Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yes, Buying Used Games Doesn't Make You a Bad Person.

The Big Gaming Argument of the Week is about whether is it's moral to buy used video games. It's legal. Nobody can deny that. But is it, you know, OK? Penny Arcade had a big spiel on it today. Normally I really respect their point of view on these issues, but their anti-rentals-and-used-games screed is way off base.

So here is the question. Creators depend on game disc sales to make a living. Bearing that in mind, is it ethical to buy and sell used games? And, along those lines, is it ethical to buy a used CD? Or buy from a used bookstore? Or check out a book from the library? In all of these cases, you are enjoying the works of creators without putting money in their pockets. So are libraries OK?

That I went straight to the library thing kind of telegraphs where I am going with this. Because, hey, let's look at books for a second. I love books. I really want authors to make a good living doing what they do. And, by the way, I had my
first book published not too long ago, so I actually have a stake in this. Buying new books (and thus putting money in the pockets of authors) is a Good Thing.

And yet, I often buy used books, AND I get books out of the library. And yet, at night, I sleep like a baby. And when someperson buys a used copy of one of my book, I'm cool with that. I'm not going to chase him or her down the street waving a stick or anything.

My games and book are sold used, so I have a personal stake in this, but I'm still for used sales. Because there are other, equally important principles in play here.

Information Is Not Free, But It Should Travel Freely

How can I reconcile these two seemingly contradictory viewpoints? It's not hard. See, there is a principle involved in wanting money to go to authors. But there are also principles involved in being able to give away and sell them.

, it is a long-established principle of law that books (like CDs and game disks) are objects. When you buy an object, you can then give it away or sell it or whatever. It's yours. This is a right you have, and you don't have to apologize for using it. (This right can be waived by explicitly agreeing to an EULA that prevents resale, but this doesn't apply to console games. If you're interested in the legal fiddly bits here, you should read about the First-Sale Doctrine.)

Second, books are works of art and media for transmitting ideas. Art and ideas are good things, and we as a society want them to move around freely. This helps us to have, you know, a culture. Not to mention the free flow of competing ideas that is necessary for a healthy republic. And, if you take video games seriously as works of art and human expression, as I know the Penny Arcade guys do, you should want a similar freedom to apply to them.

(By the way, when I wrote not long ago about
times when piracy is OK, many people told me that they pirated games when they were young because they had no money. In the world of books, this simple fact is understood. That is why libraries exist. As much as the publishing industry might not want them too.)

I often buy books new. I see it as part of my duty to support that industry. Someone has to do it, or there will be far fewer new books. But, at the same time, libraries and used bookstores are Good Things. I bet if you went to Gabe and Tycho and told them it was immoral to go to a library, they would think you were an idiot and throw poo on you. But here they are taking this exact point of view for video games. Which are also works of art and media for distributing ideas. Honestly not sure what they are thinking here.

Oh, and one quote from Tycho:

"I traded in games for a long time, there's probably comics somewhere in the archive about it - you can imagine how quickly my cohort and I consume these things. It was sort of like Free Money, and we should have understood from the outset that no such thing exists. You meet one person who creates games for a living, just one, and it becomes very difficult to maintain this virtuous fiction."

Um, no. It's not difficult at all. I will look anyone in the eye and tell them that the trade in used games is both legal and ethical. And then they, if they want, can look me in the eye and tell me that buying used copies of my book and used CDs of my games is OK too. Living in a country where people have rights and ideas freely circulate is a good thing.

There are more principles at stake here than just how many dollars goes to this or that guy.

On the Other Hand

Publishers have recently experimented in programs to give extra features to those who buy games new. This is totally cool and legal and, in come cases, a practical necessity.

For example, some games now come with a key that you need to enter to play in online multiplayer. Buy the game used and you have to pay a small fee to get multiplayer.

This is fair. Why? Because the publisher is paying the ongoing costs to maintain the servers. If I give my old copy of The Stand to a friend, it doesn't directly harm the publisher. The publisher doesn't know that I exist. But if I give a copy of Halo 3 to a friend and he goes online, his presence on the servers costs a (small) amount of money. In return for providing the online service, the publisher is allowed to ask for money. If you don't like that, you don't need to buy that game used.

Publishers can legally and ethically hobble used games. They're certainly heading in that direction. They can do it, but it's not wise. People get really smart when it comes to their money. When someone buys a car or house, they pay attention to resale value. It goes the same for video games. If resale is no longer an option, the $60 for that disk suddenly becomes a lot more expensive. If publishers think that crippling used sales is going to suddenly make angels drop piles of cash on their heads, I think they are due for a crushing disappointment.

But if I've learned anything in the last few years, it is to never underestimate the death-wish of either the music industry or gaming companies.


  1. "But if I give a copy of Halo 3 to a friend and he goes online, his presence on the servers costs a (small) amount of money."

    Which is directly offset by the savings of no longer having to host your presence on the server, so no, it isn't fair. And a company that treats its customers like this isn't one I care to do business with.

    Note, I'd have zero problems with a company that said, "we guarantee that we're hosting the online multiplayer servers through 20xx, and we optionally retire them or require a fee afterwards". That would be fair, and up front, and better than what they do now in many cases.

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  2. An excellent article. I also don't know why the PA guys are pushing the fiction that purchasing used games is somehow identical to starving developers out of house and home; it's an odd illusion to have to maintain, and it must be nice to have income that can support nothing but first-hand, release-time purchases.

    I don't have an issue with Johnny Public flogging off his no-longer-required games to someone else, and it's a hell of a lot better than the someone else pirating the software. I also don't have an issue with publishers offering retail purchasers incentives and/or restricting usage of second-hand users. Where I do have issues is when either side insists the other is mistreating them, or, more commonly, the publishers behaving as if customers are a pox upon their business.

  3. I buy used games, used books, used CDs and am an avid library card user. I do buy new items as well, but I think the most important thing here is that I *buy* these items. I'm not ripping other people's CDs, I'm not pirating other people's games, and I'm not downloading e-books that people illegally uploaded online. If I enjoy an author or game publisher enough (Bethesda and CDProjektRED come to mind) then I will begin to buy their items new. There are a vast number of authors I read, and buy new, that would be unknown to me if it were not for used book stores. Used book/game/music stores make it possible for me to legally consume a larger amount of media for less money out of pocket. As a result, I am introduced to a larger variety of media than would have been possible if I was required to buy everything new.

  4. Skip beat me to it. I was about to attack the same point. The developers/publishers are not magically deprived of sales during a second-hand transaction. In the process of me selling a used game to someone else, I am depriving myself access to that game in exchange for the money, while the recipient is gaining access. Restricting multiplayer to firsthand buyers is ridiculous. What's the difference between player A loving the game and playing online continually for 3 years while players B, C, and D cover portions of those 3 years with some other copy (sold used to one another)?

  5. How does anyone see trading used copies working in the digital download era?

  6. @Harbour Master: It doesn't. You pay less money and you don't get to give it away. It's not an inherently evil model. I buy games digitally all the time. But I still have a preference for buying a physical object.

    - Jeff Vogel

  7. @Jeff: I haven't bought a physical copy of a game for a long time, but I was wondering if all these arguments over used copies of games might become a moot point in the very near future. But I will still have my fine collection of Atari 2600 cartridges.

  8. This isn't a case of buying a game several years old for a very cheap price. Usually the used games at Gamestop are only a few bucks cheaper than their shiny new counterparts.

    But, hey, it *is* cheaper, so a typical customer will go for the used version instead of the new. Had the used version not been there in the first place, the customer would most likely have bought the new version.

    This isn't a case of "not being able to afford it." It's a case of "Hey, this is a bit cheaper so I'll buy this one instead." Gamestop knows this, so they push the used copies as hard as they can.

    Totally legal, yes. But ethical? That's the gray area. If these used games were actually sold at a "cheap" price, then maybe this wouldn't be an issue.

  9. One thing that doesn't seem to have been brought up is an argument that I encountered the other day with respect to college textbooks, and it applies just as well to both situations: the used market helps publishers more than it hurts them.

    To wit: If consumer A is faced with a choice between buying a game/book and doing without, that consumer is quantifiably more likely to buy it if they know they can get some of their money back later by reselling it to consumer B. Once they do, consumer A can then spend the money they otherwise wouldn't have on more games/books. Most of the money that the publisher loses when consumer B (who probably doesn't particularly have the money to buy new anyway) buys used is theoretically regained when consumer A spends it on a different game/book.

  10. (And yes, I know the real situation with both books and games is usually "consumer A usually resells to a store, which in turn sells to consumer B", and that the store charges B tremendously more than they paid A and pockets the difference. I was skipping a step in a quixotic quest for clarity.)

  11. I suspect that a popular book or game (a good one) has a flourishing second hand market, and that market drives the people with money to buy the thing in new unused condition, because we all now that makes you a superior human.

  12. I'm also growing tired of this notion that "games never decrease in quality" as opposed to other physical good that suffer wear and tear. According to that logic, books never degrade either; the words inside are the same they were years prior. Therefore, the author deserves a cut of every sale! /sarcasm

    This nonsense needs to end. Selling used games is a perfectly legal practice. It's not even remotely immoral. Gamestop's financial success is a strong indicator that NEW GAME PRICES ARE TOO HIGH.

  13. I just want to say that this is an excellent article, and thank you for writing it.

    @Wadjet Eye: I doubt that 'new used' games account for a majority of used game sales. Based on my own experience as a used game purchaser, games older than six months account for at least 95% of all used game stock, even in Gamestop (which I don't frequent).

    I simply don't buy the argument that secondhand games hurt the industry. In addition to the ever-climbing sales numbers of big releases, there's also this ESA report. According to the linked PDF:

    "The real annual growth rate of the U.S. computer and video game software industry was 10.6% for the period 2005-2009 and 16.7% for the period 2005-2008.

    During the same period, real growth for the U.S. economy as a whole was 1.4% for 2005-09 and 2.8% for 2005-08."

    I'm no economist, but to me that seems to indicate a very healthy industry. I'm certain everyone else would like to be doing 7.5 times as well as the rest of the country.

  14. I haven't bought a used game since the SNES days, but wow. The arguments being made by game publishers are reprehensibly dishonest. The saddest part is how many otherwise-intelligent people they've managed to convince. It's classic Overton Window pushing: making such extreme statements that a slightly less odious move will be seen as a reasonable compromise.

    The only situation where the argument is even conceivably rational is something like a short, artsy indie game that really isn't replayable. Then used sales could maybe pose a serious threat.

    But we're explicitly talking about big AAA games with *extensive multiplayer components*. There's every reason *not* to sell such a game unless it's really terrible. There's no reason for there to be a large second-hand market until long after release.

  15. Excellent Post, Jeff.

    When I read the PA article, I thought "what the hell are these guys thinking? They're usually much better than this!"

    My analogy was cars. There is a (somewhat, due to the econonmy) thriving used car industry in the US. Buying a used car doesn't help the manufacturers. Sure, they can sell parts and dealers do maintenance, but there are plenty of independent mechanics and you can get parts from a junkyard. You may say that the seller needs to replace his or her car, but the game seller needs to replace his or her game, too.

  16. Nice article,

    One point you did not directly point out, but is mentioned a little, I find particularly interesting.

    While some people could say every used game bought is a lost sale, maybe the number of games sold in the first place would of been smaller if no one could of played the game and then sold it used.

    but then buying used is exactly the same as pirating to the publisher. You play the game and they get 0 direct money from it.
    So no wonder they complain.

  17. "Publishers have recently experimented in programs to give extra features to those who buy games new. This is totally cool and legal and, in come cases, a practical necessity."

    I actually think DLC are, on the whole, a brilliant idea. Especially for console games, where a lot of peoiple - myself included - don't BUY very often, but do RENT a lot.

    As long as the DLC are small bites of the game, and have reasonably-modest pricetags, I even _welcome_ them. And yes, I've bought them ... for games I didn't own, but was renting.

    Case in point, #1: Dead Space. I must have dropped $5 to $10 on various DLC for that game. Didn't own it, never intended to buy it. Don't regret the extra $$ I spent - partly because I got my money's worth, partly because I know that "despite" my being a renter, I still put osme money in the creators' pockets.

    Case in point #2: Borderlands. While I _do_ intend to own a copy eventually, I don't currently. Yet, when I had my rental copy, I bought all but the last DLC (it came out a week after I returned the game), the one abut General Knox.

    On the other hand ... if the price is too high, you can rely on my not to buy it. 20% to 25% of the cost of the game itself, is definitely "too high". 10% is about my cap.

    Case in point #3: Mass Effect 2. Since I don't know how much I get with Cerberus Network access, _and_ since the price (when I had a rental copy, during the first month after release) was between $12 and $15 ... no, I'm sorry but that's just way too damned expensive for me to buy it. ESPECIALLY not for a game I might eventually purchasing my own copy of, anyway. If it had been $5, I'd've paid for it, and nevermind the "waste" when I bought a copy later.

  18. The thing that surprised me most about this is that Gabe and Tycho have any need to purchase games at all. I would have assumed that the secret Penny Arcade lair was filled to the rafters with free review copies of essentially everything published. I can't imagine not sending a copy of everything their way if I were in the games marketing business. It's not like anyone asks Roger Ebert to pay $10 a ticket for a critic's screening, after all.

  19. Sometimes the only option available is to buy something used. With most industries including books, video games, and CDs a given item is only being published for a given period of a few weeks or maybe months and limited to a specific set number of items produced. There are exceptions to this rule—popular fiction novels will be churning out until the market is saturated, popular video games get another run as "Greatest Hits" or "Player's Choice" titles, same kinda deal with popular music albums.

    Lambasting used sales doesn't screw over the "popular" things; it screws over the less well known things. The cult classic genre would die. There would also be a lot of very frustrated people who bought things they didn't really like. While folks like Tycho and Gabe might be happy to have large collections of less than stellar video games laying around their homes most people would prefer to get rid of the games they don't enjoy. This isn't a bad thing: this means someone else will have a chance to play that game, and they might really enjoy it.

    We can always vote with our wallets. If no one purchases games that require a game to chat with a DRM server at all times, or games that require you to pay for content already on a game disc then publishers might get the picture.

    I'm more skeptical about DLC and DRM games in the long run. I still enjoy playing old games and will break out my old consoles to play them. What happens in ten years when someone wants to relive the nostalgia of playing a non-MMO DLC based game? Or a game that talks to a DRM server in order to run? Does it become a useless nostalgic coaster? Maybe a wind chime?

  20. I would have liked you to put more emphasis on buying with intent to resell. When people know that they can resell, they buy more freely, and more copies get sold. The second hand buyer is enabling the first, almost like a loan or group purchase.

    Libraries buy books that they know will get circulated (either now or later as a classic). If people don't go to libraries, those copies don't get bought.

  21. The entire point becomes moot once one realizes that retail companyies such as Gamestop, or EBGames, Wal-Mart, ETC. All have their personal supply sold to them by the publishers. So even if you buy the used game, the New Game is already paid for, just not by the customer. Sure, gamestop loses a couple dollars on New Games which sell eventually anyways. But they rake in profit on selling used game purchased for only a few dollars.
    In the end? Costumer recieves copy at lower price, Generic Game Store makes a profit or doesn't. And publisher/supplier to store gets the money for the new copies supplied regardless.

  22. really an excellent post.

    And I agree with Malimar: if you sell something used, chances are you'll buy something else from the same industry, so you'll actually help that industry as a whole (if not that exact publisher).

  23. As much as I hate feeding the great GameStop monster, your argument concerning libraries is solid. As a game designer yourself, you are in a good position to refute their position. I know I certainly don't have $60 to shell out for anything not food or bill shaped, so I can't agree that people should only buy new games. Hell, the market at the moment is so flooded with crap games that rental is a good idea financially. You can't return a new game once you've played it. The minimum wage cogs will scorn you and delight in telling you no, as it is the only time in their blighted careers that they actually have the ability to say no to anything.

  24. I don't have any problem with buying/selling used games. I also don't think there's anything remotely wrong (either ethically, legally, nor from a long-term-selfish-standpoint) of companies coming up with ways to encourage people to buy products new. You want to save money buying a used thing? Well, you'll just have to save a little less if you want the full version.

    While I think they did go overboard, the specific target of the Penny Arcade thing was not people buying used games, but rather people buying used games who then complained about not being "respected as customers." And the point, that when you buy something used, you are not a customer, is perfectly valid.

    I've never purchased a $60 game with the specific intent to resell, so the notion that I'm suddenly going to have a harder time doing so doesn't really impact me. If I spend $60 on a game, it's because I REALLY want the game.

  25. It's amazing to me that is is even going on this century. I'm 46 and have been collecting games since the 80's. I buy sell and trade new and used games and have (and will continue to do so). In all the years I've been trading, I've never seen pressure AGAINST used games coming from the industry. Now, for some nutty reason it's "Used games BAD - you spend full price NOW or you BAD too..."

    Which is just stupid.

    Demonizing the used games marketplace seems like some sort of insane ploy by the industry to either get rid of physical product and force as many people as possible into thinking download ONLY or paying for more content through micro-transactions is the "wave" of the future and the ONLY way to go.

    Still, I'm wondering whether part of this pressure is because of the lousy economy. With studios shutting down and some game companies posting loss after loss, it makes sense for the industry to pick away at the used market in the hope that consumers will start to buy their line of crap and actually spend more money on new product instead of waiting for it used (or for unsold stock to be marked down past the point where profit can be made).

    Oh, and as someone who reviews games, we don't ALL get stuff for free, folks. I'm sure Gabe and Tycho pay for some stuff (why not ask them?) or at least rent games from time to time...

  26. I've been gaming for 28 years, Commodore 64 Hooo!, and the idea that used games are hurting the industry is crazy. Maybe if New games didn't cost so much at the time of release, you'd see more people jumping on board to buy them new.

    How did we go from new games being 20~30 dollars to $60?

    I've gotten to a point where I don't even buy the A+ list games that come out new. I wait until they have dropped in price and then purchase them. Or, if its a stubborn title like Gears of War 2 (that takes about as long as the announcement for a sequel to drop in price), then I'd happily plunk down half the price for a used copy.

    I think back on the best games that I've played in the past few years and all of them (save 1 or 2) were from Indie developers. I don't believe that multi-million dollar games justify a huge price tag. We don't need Television ad campaigns and movie tie ins to promote video games and thus jack up the cost of production.

  27. The problem, in my eyes, is the pricing scheme. Either you have a $60 dollar game, which obligates you to make it high-budget with cutting edge graphics which puts you more at risk, or else it has to be sub-$20 on XBLA or PSN, in which case if you do put a middling budget into it then its hard to recoup your costs. There's no middle grouns.

    Interestingly enough the Nintendo platforms have the healthiest model this gen: stuff can range anywhere from 20-50 dollars on Wii and DS

    (And of course Steam, but PC gaming is a whole different beast)

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  32. Good! I'm glad that I read this. I was going to buy used video games for my brother for Christmas. Now I don't feel so bad...or cheap!

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