Buying Used = Stealing?

I’ve noticed an awful lot of chatter recently in video game forums and blog comments that consists of posters / commentators trying to equate buying used video games with piracy.

The argument, as I understand it, is basically that, since buying a used game generates zero revenue for the game publisher, it’s functionally the same as if you’d downloaded the game.

Actually, it’s even worse than that, it continues, because in addition to stealing revenue from the publisher, you’ve given revenue to a used game store – generally, Gamestop – who are now making money from the publisher’s hard work in producing the game, while assuming none of the costs of development.

It’s this chain of logic that’s lead to Electronic Art’s “Project Ten Dollar”, where they are planning to release new games with a code in the box to get some piece or another of DLC, and selling the same DLC online for $10.  Basically, they’re trying to make used games less attractive to buy, but also trying to get some cash out of people who stubbornly persist in buying used.

I don’t get into these conversations online, because I suspect that half the people arguing that buying used = stealing are actually astroturfing for publishers, and the other half are well meaning people who, for some reason, feel the need to stand up for the rights of giant publishing corporations.

So, instead of getting into a conversation, I’m going to put up an opinion post here, where I can squelch any dissent.

I’ll start by saying that I see the publisher’s point.  They’ve put their hearts & souls (OK, they’ve put the personal health and social lives of their worker drones) into publishing games, and they spend an awful lot of money up front with the hopes of recouping the money when the game comes out.

And, it’s kind of undeniable that the existence of the second hand market hurts their sales somewhat.

The thing is, though, if there were no second hand market, things would probably be considerably worse.

Let’s start with one unfortunate truth: No form of DRM is going to stop piracy.  I can only remember two video games – ever – that posed a serious issue to software crackers.  One was Bounty Bob Strikes Back, on the Atari 5200, and the other was Dungeon Master, which was on the Atari ST.  Neither one was cracked for years after their release.

That’s two games in 30+ years of video game releases.  Odds are, if you put out a game, it’s going to be cracked and put up on torrent sites.

In a theoretical world with no used game market, consumers would have two choices: Buy games at full price, or pirate them. It’d be better if they paid full price for everything, of course, but basic economics tells us that a rational consumer will always seek to get something as cheaply as possible.

What game companies need, in order to stay in business, are slightly irrational consumers.  This actually applies to any industry whose product can be pirated easily – you need consumers who are willing to act in a way that serves the interests of the producer, not the consumer.

Part of this is social.  It’s less acceptable, these days, to talk about piracy.  Most gaming forums don’t permit discussion of the topic.

Part of it is releasing special editions, with doohickies and geegaws that can’t be digitally replicated.  Aksys’s upcoming Agarest Wars release is one example – you may be able to pirate the game, but you can’t torrent a squishy mouse pad or pillow case.

Most of it, though, is convincing consumers that games have value and therefore it is Correct and Appropriate to exchange currency for them.

If you get someone, who would otherwise not buy your game, to buy it because it has a squishy mouse pad, you’ve proved that the consumer believes that squishy mouse pads have value, not necessarily that the game does, and that they are willing to exchange currency for the experience of resting their wrists on foam jubblies.

This is something different, and not entirely desirable.  It may get you a short-term positive effect, but if Special Premium Collectors Editions become the norm, they lose their cachet.  If every game released comes with a squishy mouse pad, suddenly it’s hard to stand out from the crowd, and long-term, you’re putting out tons of squishy mouse pads to the point where people have gotten bored of them and their perceived value drops to the point where they’re no longer worth exchanging currency for.

The trick, then, for long term profitability, is to encourage the Games = Worth Buying mindset.

Used games do this.  A consumer buying a $17.99 used copy of Shooter Guy II  isn’t putting any money into a publisher’s bank account, this is true – but, they’re recognizing that the entertainment experience they’re about to get from Shooter Guy II is worth SOMETHING, in this case $17.99.

This is an important mental step, because it opens the consumer’s mind to the idea that games are worth spending money on, and from there it’s a reasonably slippery slope to them spending $60 on Shooter Guy III when it comes out because they loved the hell out of Shooter Guy II and can’t wait for Shooter Guy III to show up in the used bin.  In other words, they go from one slightly irrational decision – spending money on something they COULD get for free – to an even more irrational decision: spending MORE money on something because they want it NOW.

On the other hand, a guy who pirates Shooter Guy II hasn’t ever made the mental step.  To them, Shooter Guy II had no value, so why should they spend money on Shooter Guy III?

And that’s the critical difference that separates people who buy used games from people who just download everything:  We’re a little irrational.  Encourage this.  Don’t do anything to make us change our minds.  🙂

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