The next generation of gaming consoles might not play used games. Sounds terrible, right? Maybe not.
Over the past few months, rumors have suggested that both the next Xbox (codenamed Durango) and the next PlayStation (codenamed Orbis) will use technology that prevents customers from sharing and selling the games they play. Games might be tied to online accounts. Or maybe you'll have to buy codes to reactivate games that have already been played.
Whatever the method, it seems like game publishers are trying their damned hardest to fight off the wave of used game sales that have morphed retail chain GameStop into the industry's biggest middleman. And for good reason. When you buy a used game, your money goes to a secondhand source that is typically not one of the people who created or funded that game. Game makers want those sales back.
But how will this affect us as gamers? On first glance, it seems terrifying. We might not be able to resell our games? Aren't they our property? Why are publishers trying to snatch up our rights as consumers? Don't we deserve to borrow and share and treat games like they're books or DVDs, to be treated however we'd like?
Those are all good questions, but I don't think this is a black-and-white situation. While I certainly see the value in physical property that you can hold and own and borrow and bend, I also see value in the elimination of used games. Here are five reasons why.
Although I can't imagine physical discs will go away at any point soon, it's not unreasonable to predict that within the next two decades, the majority of new games you buy will be digital. We can already see it with the PlayStation Vita. For every Vita disc available in stores, there's an accompanying digital release (that is usually cheaper). Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 sell full retail games on their online networks, and of course, PC games are almost always available via digital distribution on Valve's Steam platform.
Digital games are cheaper for publishers to release and more convenient for gamers to buy. They might not have the reassuring tangibility of a disc or cartridge, but they certainly take up less space. Like music on iTunes, television on Hulu, and movies on Netflix, the future of gaming is inching closer and closer to the virtual realm every single day. Soon enough, the idea of "used games" might just be irrelevant.
Imagine a world where you can buy console games in cheap, giant batches, where indie gems are just as easy to snag as top-tier multi-million-dollar titles. You wouldn't have to worry about losing any of your games—they'd all be stored in one central location. You could see what your friends are playing and send new games as gifts at your discretion. You could even find and make your own mods.
Steam is convenient, easy to use, and, most importantly, fun. Its users don't have to worry about buying used games because sales are frequent and affordable. I would certainly welcome similar platforms on any game console, even if it meant the death of used games.
Right now, chains like GameStop can get away with giving you $25 or $30 for a recent game, slapping a white sticker on it, and selling it to other customers for $55. That's a nice chunk of change for the game-selling behemoth, which makes a healthy profit by selling used games. And, usually, you don't even save that much. It only takes a few weeks for sites like Amazon to start running special offers and massive discounts. You can sometimes even get your hands on brand new games for $40 or $30.
Without used games, GameStop will have to find a way to make up that bottom line. They'll have to find ways to convince us to head out to the store instead of downloading new games at home. That could very well mean more discounts, more special sales, and better deals for customers.
Speaking to GameIndustry International yesterday, Silicon Knights head Denis Dyack (best known for helming games like Eternal Darkness and Too Human) said he believes used games are making the new ones more expensive.
"I would argue that used games actually increase the cost of games," Dyack said. "There used to be something in games for 20 years called a tail, where say you have a game called Warcraft that would sell for 10 years. Because there are no used games, you could actually sell a game for a long time, and get recurring revenue for quite a while. Recurring revenue is very key."
If publishers earn more for each game, is it out of the question to expect them to lower their prices? Games may continue to grow more and more expensive to create, but if they no longer have to live or die based on their first few months in the market, publishers might be able to justify selling them at lower costs.
If no used games means more money in publishers' pockets, we'll reap the benefits. When publishers have to worry less about the bottom line, they have more liberty to take chances with independent games and studios. They won't have to put all of their eggs in the annual first-person shooter basket. They can spend more money on risky ideas.
No matter your opinion on the way publishers treat both developers and gamers—and the big ones have done some undeniably nasty things over the years—they still put out games we enjoy. It's not in our best interest to see them fail. And if used games are really as bad for the industry as game makers have claimed, why not let publishers show what they can do when borrowing is no longer a factor?
Maybe we'll see more interesting products. Maybe we'll get cheaper games. Whatever happens, it might not be so bad to let publishers have this victory. At least until they find something else to complain about.