15 September, 2010
A discussion blew up on the blogosphere as I was getting ready for a cross-country trip: the ethics of buying games used. It started when a a THQ employee rather tactlessly pointed out that used games don’t support developers, and truly exploded when Penny Arcade said what most people interpreted as “used game buyers = dirty pirates” (and not the cool bottle-of-rum kind).
As with most emotional arguments, a lot of it seems to be a misunderstanding. I think the core of the issue here is one that people don’t understand well: the economic consequences of their actions. Let’s take a look at “pre-owned” games from a developer’s standpoint.
Note that I don’t have much skin in the game here. I’m an MMO developer, so people aren’t going to be picking up my games second-hand. Of course, there is the issue of account transfers, but those are often restricted or even prohibited in most cases. (It’d be interesting to see how many used game supporters are fans of eBayed MMO characters…) Of course, MMOs restrict sales for arguably different reasons: online reputation has less meaning if a griefer can just go buy a new account. But, I’m not looking at this from a “what keeps me fed” point of view.
Charging and piracy
One problem is that this argument took on emotional depth quickly. A lot of people who buy used games were being pointed at and it wasn’t a warm and fuzzy feeling, so they lashed back. Stripping the emotional layers off of this, I think that the core arguments do makes sense.
The issue at hand is how some companies are “giving” some additional content via one-time codes to people who buy a game new. THQ’s Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 has a code that allows online play, but this would not be available to people who buy the game used. Creative director for THQ’s wrestling games, Cory Ledesma, said that ‘loyal fans’ who are interested in buying the game first-hand are more important. He then went on to say they “didn’t care” about used game buyers; The Ancient Gaming Noob points out that this position is legitimate, but perhaps not the best response.
I certainly agree that there are more tactful ways of putting this, but on its face I don’t think it should be controversial. Honestly, this attitude is the way most businesses work. If I buy a used car from a third party (like a former rental car from Hertz), should I expect the local dealer to give me the free oil changes they offer to people who bought a car directly from them? Probably not.
Penny Arcade threw kerosene on the flames when Tycho said, “If I am purchasing games in order to reward their creators, and to ensure that more of these ingenious contraptions are produced, I honestly can’t figure out how buying a used game was any better than piracy.” Of course, it’s that last bit that people focused on. But, from a strictly economic point of view, this is accurate: a developer sees as much income from a pirated game as a second-hand one; in fact, the pirated game might result in more income if the person does enjoy the game and decides to buy a (new) copy.
Being a customer
Part of the righteous indignation from this was because people viewed themselves as a customer. (Let’s ignore the incorrect “the customer is always right” claim for now.) I think the Penny Arcade comic says it best: if you buy used games you are not the customer of the game company, you’re a customer of the shop you bought the “pre-owned” game from. As in my car example above, if I want free oil changes with my car purchase, I need to make sure that the place I buy my car from offers that. Economically, I have to look at how much that is worth to me, and look at the relative cost differences. Or, consider the “cash back” deals. If I buy a used car, can I really demand that the car manufacturer give me that cash back deal? No, but this is like people expecting games to provide free online access even if bought used.
The issue here is, as I said, one of consequences. This is what Tycho was trying to convey (poorly): if you love games and want to see more of them, then buying used games does not support that goal. This is the same thing I’ve been saying about games for a while: the games you buy directly supports that kind of game, and if you want something different you’re going to have to go support a different type of game that is more of what you want. Unfortunately, innovation and the search for more fun can hit rocky shores before we find something quite as polished as your typical Blizzard game.
Now, obviously, not every action you take has to have a deeper meaning behind it. I avoid air travel because I don’t like it, not necessarily as a poke in the eye to overbearing government regulations (although that’s part of what makes me not like it) or the carbon footprint associated with air travel. Perhaps someone might buy used games because they are on a strict budget and need to play a wide variety of games because they’re a game developer. Or, perhaps a used game is the only way struggling parents can provide entertainment for their children.
It’s not all negative, however. A lot of people have pointed out that used games were new games at one point, and the ability to sell back a new game probably encourages some people to buy a game who might not otherwise be willing to take the plunge for full price. The problem here, of course, is that this is a hypothetical situation and it’s hard to know what buying habits would be without used games. Even if you ask people, what people say they’d do and what they actually do are two separate things. Personally, I’m not sure that the type of person who doesn’t blink at throwing away about $20 on selling back a new game they didn’t like is going to be the type of person who won’t buy a game new if the option isn’t available. At least for console games, there are game rentals and places like GameFly (which I’m sure aren’t too happy with having more hoops to jump through to provide games to people.) But, there are options out there for people truly interested in saving money who can’t just throw down cash on every game available.
One thing I love about games is that gamers, as a whole, tend to be smart and passionate people. We get into flame wars about seemingly trivial things because our passions run deep. We tend to think about things a lot because we’re smart enough to “get” games, something that for many people seem hopelessly complicated.
The lesson here is that one should take that intelligence and passion and put it to good use. Consider your actions and how they affect others. In this case, consider how you buy a game and how it supports the people making the games you enjoy. As much as most game developers would love to subsist on the love of their fans, sometimes the landlord only takes hard currency. ;)
What do you think? Is there a better way to get people to support developers? Are one-time codes annoying? Are used game sales destroying life as we know it? Are online games the only possible future?