Who’s using who?

With Amazon.com and Toys R Us recently announcing they are to enter the used game market, the debate about trade-ins has one again arisen, this time with many industry professionals joining the argument.

The problem is this: when a game is sold brand new, some of the money you spend is given to the people who made it. When a title is sold used, all of the money you spend goes to the shop. Games have always been sold second-hand but recently problems have arisen because retailers began offering incentives to make people trade-back games within the first week of release. These copies are then given a higher priority over brand new ones, as the shop will make more profits from them.

Both sides have a valid point as to why they feel they are in the right. Developers and publishers pay for the majority of a game’s advertising, which in turn attracts people into the game stores, so they believe they deserve a cut of the money. Retailers argue, however, that they simply offer the customer a choice for better value. It may be interesting to debate the rights and wrongs if you work in either one of these industries, but should the average gamer really care? Well actually yes, as the way games are produced, designed and sold is about to change because of how seriously the issue is being taken.

Many have predicted the death of brick and mortar game stores with the next generation of consoles, where full game downloads may become a reality. Until then it seems that download codes could be the industry’s answer. One thing you may have noticed recently is the rise in pre-order bonuses. Gears of War 2 for example gave free levels to people who bought the game on release day; these came in the form of a one-time redeemable code. What this means is that the used version of the game will effectively have less content, reducing its appeal. Codes that give in-game advantages may be the next step in this strategy. Imagine if your second-hand copy of Call of Duty came without the ability to use certain weapons online, or your engine size in Gran Turismo was capped unless you pre-ordered the game. These things could then be unlocked after several months for everyone, allowing the used market still to exist, but not inside a games launch window.

Other industries, such as films and automobiles, also have a used market but neither seems to have quite the same issue with it affecting the sales of newly launched products. This is down to pricing and could be something the games industry may need to address. DVDs cost approximately £12 and often do not seem worth trading in for their low cash return. Cars on the other hand are the opposite; their cost is so high that selling back a car within the first week of release would lose you a large amount of cash. Games sit at an inconvenient price level as they are neither too cheap nor too expensive. One way to change this is to release games at a lower RRP. This can be budgeted for by producing shorter games and then charging for extra DLC. With extra content being released over time there is also more reason to keep hold of a title instead of trading it in. Burnout is one title that has relied heavily on its free and paid DLC to cover the cost of its cheaper launch price, and more than a year on it still has a very active audience who have held on to the title and reaped the rewards.

The problem is that without the broadband speeds in place to provide full game downloads, publishers must walk a fine line between curbing used game sales and upsetting their retail partners. More importantly though, they must be sure any changes they do make respect the customer and their positive relationship with second-hand titles. After all, without the support of their customers (and their money) it won’t matter what they do.