Is Microsoft Out To Kill The Used Game Market?

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Every year in gaming seems to have a theme, a grand prediction for the imminent future that may or may not come true, but becomes the preoccupation of column inches and forum comments everywhere. Last year it was 3D, which was apparently going to change everything, and this year it’s downloadable versus boxed copy games. If you believe the hype, the age of the boxed game is coming to an end, for now is the age of download.

So it may well be time to take a misty-eyed look at the retail shelf in your local game shop because it could be about to go the way of the dodo. Well, that’s what this year’s hot topic will have us believe. I didn’t think anything of it until I heard the news, a.k.a rumour, that the pending Xbox 720 may block used games from playing. And if you don’t think the two things are connected, you need to think again.

Last month, Kotaku claimed an industry source had said that the Microsoft’s next console may not play used games. If this really does come to pass, the launch of Xbox 720 will mark a huge shift for consumers and a mighty clout for high street game retailers, who make a fair share of their profits from used games.

If you think about it, the signs are already there. Publishers are holding back content that needs to be downloaded via Xbox Live – Batman Arkham City, I’m looking at you and Catwoman. To block used games, all Microsoft has to do is ensure single ownership and tie a game to a console via its Xbox Live account. Ergo, the next logical step is to move to download only games, giving Microsoft and the publishers full control of the product.

Many developers have come out in favour of the prospect and who can blame them, in a world where games cost more and more to make and seem deliver less in the way of profit. As gamers, we love this industry and we want to see it thrive. However, taking away consumer choice doesn’t seem to be the best way to go about it. And then there’s that nagging doubt about the whole used games threatening the industry claim. Are second hand books seen as a major issue for publishers or used cars for motor manufacturers? The list goes on. What makes games unique in this respect?

One argument in favour of downloadable games comes down to simple economics. "It’s cheaper for publishers" they say and then they add, "we can reach a wider audience for no extra cost" and then they forget to say "and that means we can give you the same games for less." It’s a small, but significant omission dear play chums, but we’re onto them.

Some people may be lulled by the hope that because publishers aren’t forking out for expensive boxes and distribution, we’ll see the price of games come down accordingly. It’s a nice dream. If we look at the Kindle market, a £14 book is still £14 even if you buy the e-book. I’ve seen many an Amazon reviewer lament and question this and I think it would go the same way for games.

Download only may deliver a nice reduction of costs for publishers, but I’m not convinced that those savings would get passed on to the consumer. So we’d still be paying £40 for a game with no nice, shiny box with cool artwork and full colour manual (if you’re lucky). And the double whammy is, that if you don’t like said game, you can’t trade it in for something else.

That’s right. You mustn’t forget that the end of the used games market also spells the end of trade-ins. No more cut price games for you. And with a new console generation we can only expect prices to increase, again. With games already scaling the lofty heights of £40, gamers are being asked to invest a lot in this hobby, at a time when budgets are stretched to the limit. If gamers also lose the option to trade-in a game or to buy a pre-owned title at a lower price, surely the AAA titles will rule and the smaller games will become an expensive risk.

In an industry where the latest big FPS dominates games charts and smaller developers struggle to survive, surely we want to encourage creativity. But by putting a stranglehold on consumer choice through high pricing and Draconian attempts to stem the used market, the industry will actually be stifling creativity. Those rare sleeper hits may be missed altogether, in a market where consumers, as well as publishers become risk averse.

On the flip-side, if neXtbox does opt for download only, but also figures in a significant price adjustment (and by adjustment I mean more than the paltry 10% offered by Sony on digital PS Vita games – an insult), then maybe this could benefit everyone involved. Added to that, Microsoft could introduce a lending option, much like the Kindle. This would allow gamers to borrow each other’s games.

If the industry is going to force single ownership upon gamers, then it seems only fair that we gain a price drop and the option to share titles. But who ever told you life was fair kids?

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