Sorry about the long delay. I was at a cabin without internet access for 5 days and I think I exhausted myself a bit after that massive Mass Effect (heh) feature. Back at it now, though, with a couple of editorials coming.

The first salvo in the battle between these two ephemeral forces that managed to capture my attention was that of DRM. Before then, I was a pretty happy gamer. I was never really affected that much by DRM personally and as it has more plagued PC gamers than console gamers, I only really heard about the issues from those of my friends who played a lot of PC games, especially published by EA. I remember the hoopla around Spore being especially incensing to some. If you don’t know or don’t remember, EA published Spore with a security feature that only allowed it to be installed on something like 3 computers.

More recently there have been arguments about whether or not developers owe gamers a minimum amount of content (usually measured, and I think foolishly, in hours of play) for their money. I know at least one person who refused to buy Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 due to its supposedly shorter single player campaign (SPC). To this person, not buying the game was a statement that Infinity Ward would not be allowed to scrimp on SPC content simply because they padded out and embellished the multi-player content (MPC). An ignorant point of view for anyone who’s played the game, yes, but a point of view shared by many and not just about Call of Duty. I remember the days when JRPG players felt that under 40 hours of content simply “wasn’t enough” for a satisfying experience. Echoes of this mentality haunt the reception of games like Mass Effect 2, Alpha Protocol, and other “western RPGs” which tend to be more streamlined in terms of hours demanded.

The other day, a new front was joined as a Developer at THQ criticized the purchasing of used games in the context of gamer complaints about lost content as a result of not buying new. I heard about this via Penny Arcade and their funny, if baiting strip on the subject. After which, since I follow these guys on Twitter, I’ve gotten a pretty hearty taste of the controversy they’re describing. Gamers are pissed, developers are sorta like “whatever” and it’s time I weigh in.

The obvious thing to take out of this is that digital distribution is the future. Thanks to XBL, Steam, and PSN to name a few, gamers are being trained to use DD as a means to acquire content whether its add-ons, demos, videos, or full games (more and more common now). I bought Scott Pilgrim vs. The World just yesterday on XBL (it is awesome). Because it is possible to offer games at a cheaper price via DD (as well as have wicked specials frequently like Steam does), the need for used games is going to drop off steadily. In the meantime, we have this increasing enmity between a certain type of gamer and the developers who cook their fix.

This underlying current of tension is what I’m most curious about. Gamers pay a standardized $60 for new games on the Big 2 consoles: X-box 360 and Playstation 3, and this money finances developers et al so that new games can be made. Okay, so as long as we think $60 is a fair price, all is gravy. But while it may be a fair price for games, it is not always a price gamers can pay even for a game they really want which also offers enough content to justify the price-point. Assuming it is a fair price, simply not one gamers can always pay, it seems fair to assume that people will want to sell their used games so that others can pay to enjoy them. That the developers don’t receive money for these transactions, now most often done through chain stores like Gamestop and EB games (more on these bastards later), is why they feel they are justified not offering certain content (traditionally multi-player but now other features such as game modes, “bonus” content, etc).

It seems to me that everybody involved deserves criticism. All parties in this case are accountable, partially to each other and partially to pure common sense. By parties, I mean the gamers, the developers, and the middle-man chain stores that are milking both. It should also be noted that this is just another front in the cold war currently raging between consumers and producers of entertainment media, which began with music and is now becoming a big deal not only with games but also with movies (a discussion of which may feature in a future BLOG!).

ANYWAY, let’s settle some folk.

The Gamers

Most of these guys (on the bitchy side of this debate, not all gamers) are whiny self-entitled teenagers who don’t really understand the business they’re benefiting from. Some are probably like the goof depicted in PA’s comic. It seems unreasonable to me that they expect bonus content which developers openly intend for people who do purchase their games new. If Gamer X doesn’t get the Hat of Infinite Hatness as part of bonus release content for the newest Japanese Teenagers Save Ze World game, and it’s because they bought the game for $20 in a bargain bin at EB… they don’t really have the right to complain. When they do, they sound like the industry owes them everything they ask for no matter how they go about acquiring it. These are probably the same people who rampantly pirate anime and complain when the subtitles are shitty. Some people just think the world owes them and there isn’t a lot that can be done.

That said, there are some issues that (maybe inadvertently?) they could reasonably complain about. For instance, a game where multi-player isn’t just padding but a crucial part of the experience (for example, Call of Duty) should include that feature even for people who bought the game used. THQ has published a game where online is only available to people who buy new, setting an interesting precedent as this is not common practice at present. So in this specific context, the gamers do have a point.

More generally, it’s about time producers stop treating consumers like criminals by default. Using language like “cheating” to describe the effects of buying used is not only unhelpful and needlessly antagonistic, it is also inappropriate in the actual as I will explain in a moment. I want to add that consumers are treated like a den of thieves by protectionist distributors, backed at times by the actual creators of entertainment media. These people are reliant on the consumer for their livelihood, which is a far more critical issue than the entertainment consumers want as opposed to need (in most cases, heh) from them. A little respect both ways is important, and it behooves we gamers/consumers to also show some more appreciation to the people who make expensive gambles of time and money in hopes of entertaining us and making they paper in return. Not all developers, distributors, etc are “evil corporations”.

In summary, gamers can be sucks. Consumers are mistreated in general a lot of the time, though, and thus gamers have some legitimate complaints. Both parties owe each other a bit more respect and a lot less antagonism, and there needs to be a clear line that divides “core content” from “extras”, the former being sensible and fair to offer even to used game purchasers while the latter can be reserved for people who purchase new or special versions of products.

The Game Stores (Gamestop, EB Games, etc)

About the best I can say about these companies is they help perform a critical function. They offer a “trading post” for games. The “merchant class” is always derided by people on either side of the consumer/producer fence but let’s face it, most people just aren’t prepared to cut out the middle-man and deal directly with producers. Digital Distribution is changing that by at least giving us direct interface with the core corporate interest (we deal with Microsoft when downloading games from XBL) representing developers and creators. Companies like Walmart and Toys ‘R’ Us are a lesser evil because, while we dislike them for more abstract reasons, they don’t fuck about and mainly just want to move product while trying to offer competitive prices. In the context of games, I don’t think Walmart is exploiting the consumer and I don’t really know enough about the producer side of that coin to comment.

Even so, some games are basically consumables. A player will go through it once and drop it, never to play it again. Personally, I’ll shelf a game with limited replay value and pick it up again a year or two later when I want to revisit the original experience, tie up loose ends, try a harder difficulty, etc. I, for reasons I’ll describe shortly, do not sell or trade in my games to companies like EB. Some people are one go and done, though, and whatever they are entitled to that. The main thing is that everyone respects peoples’ right to consume a product in whatever way they choose once they have paid for it. The industry does not get to dictate, through pontification at least, how we do so. It seems like common sense to me, though, that such a shark-like gamer would rather reintroduce his games to the used market than let it collect dust on a shelf or in a box somewhere. Surely the developers who are “so wronged” by the sale and purchase of used games can understand this?  Moreover, there are intangible benefits to the games industry such as increased exposure which leads to greater sales on the next title. Like films or music, games can become cult hits as word of mouth spreads and used copies are in demand for games that become popular months or years after release.

That said, EB games and (from what I hear) Gamestop are cynical companies who try and milk every penny they can get from customers. They are not fun stores to visit. The staff will harass you worse than in a clothing store to buy insurance policies on games as well as shilling for strategy guides, magazines, collectors’ editions, and so on. They are relentless and it is an ugly thing, causing a simple transaction to take far longer than necessary. It seems that most of their employees are gamers themselves and become increasingly disillusioned over time as they are forced to aggressively sell sell sell to their own kind.

But these are not the cardinal sins of these companies. The most ridiculous thing they do is tied up directly in the collection and resale of used games. They will offer pennies for games that were purchased for $60 (or sometimes a bit less). EB, at least, has some esoteric hierarchy by which they determine the value (per-game). In any case, they will mark these games up to a ridiculous extent. It makes sense to offer, say, half price on a used game which while new and in good condition, is being traded in quite a bit. It makes sense to offer a small price for games that have damaged cases, missing instructions, etc. It doesn’t make sense in any of these cases to resell these games at the prices EB does. I’ve seen them sell games that go new for $60 at $45 used which isn’t so bad unless you consider that this $45 game was probably purchased by EB from a gamer for maybe $10-20 dollars. EB has the right to make some money off of the service they provide, but Jesus. Worse are examples like offering less than $5 for a used game and then reselling it for $15+ which seems to be about the bare minimum they sell games for (on newer consoles).

That said, the trade-in deals are sometimes good. Offers like “trade in 3 games and get a new one free” sometimes work in peoples’ favor but depends completely on what games are being traded in. What EB Games doesn’t tell you is that these kinds of promotions don’t apply to anything you might have for them, which is understandable in the cases of older games/consoles which no longer sell. Otherwise, it can get a bit ridiculous when you bring in 10 games and only 2 are worth anything to EB. If you give ’em over anyway, you can bet they’ll show up somewhere in the world (assuming they send these to some kind of hub for processing before redistribution) marked up 1000%.

So that’s a reason not to deal with them in this capacity. That said, if you’re on a budget it only makes sense to seek out used games. Even more understandable is if you’re looking for a rare game or something old which bigger stores no longer sell (say a PSX game or even N64 or SNES). In any case where you want to trade-in/sell used games or buy something used or rare, I suggest going to smaller chains like Hi-Tech Game Traders (here in Saskatoon) who will probably treat you yards better than EB if only for competition’s sake.

These companies provide a necessary service in some cases. Their customer service is terrible, some of their policies are highly suspect and they remain incredibly unpopular with the informed, and they do put those annoying and impossible to remove stickers on fucking everything. Until digital distribution replaces material products as the majority platform, companies like EB are going to exist and piss everyone off. If you don’t like it, don’t deal with them. If you know how to use the internet, you don’t have an excuse thanks to things like kijiji, e-bay, and craigslist.

The Games Industry

The inflammatory words of Cory Ledesma are what prompted the initial debate and the commentary by Tycho and Gabe over at Penny Arcade. This guy describes the pre-owned market as a cheat on developers and apparently feels no sympathy for irked gamers who buy used and will not be able to play Smackdown vs. Raw 2011 online or enjoy online features. This will be a precedent and I suppose other THQ games will follow suit. Depending on how this all develops, other companies may employ similar tactics if they haven’t already. I understand combating piracy with things like CD keys which are necessary for online play (Blizzard games like Diablo 2 spring to mind). This is a policy that doesn’t hurt people who buy games used (because no one would buy a used copy without the CD key, presumably).

What should be understood about this is that, at some point, the used game was purchased new. Same as any new game. At that moment, the developers (and related groups) are benefiting and not being cheated. This is a fact. If 10 people buy the game new and 5 of them resell it to EB or whomever, 10 games were still bought. The used games continue to circulate and be played and this is a good thing for the people who make them. Also a fact. That this isn’t evident to Ledesma, or to the guys at PA it seems, is very weird to me and I’ll be directly rebutting Tycho below.

Aside from this seemingly critical issue, developers are the ones who ask gamers to pay extra for content that, once upon a time, was just part of the game. At the time of release, far after the game’s final version is locked in most cases, there is extra content ready to go and this is often released “for free” to people who either buy the game new, or purchase a special collector’s edition. I am all for cool packaging and nifty stuff like the Dead Space art book or the cloth map I got with my Dragon Age: Origins collector’s ed. I am not for using this stuff as a mask for the fact that the bump in price is about making extra money and probably doesn’t directly correlate to the cost of cereal box prizes.

That said, as before, I don’t really have a problem with stuff like “extra items” or whatever being offered as a bonus to people who buy the product new. Content packages which alter or extend the game should be available on a paid basis, also, as they are months after release as DLC cycles play themselves out (I don’t have a problem paying for each and every expansion of Mass Effect or Dragon Age for example). But core features, such as aforementioned multi-player, and game modes should be included with the “final product” for new and used purchasers alike. I mean, what difference does it really make? These games are being purchased new. Once this happens, whatever else is done with the game whether it is broken, buried as treasure, used as a Frisbee, re-gifted, or sold to EB makes no never-mind to the original sale. I can understand if the industry people are a bit miffed that there are parasitic entities like EB who make money off of this as I’m sure GM and other major car manufacturers aren’t huge fans of the used car industry. But once that game has been sold, it’s none of their business. Not to mention that taking out their angst on the gamer is stupid to begin with.

That said, it is reasonable to expect consumers to “pay to play”. The problem is that developers are making this up as they go along, with no clear dividing line to truly separate bonus content from core features except that which they can get away with on a case by case or precedent by precedent basis. It’s nice that the prevalence of online support has led to game developers finding ways to create extra content, offer patches that fix bugs, etc. This trend should continue. Find ways to make a game have lasting value will increase the likelihood that a consumer will keep it and not resell it, though this is a short-term tactic which will eventually be unnecessary. For now, there’s a disparity between games which patently offer endless hours of play due to MPC, replay features, etc and those that offer either a short SPC with obvious padding including perfunctory online features and/or zero replay value. Both types of game cost $60 in stores.

For this to change, the industry should develop some self-awareness. For my money, a game like Fallout 3 deserves more credit than the latest movie cash-in (though to be fair, these much-maligned games are starting to improve).

As for Tycho Brahe

In his discussion of the issue, the guy says that from a developer’s point of view, the purchase of used games is tantamount to piracy. This is just plain wrong. It’s true that a sale needs to happen in most cases for a game to become available to pirates, but infinite copies can be made and distributed of a pirated game (because that game has been digitized, it is no longer necessary to use physical media if you have the know-how). Used games are still physical entities and every one of them was at some point purchased new by a customer. These are completely separate and distinct things. If developers can’t see the difference, they are misunderstanding the nature of both piracy and the used game market which seems unbelievable to me.

Most people who buy games are not buying them to reward producers or ensure the future of the industry except in the abstract. As in, the buying of a new game has these effects but they are not foremost on the mind of the consumer. The consumer wants to buy the game to play the game. It behooves the producer to cooperate to a reasonable extent. That said, only education is going to turn everybody into the conscientious and selfless consumer Tycho understandably thinks we should be, but this transition needs to start somewhere and it isn’t going to be the reaction to strong arm tactics by an increasingly protectionist industry. I believe selflessness should start with the producer, especially in an industry where it is difficult to hold in esteem any one creator or sometimes even any one company. It’s easy to be conscientious and selfless in the purchasing of music or films because it is far easier to identify the people we want to support. The fact of the game is not, clearly, enough for people to think in this way.

I know I’m wading into is vs. ought territory here, and if Tycho wanted to argue why gamers should start the conscientious respectful revolution  I am all ears. I just sincerely doubt the gaming industry will be benefiting from that anytime soon and I wonder if maybe the corporations that comprise it should act first.  Right now it seems like developers are trying to stagger the money we spend with them so that it’s a continuous, long-term transaction and while I support this in theory (who doesn’t like more content to enjoy!?) I do think it’s a pretty transparent move toward the mercenary and even if wrong,  gamers clearly resent it.

In addition, he points to Microsoft’s XBL for an example of pay-to-play online as being the same as THQ’s new tactic. It is not the same. XBL is a subscription service that gives access to tons of content and features and there is a version offered for free. Microsoft charges one fee for all games that use online features and multi-player. This does not discriminate against thrifty gamers.

In Conclusion

It’s as simple as this: if producers and developers want to combat piracy and the rising costs of production as well as economic slowdown in general, they have to find a better way than trying to trick savvy consumers out of their money.  A lot of pirates are just people looking for a free ride, but I know that many are also disgruntled consumers who have found a way to opt out of a zero-sum game. They want the media and their problem isn’t paying for it, it’s traversing the labyrinthine policies of company after company who want $$$ just as fast, easy, and disreputably as some people want to avoid giving it to them.  Of course, that’s a generalization that only education can overturn. Consumers need to inform themselves about “good” companies and “bad” ones and I think these companies who want to be perceived as good, or at least avoid being perceived as bad, need to stop thinking only about the bottom line and devote some time to understanding their customers. It seems like we’re starting to live in a world where earning the right to gamers’ money (and not only gamers) is about more than just sticking a product on a shelf.

Everybody is the asshole on this one, though. From what I’ve written, I may come off as biased toward gamers which is only understandable because I am a gamer. I think Tycho and I agree about companies like Gamestop, but I seriously disagree with the issue developers like Cory Ledesma have in at least this context. Developers consistently rush games out with bugs (they never fix, even though with XBL updates they often can) or drop expansions and such within days of initial release, expecting consumers not to blink (which though they do, doesn’t seem to stop them from buying).

Gamers need to “vote with their wallets” which is hard to do in such a stop-gap industry. Stores like EB need to seriously re-evaluate their business practices. And developers need to remember that long ago time 15ish years ago when they weren’t the backbone of a multi-billion dollar industry.

And everyone needs to embrace digital distribution. That is all.