Reduced, Reused, Recycled.

So, lately I’ve been thinking about used games, which depending on who you listen to are either the banes of the gaming world or its last, best hope. Now, for the longest time I didn’t really buy used games. as I had room in my budget to buy new and stores that sold new games were more conveniently located for me than places that sold used games. But over the past couple of years I’ve found myself more and more often right near a place that sells used games and even game systems. I started stopping in there to look for old PS2 games since you simply can’t get them anywhere else. And then I started looking at PS3 and Wii games to see if I could find anything interesting, and I ended up picking up a few from them and other places. For example, I’m pretty sure that’s where I got Dragon Age: Origins and recently at another store I got both Overlords for the PS3. So, recently, I’ve bought more used games than I normally would, although I still buy more new games than used ones.

Now, a lot of gaming publishers will tell you that the used game and resale market hurts them, and their argument isn’t a bad one. After all, every game that someone buys used as opposed to new is money that could have gone to support the developers and the game itself, and given a direct indication of how good the game is and if it is the sort of game that was or could be a success. The counter to that is that, in general, people who buy used games simply can’t afford to buy games that are new, and so this isn’t an actual lost sale, and that the benefits to having a resale market outweigh that loss. There’s some truth to this, and I’ll get into those benefits in a minute.

The problem with the counter is that it actually isn’t true … or, at least, it’s not totally true. Many people who buy used games could, in fact, afford to buy them new, but find buying used more cost effective. In short, they’re just trying to save some money, and if they can get essentially the same product for less money then they’ll just do it. A lot of piracy, it seems to me, is driven by just that sort of consideration: if I can get the game for free instead of paying for it, wouldn’t I be an idiot for paying? And then the company line makes some sense, as it proclaims: yeah, but if you don’t buy the games new then you won’t get any new games at all.

Again, look at my specific case. While in general I tend to buy used the games that I simply CAN’T buy new, the fact that the games cost less certainly doesn’t hurt. And, in fact, there are often cases — DA:O being one of them — where it being cheaper is what encourages me to take a chance on the game. If I have to pay $60 for a game, then I have to be convinced that I’ll like it, and there are a few games that I DID pay that much for that disappointed me (Marvel vs Capcom 3, I’m looking at you here). If I can pay $20, I’m far more likely to take a chance on the game. In fact, I only finished Oblivion because I managed to find a cheap (new, though) PS3 version of it at Best Buy and thought that playing it while lying on my sofa might make it easier to finish it than was the case playing the PC version on my desk (and yes, it did work). So cost effectiveness — whether through used games, the bargain bin, or even piracy — can be a major factor.

But all of these cases involve the developer getting less money for their product. How can that be good?

Well, let’s look at other areas where the used market thrives, like books and cars. In theory, the same problem exists here, and in spades; used books and cars are far more common and, in general, the prices for at least used cars are dramatically lower. Buying used cars is a way of life, and buying used books is, in fact, fairly common. You see a lot more used bookstores or used car lots than you see used game stores, and you don’t all that often have massive used game sales as a way to raise money for charities. And yet, the industries survive, and even thrive. In fact, car dealerships actually get into the used car business themselves, selling both new and used cars, which is similar to what some game stores are starting to do.

So, what is it that allows these areas to embrace the used market without destroying themselves? It seems to me that it’s all about the future, and this ties back in to the benefits of having a used market. People will buy new books and new cars — and, therefore, new games — if they can get some money back for the things that they aren’t using anymore. In the gaming context, if I can sell off a few of those games that I’ve either finished and never want to play again or that I’ve decided that I don’t actually want to play, then that frees up money in my budget for buying new games. It also lets me try out games in a game series — like, say, Mass Effect — before splurging on buying the whole series. If I try a game from a company or that’s in a style that I’ve never played, if I really like it then I might start looking for their games new instead of waiting for them to get into the used market or the bargain bin, building brand loyalty. Also, there’s less of a risk in my buying a new game if I know that if I really don’t like it I’m only out $30 instead of $60, meaning that I’m more likely to take chances on new games that I’m not sure of.

Ultimately, a used sale does indeed lose some money for the developer, and that is money that they may never get back. However, having a strong used MARKET can be considered an investment, a way to get people interested in the games in that series or from that developer, with the hope that your products are good enough that the next time you release a game, they’ll want to run, not walk, down to their local gaming store to buy that new copy and get it right now, because they know that it’s worth the money and they don’t want to wait for it to get to the used market. So, trying to kill the used game market is, in fact, a really, really bad idea. But what I think publishers need to do is take a cue from automobile manufacturers and even some gaming stores and get into the used game business themselves. Take in used games, refurbish them, and resell them, while giving discounts on their new games to people who turn in old games. That way they can make money on the used market itself as well as from the sale of new games. It’s a win-win.

Now, the current situation isn’t as nicely set-up for that as it could be, and the increase in downloadable games is only making it worse. But as long as actual disks can be sold, publishers can allow for gaming stores to accept specific trade-ins towards their new games and have the stores ship them back to the company to be refurbished and sent back to stop the store’s shelves again. The nice thing about this is that you’d have a centralized distribution point, so that if in particular areas, say, Persona 3 sells really well the publisher can ship more copies there which a gaming store itself likely can’t do.

Well, maybe that’s not all that feasible, but one thing is clear: killing the used market is not going to magically solve the problems the gaming industry is having. In fact, it’s likely to make them worse.

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