On the Gaming Industry’s Unique Aversion to the Second Hand Market

Hello again everybody, everybody! After deciding to take some time off from the factual blogging lark, I have returned, and have some ideas to write over the following weeks, along with the previously promised bits of fiction.

So at risk of turning this into a gaming rant blog, the big news in the gaming world this week has been the unveiling of Microsoft’s next big assault on console gaming, the perplexingly named XBox One. It’s only just finished at time of writing, just to give you an idea of how far in advance I write these, and if my twitter feed is anything to go by then apparently it wasn’t that impressive. Honestly, I don’t care that much. I’m personally not much of a fan of the XBox series of hardware or it’s various exclusive titles, being a Sega and Sony man myself.

No, what I found most interesting about the whole thing was this  little snippet of news from Computer And Video Games (based on a piece from Wired in that way tech and games journalism seems to work these days) that was brought to my attention. For those not wanting to read, apparently the Xbox One requires the games to be installed  on a hard drive, which is fairly standard for anyone who’s used a personal computer for gaming in the last 25 years, but this install, and the disc itself, is tied in to the Xbox Live account active on the console at the time. This sounds fairly standard practice given the current trend towards online-only direct distribution and the like, but here comes the kicker: if you purchase a disc second hand, it will not install unless you pay Microsoft a fee. This isn’t so much an outright ban on second hand sales, but it certainly is a metaphorical sledgehammer to the knees.

This does highlight something that has preyed upon my mind for a while: The rather unique opinion the gaming industry, specifically the publishers, towards second hand sales. Unlike most other media production sectors, who for the most part either ignore or tolerate second sales of their goods, gaming publishers seem to think that they, singular amongst all purveyors of ways to pass the time, are somehow above it all, and as a whole have been pursuing more and more ingenious ways to prevent it, of which this Xbox news is merely the latest iteration. This is an attitude that both perplexes and annoys me, not only as a gamer, but also as a consumer.

One common justification given for this tends to be “but wait, the publishers don’t make any money from second hand sales.” To which my response is thus: No. They Sure Don’t. But that’s specious reasoning anyway, since they have already made their money from the product, since to be Second Hand, that generally suggests that at one point in the past it was First Hand, and there is where the publishers make their money, since it is presumably purchased from them. This also disproves another common argument of “but it harms sales,” again this is an absurd notion when you consider the above. It would only harm sales if second hand sales outnumbered first hand, which in a rational universe like ours is impossible. Anyone with a basic understanding of ownership and commerce should be able to understand this, and yet still these reasons are given for the crusade-like campaign against second hand.

Along with the justification comes a slew of techniques to combat this perceived assault on games publishing. Some of this follows the same kind of pattern as the anti-piracy Digital Rights Management that I’ve railed against previously. Indeed, the invasive, always on style of DRM present in things like EA’s Origin service presumably could also be used in an attempt to regulate the sales of physical media, which is pretty much what Microsoft is doing with Xbox Live. There has also been talk of restricting some features from second hand copies via single-use codes included in new copies. Less invasive penalties for purchasing second hand also exist, usually via some form of downloadable content available either on day one or as a “pre-order bonus” (another bit of modern gaming that annoys me, but that’s a rant for another time). Whilst this is preferable to the total lock out method, it is, in my opinion, no less acceptable.

As mentioned previously, this whole aversion seems to be unique to the gaming industry. Compare other forms of media distribution here, book publishing has positively thrived from the second hand market for centuries, and while home video and music has begun to move toward the more controlled digital distribution platform, the usual complaints from those areas veer towards piracy rather than second hand sales. This is not to say these areas don’t have any issues with it, just the sheer volume of complaining from video gaming outweighs both areas substantially. And in all honesty the absurdity of gaming’s measures to prevent second hand sales is made very apparent if you try to apply it to other media forms. Imagine if, say, Penguin Group printed books that were tied to a single owner, and if you tried to sell them on they rendered themselves blank unless the new owner paid Penguin further money. Or if Warner Brothers only put the first half of a film on a DVD, only allowing a consumer to access the final half with a single use code, rendering the disc useless to anyone but yourself. See how ridiculous it all is?

But much like the appalling trends towards DRM, this is yet another way of the publishers controlling their product post-sales. One phrase I’ve heard to describe it is the transformation of software from product to “service.” Which is more a fancy way of saying that they’re trying to erode the concept of ownership of a game. Time was you had the physical media in your hand and that was yours, regardless of whether it was console or home computer, yet clearly this did not satisfy the publishers. Over the last decade or so we’ve seen a move, slow at first but now gaining speed at a terrifying pace, towards the publishers having total control over what you do with the product you’ve just spent your hard earned money on. And much like the DRM thing, this all worries me, as it’s starting to impinge upon basic consumer rights. Once again real thing we can do about this is vote with our wallets, hopefully if a system with such a terrible scheme in place tanks it will show the powers that be that such a system has no place in the modern world.

As a creative myself, I more than appreciate games makers desire and right to profit from their creations, however this should never be at the expense of the customer. This lack of respect for the people who essentially give them money can only end badly for all involved, and while I predict there will always be some who buy into it blindly, this number will decrease over time as more and more get wise to how badly those who control the industry treat those who fund it. I can easily see this leading to another crash of 1983 proportions if trends continue, and that will be a sad day indeed, especially if the industry could have done something to prevent it.

Whilst I can see this degenerating into a more long winded rant, I shall finish up with this: I shall not be getting an XBox One as long as this ridiculous system is in place, and I urge anyone reading this to do the same. I honestly feel like I keep repeating myself, but it is time for Gamers as a whole to get more aware of how the industry is treating us, and taking us all for fools. Only then will this kind of thing end.

–Not surprised, just disappointed.

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