Buy a game. Play it. Decide whether to keep it or sell it back. That's the current cycle of a gamer's gaming life. In the near future, that third choice may evaporate. You may soon never sell a game again.
Two events this week, one of them involving one of the most famous franchises in gaming history, the other involving one of the biggest gaming publishers, demonstrate the two approaches being taken by game makers in what one might call the War On Used Game Sales. Sega announced that its next major Sonic The Hedgehog game would be downloadable. EA inadvertently leaked that its early February single-player Dante's Inferno game would be supported with a multiplayer expansion available in April.
The Sega move made it likely that the next big Sonic game that gamers buy will be one gamers can never sell.
The EA move made it less likely that February purchases of Dante's Inferno would want to sell that game back any time before April.
The moves represent the two tactics of this war, though it's not right to call it a war. After all, what kind of war has the potential — emphasis on "potential" — to make its victims happy? Or well, to strip them of something many gamers believe is their right.
It's no secret that video game companies would prefer that their customers don't sell the games they buy back to stores. The gamer who spends $60 on a game and sells it back for $30 enables the game shop they sold it to to sell that same game again for $55. None of that second sale profit goes to game publishers.
Gaming retailers such as the giant GameStop like that used-game sales cycle. After all, a year ago GameStop was reported as taking in $2 billion per year — nearly half of its revenue — from the sale of used games. GameStop has argued to me and others that publishers should like it to, as gamers are more likely to buy new games with the help of that $30 they made selling that $60 game back. Publishers, through their actions, clearly don't buy it.
So, you're a publisher unhappy with this. How do you keep a gamer from selling a game back? One way is to keep your customers busy with the games they buy. Make the games longer. Offer them adventures that will last more than a weekend. Make the games more fun, experiences they'll never want to part with. Or try this: Keep adding to the game, week after week, month after month.
The additive approach appears to be the one favored by EA at the moment. Last fall, the company announced that people who bought role-playing game Dragon Age could expect to enjoy access to two years' worth of downloadable content, some of it that would cost money, of course. Those who liked Dragon Age and finished in by the end of November would therefore have reason to hang onto the game through not just December but all of 2010 and much of 2011. One imagines that EA believes gamers wouldn't want to sell a game like that back.
Dragon Age wasn't a one-off. In January, EA announced that Mass Effect 2, through a service called the Cerberus Network, which also promises free and paid future content expansions for the game, though not for any defined amount of time into the future. Again, EA's hope would appear to be that gamers wouldn't want to part with the game.
This is the approach close observers should have seen coming. In June, EA CEO John Riccitiello told Kotaku what kind of game company EA would be transforming into:
"In Fiscal 10 [EA's financial year, ending March 2010], we're still a packaged goods company that connects to a lot of online services and features. But it's still a packaged good at its core. I think while we'll have big packaged goods sales in Fiscal 11 and 12 - they'll be larger in this year and continue to grow - we're going to feel more like an online services company, with a disc as an enabler of service." [Emphasis added]
Imagine that: A disc game that keeps on giving. It sounds exactly like the approach for Dragon Age, for Mass Effect 2 and now even for Dante's Inferno.
That third game, Dante's, might be a surprise candidate for EA's disc-plus-more approach. But it's a fitting one, given the fate of another game made by the same internal EA studio behind Dante's, Visceral Games. Visceral's first game, Dead Space, was released in 2008 to critical acclaim and sales that clearly could have been better. How much better? Former Visceral Games executive producer Glen Schofield revealed the missed sales on an EA podcast quoted last year on Kotaku:
We looked at how many we sold. We also looked at - we didn't have online which is one of the big features that you need to have to kind of keep it in the house a little bit longer these days. But then we also did studies on sort of how many unique users there were on the PSN network and Xbox Live. And realized, you know what, there's over three million people that have played Dead Space. Maybe we've only sold 1.5 million or whatever the number is. But there's something there because that means that, ok, there were a lot of used sales. So there's a lot of people when I go out and talk to [them]… it seems that everybody has played it or heard about it or whatever. [Emphasis added]
What Schofield was saying then was that copies of his team's game were leaving "the house," getting sold back to shops and being re-sold by those shops. The same copies of Dead Space were passed around until, by his calculations, as many as twice as many people played the game than paid EA to do so. It's no wonder that EA would want Dante's Inferno purchasers hang onto their games at least for a few months.
There are other ways to keep a gamer from wanting to sell a game back, which could more positively be defined as ways to ensure a gamer wants to keep their games. Multiplayer modes are important for that, ensuring that players of, say, Activision's Modern Warfare 2 would want to hang onto a game that can feel different enough session after session. That's a classic hook for keeping a gamer attached. Fewer games lack such hooks. Sometimes the lure is a multiplayer mode added to a single-player formula, as is the case with next week's BioShock 2. Sometimes that lure is the promise of future downloadable content, as with next month's single-player Heavy Rain.
None of the above methods, all designed to make gamers want to keep their games, appear to be a problem for gamers. They don't block the sale of a game back to the shop. They just make it less likely that you would want to. That's the Won't Sell approach.
But then there's other tactic that is also increasingly popular with game publishers, one celebrated not just by Sega but by EA and many more. That's the shift toward selling customers more of their games digitally.
The digital sale of games has been championed by future-looking gamers and game-makers alike. It promises a graduation of gaming technology to the shelf-saving convenience of MP3 music libraries and eBook readers. It matches the transition of cherished TV and movie programming, which consumers went from possessing on clunky VHS tape form to sleeker DVD disc form to, increasingly, purely digital form. Yet to have all of one's games digital would be to have all of one's games in unsellable form.
Will gamers who want to keep the newly-announced Sonic 4 forever, never selling it to a gaming shop or in a garage sale? Better hope so, because none of the gaming platforms that will run the game, Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and WiiWare allow a customer to sell back their games. The same is true for any games downloaded through the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. These are the games you can't sell and there will be more of them. Just yesterday, publisher THQ announced that it was turning two of its studios into creators of purely digital games. Capcom and Konami have found success with the release of new downloadable games, revivals and sequels of classics such as Mega Man and Castlevania, none of which consumers can sell back.
The gamer-won't-sell and gamer-can't-sell approaches to publishing games both have their benefits. The first approach expands games, makes them last longer even as it raises suspicions about what is being withheld from a game only to be released later. The second approach saves gamers gas or subway fare, allows access to games more swiftly and keeps shelves at home clear for houseplants and framed pictures of loved ones.
Both approaches might tick some gamers off and both approaches appear to promise pain for the game shops that trade in used games. They also may make life more difficult for those gamers who depend on discounted, used-game prices.
Which approach will become the standard for gaming? It's hard to say, as early 2010 shows both the can't-sell and won't-sell approaches gaining publisher popularity.
Of course there's a third way to handle this, a surefire technique to keep gamers from selling their games back: Make the games free.