Buying and selling used video games has become a fact of life for many consumers -- but if game publishers get their way, it's about to become a lot more difficult.
One 2009 estimate puts the size of the used game business at about $2 billion, representing about one-third of all annual game sales. That's a big deal, especially for market leader Gamestop, which is thought to get over 40% of its profits from reselling traded-in games. Major retail chains like Best Buy, Walmart, and Amazon have all dipped their toe in this lucrative market over the past year.
But while it's a serious earner for retailers, it's a complete bust for game publishers, who make nothing from secondhand sales of video games. They're looking for ways to get a piece of the pie -- or, failing that, to take the pie away altogether. Here's a few of the tactics they're using to make buying and selling used games harder for consumers.
Single-use download codes
Were you one of the millions who bought smash hit space opera Mass Effect 2 last month? If so, you probably noticed it came with a card bearing a code that gives the purchaser access to the game's online "Cerberus Network," containing all manner of downloadable goodies. Buy it used, though, and you'll have to pay a $15 fee first. Ouch.
But those are extras, right? You can still play the game without the Cerberus Network, if you don't want to pay. Nobody's actually removing features from games for used purchasers, are they?
Actually, yes, they are. Just-released PSP shooter SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Fireteam Bravo 3, which proudly trumpets "a robust competitive multiplayer component...continuing the franchiseâ€™s tradition of unparalleled multiplayer gaming," requires buyers to register online before they can access its online modes -- and that's a one-time deal. Buy it used, and you'll have to fork over an additional $20 (which goes straight into the publisher's pocket) if you want to play online.
Buying games through Xbox Live, the Playstation Network, Steam, or other download channels is convenient. It's quick, it's easy, and because your purchases are tied to your account (Xbox Live ID, Steam username, etc.), you can re-download them easily in the future. But what you gain in convenience, you lose in value: there's typically no way to transfer ownership of these games without giving up your whole account. Want to sell just one digitally-purchased game? Tough.
Think you can avoid that by only buying physical copies of PC games? Not so. Take Spore, one of the best-selling titles of 2008: if you have a physical, boxed copy of the game, you can certainly resell it. But the buyer won't actually be able to install the game without the username and password originally used to register it. Don't have that? Better hope you can convince the seller to cough it up, or else you're out of luck.