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Saturday, September 27, 2008 4:00 AM PT Posted by Matt Peckham

Studios Grumble About Pre-Owned Game Sales


Rather predictably, video game publishers are clubbing the notion of recirculated games like sullen cavemen ejected from the municipal fireside powwow. The latest grumbler: Marty O'Donnell, Bungie's audio director, who says that smaller studios are in for bumpy financials given the thriving market for pre-owned games. You can almost imagine the follow-on posters reading something like: "Buy Used, and God Kills a Kitten."

Let's summarize what's got O'Donnell agitated. Say you snap up a copy of Halo 3 brand new for sixty and change. You play the game, you maybe finish it (or maybe not) then pop back down to your local games reseller, who offers a trade-in program for credit. Halo 3 becomes a simple down-payment toward whatever's next in your want bin. The reseller takes the game and pops it back on the shelf for about $5 to $10 less than a brand new copy. The next budget conscious consumer that drops in opts for your $55 "used" copy of Halo 3 instead of the glistening, crinkly shrink-wrapped $60 version.

That's a serious problem, claim some, due to ballooning development budgets. If the preowned games market keeps siphoning off profits that ought to be lining studio pockets, goes this line of thinking, games will eventually be made by just two or three mega-studios, while everyone else is relegated to barely-for-profit indie pet projects.

The trouble with this view is that it assumes people paying used prices for games would have bought new in the first place. It also assumes we should just trust game studios won't squander a certain percentage of their bulging multimillion development budgets on trade show booths and ostentatious launch parties alongside shameful press junkets and then point the finger somewhere else when market realities come a cropper.

Of course the problem's more nuanced than any of that, and talk to anyone involved and you'll get a slightly different tale. Companies are quick to criticize, but slow to share private studies and sales numbers to bolster their claims. In the absence of evidence, you're left to fall back on that old legal standby: precedent.

So given precedent, do "the folks who create and publish a game" really deserve to receive income from "further sales"?

It's tempting to see the internet as a paradigm shifter here, but it's not really. People have been bartering privately for eons. The internet merely amplifies their ability to connect up beyond their local municipalities. That's on balance an incredibly positive thing.

There's also nothing unique about used sales coalescing around a single point of exchange. Used bookstores have been around forever. Used car lots are internationally ubiquitous. Used music (vinyl, 8-track, cassette, CD) and video (VHS, DVD) stores, too. Are the creators, much less the publishers, of any of those products sold "used" receiving income from those "further sales"? Of course not.

So why should it be any different for games? The only answer is, it shouldn't, and just because the games industry might go to hell in a hand basket because of retail market capitalization, or what some might describe as "blithe consumption practices" isn't on us, it's on publishers. And by "on," I don't mean "to figure out how to clamp down on the exchange of aftermarket goods," but to innovate their way out of what they'll call a spend-money-to-make-money Catch 22.

To studios: Think of it a bit like a game the market's designed, and which you get to play, except without cheat codes.

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