefaced economic calculation ignores the value that secondhand gamers bring when they use those very games they’ve bought. Perhaps that's the real problem at the heart of this debate - the way the industry values its products remains rudimentary.
What we need to do is reassess why that’s the case, come up with a solution and put it into practice. Secondhand gamers aren't the problem, and making them one is going to get us nowhere.