Mass Effect 3 Screenshot

There's been a lot of chatter lately about buying new games versus used games, and I've been asked several times about my stance on the whole thing.

I don't have a pat, easy answer, and if I was to tackle every single angle on the subject in a comprehensive manner, this entry would take me weeks to write. I don't have that kind of time and I suspect that I would get bored of the topic before I got to the end. As such, this particular blog post isn't going to have an answer to every single question that can be asked, but I have been thinking quite a bit about it.

So, used versus new… It's a huge topic to begin with, and it's only gotten more complicated due to the various tricks made possible by online connections. Thanks to these "innovations", something that has never been black-and-white to start with is now more grey than it's ever been. That said, let me try to pick apart the various strands of the problem as I see them, one by one…

F*ck Pirates

I am 100% anti-piracy, I don't advocate piracy under any circumstances whatsoever, and there's not a thing anyone can say to me to convince me that piracy is in any way justified or correct. It's straight-up stealing, period.

Why am I bringing up the issue of piracy in a discussion about used versus new? Because used games aren't piracy. Rentals aren't, either. Problem solved, the end.

Profit is not Evil

Games don't just fall out of the sky or get plucked from the gravid branches of lush trees in warm climates. In general, it takes a lot of people a lot of time to make a game that's worth playing, and it takes a publisher to keep those people fed and clothed until something hits retail. Money has to be made—after all, it's not like you get up out of bed every morning and go slave away in an office for eight hours because you've got nothing better to do, right? You do it to pay for your rent, to be able to party later that night, to afford healthcare, and so on. In order for games to exist, the people who make and distribute these games must get paid. Developers and publishers are human beings just like you and me, so it's a no-brainer.

Something else that's pretty clear to me?

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Screenshot

Consumers Need to Have Rights

As far as I'm concerned, this is one of the biggest things that needs to be looked at in the used versus new debate, and it gets very little attention from any side—even from the very consumers who are being hurt!

The problem is this: Both developers and publishers are doing everything they can to convince gamers to buy games brand-new and are effectively waging war on the used games market. What's the dilemma? In this brave world, the hard-working people who pony up the cash for new have absolutely no recourse if they buy something they end up not liking, or even worse, buy something that's just broken.

While many games offer playable demos on the various online services, not all do. It may be easy to tell which genre a new title falls into, but there are countless factors that determine whether or not a person will enjoy that buy, and ultimately whether they feel as though they got their money's worth.

It's easy to get lured into a game by a great cover art, energetic screenshots, carefully-directed trailers, overly-hyperbolic previews from overly-hyperbolic writers, and ubiquitous ad campaigns. That said, a person still won't know that the game will be to their taste until they try it. Since I don't know of any store that will accept an open video game and refund a consumer's money, asking people to take this leap of faith at $60 a pop is a little unreasonable, not to mention it shows an enormous lack of confidence in the final product. You need to trap your customers in no-escape sales? really?

(Hello, GameFly!)

Completely apart from the matter of personal taste, more and more games are being released unfinished, buggy, or genuinely broken. If you ask me, a consumer who picks up a glitchy piece of software should have every right to return it as a non-working purchase and get their money back—yet again, I don't know of any store anywhere that will issue a refund under these circumstances.

If you ask me, it takes a hell of a lot of gall to ask a consumer to risk $60 on something that they don't know is to their taste, and which may or may not be in a functional state. Such business practices put the consumer at a terrible disadvantage by stripping away all normal guarantees, and I am hard-pressed to think of any other product or industry that asks for as much faith on the part of the consumer (with no assurances given whatsoever) as video games do.

Since used games can be returned for the full purchase price at GameStop and other retailers for a variety of reasons including "I just didn't like it", that serves as a huge incentive to buy used, totally apart from lower cost.

Furthermore, it needs to be said that…

Mass Effect 3 Screenshot

Not Every Game is Worth $60

Although some publishers have been experimenting with various price points, the vast majority of titles come out at the same one-size-does-not-fit-all MSRP. While more affluent gamers may shrug off $60 with little concern, that's quite a lot of money to some people.

With that in mind, I would be quite happy to pay $60, $75 or even $100 for a huge (bug-free) open-world RPG with fantastic characters and interesting quests, especially considering how much time and effort goes into something like that. On the other hand, I'm leery of spending more than $20 or $30 on a shooter that can be finished in a weekend, or on an experimental title that has some good ideas, but stumbles over itself on the production side. For such games, buying used for a cheaper price just makes sense since relative value isn't there.

What about DLC, Pre-orders and Passes?

Since it seems no game under the sun can be released without some sort of multiplayer function these days, seeing publishers charge for online multiplayer is now the norm. Honestly, this is one aspect of the new games industry that actually makes sense to me.

Having dedicated servers up and employing the tech support people who constantly clean up code and keep things running costs money, and it's not unreasonable for the people providing these services to ask for compensation from the people using these services. It's also fair in the sense that that people who don't want to play multiplayer don't have to pay for it. I sure don't.

Finally, pre-order bonuses, exclusive DLC and the like—really, it makes complete sense that a publisher (or any producer of a product, game or not) would want to give consumers incentive to buy new as opposed to buying used. I don't blame them, and the more I think about it, the less opposed to it I am—however, there are a few things to chew on here.

For example, offering content that's only available with a new purchase doesn't sit quite right with me in light of the "buying on faith" issues I raised earlier. As someone who tends to be a completist for games I'm a fan of, I'm a lot more comfortable with the idea if this same content is available (for a price) to players who buy used.

L.A. Noire Screenshot

I certainly don't mind paying $10 for a few missions or an extra character that new buyers get for free, as long as I'm sure that I like the game and that I want more. In such a situation, it's totally up to me whether I pay that money or not, and for quality products that enhance my experience, I'm happy to support developers and publishers via DLC.

Keeping that goodwill support that in mind, the issue of what constitutes a "complete" game is up for discussion, and the thought that content might be removed and repurposed as DLC really rubs me the wrong way.

For example, it was hard not to notice the two missing chapters in Assassin's Creed II, or the inexplicable "escapee" cutscene in Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Both of those games were supposed to be "complete", yet it was pretty clear to me and many others that something was missing. The same could be said of Shale in Dragon Age: Origins, and both Mass Effect 3 and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning are both about to launch with bits of "extra" content held back. It remains to be seen exactly how relevant these things will be, but I fear that the slide down a very slippery slope is already well underway.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, I could go on for weeks trying to cover every single angle of this discussion—things like a future of download-only games leaving players with even less power and fewer rights than they already have, or what about those whispers of a console that somehow won't play used games? I'm pretty sure that George Orwell predicted that one a while ago. Regardless, I think I've hit most of the major used versus new points that bear discussion at the moment, and this is a pretty good reflection of where I'm sitting at right now, not only as a critic, but also as a consumer and someone who has spent the lion's share of his life eating, breathing, and talking video games.

If you ask me (and really, if you don't want to know, then why did you read this far?) I strongly believe that a compromise needs to be reached. Whether you fall on the side of used or new, it's easy to see that neither one is completely correct. In my perfect world, consumers would be able to return games within reason, and publishers and developers would put out games that were complete, functional, and priced to reflect the value being delivered.

In such a fantasy land, I think everyone involved would be quite happy to keep this particular economic engine running, and all sides would come away satisfied. Whether any such situation could become a reality remains to be seen, but this murky, groping middle ground the games industry currently occupies can't and won't be held forever.


Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway

Brad Gallaway has been gaming since the days when arcades were everywhere and the Atari 2600 was cutting edge. So, like... A while.

Currently, he's got about 42 minutes a night to play because adulting is a timesuck, but despite that, he's a happily married guy with two kids who both have better K/D ratios than he does.

Brad still loves Transformers, he's on Marvel Puzzle Quest when nobody at the office is looking, and his favorite game of all time is the first Mass Effect -- and he thought the trilogy's ending was Just Fine, Thanks.

Follow Brad on Twitter at @BradGallaway
Brad Gallaway

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19 Comments on "Used vs. New: This critic’s opinion"

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aesquire
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Odofakyodo, I used median wages to illustrate my point because using average or “mean” wages paints a misleading picture of American wealth. This article does a better job of explaining this concept than I can: http://blogs.payscale.com/ask_dr_salary/2006/09/if_median_is_be.html Basically, looking at American wages through a median lens gives a more accurate picture of what Americans actually earn because it better accounts for the number of people actually earning that income (1/2 make less than the median, and 1/2 make more). Because the mean value is more sensitive to extreme wealth disparities, looking at American wages through a means lens would show a… Read more »
Odofakyodo
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aesquire, my issue with your line of thinking (“the Average American is not doing so hot”) is that things just aren’t that simple. For one thing, “median household” is not the same thing as “Average American”. “Median” does not mean “average”, and household sizes have declined in the past 30 years (and even more significantly in the past 40 years), leaving more income per person. Furthermore, I don’t buy the “rising cost of living” argument because it fails to adequately address rises in living standards. I could be wrong, but you seem to be under the false assumption that goods… Read more »
aesquire
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Odofakyodo, the median household income has only risen 15% over the last 30 years. (See: http://motherjones.com/politics /2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph; see also:) During that same time, the cost of healthcare, college tuition, gas, and other major expenses have all increased at a disproportionately higher rate. Whatever small gains have been made in median income have been eaten up by the rising cost of living. As I said, in real economic terms, the Average American is not doing so hot. Obviously this isn’t the fault of the game industry, but neither is it the fault of consumers when gigantic publishers fail to read the… Read more »
Paul
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You’re absolutely right about concrete suggestions; no one seems to be suggesting them. The uncomfortable fact is that no matter how easy software piracy is now, in the future it is going to be so much faster and easier that our children will wonder how we ever managed to pirate anything with our tiny 500 GB hard drives and pokey 300 K/s download speeds. I actually do have a suggestion, which is not perfect but tries to get at what a potential solution might look like. Right now the Dept of Justice spends a bunch of money trying to stop… Read more »
Odofakyodo
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[quote=aesquire]Publishers need to understand some plain and simple facts: the income of the average American has been stagnant for 30 years.[/quote] aesquire, you made a great post and I’m sympathetic to your feelings, but I have to call this out. Where is this fact coming from? I’m looking at the historical tables from the Census Bureau and mean personal income has steadily risen during that time period. Regardless, I think you’re totally justified in avoiding businesses that engage in many of the practices you describe. I think if I was a publisher I’d try and make the customer experience easy,… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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That’s a great article by GC alum Kyle Orland — and somehow I’d missed it before you posted it. Thanks for sharing.

Mike Bracken
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Aesquire said: “If your company can’t survive in this economic climate it’s not the fault of the consumer. I don’t care if a company had to lay off 200 people and its CEO has ulcers the size of pancakes. I have a family to feed and student loans to pay off. Only in video game fantasyland is it my fault that a company failed to read the market, set realistic financial goals, and keep its budget under control.” Bravo — you’ve nailed it. I like the cut of your jib, sir. Of course, some industry apologist will now come along… Read more »
InfinityDevil
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With all of the new vs used posts out there, I see very few concrete suggestions. The GC team has a lot of experience with games, which means lots of experience with publisher and anti-used-game schemes. I would like to see a show dedicated to How It Should Be Done to let the publisher eat, the developer eat, and the consumer have some rights. To be sure there are hints and implications in the complaints, but it would really stimulate debate to see it spelled out. Take it from top to bottom, from the publisher to retailer to digital distribution… Read more »
Mike Bracken
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[quote=Hank]The quality is higher, and the quality/hr is generally higher than previous generations.[/quote]

That’s a completely subjective statement — one that I and more than a few other people would vehemently disagree with.

Mike Bracken
Guest
If you buy a used game, you certainly did pay for it. You just didn’t pay a developer for it. Of course, when I buy a used Honda, Honda isn’t getting that money either — yet they somehow still survive. The funny thing about the borrowing is that it hasn’t killed any of the industries that are supposedly so hurt by it. People have been borrowing things for centuries. Did the advent of recordable cassette tapes destroy the music industry like they claimed it would? No. Did the VCR really equate with the Boston Strangler like the MPAA argued? Nope.… Read more »
Odofakyodo
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Paul, the difference to me is in the contract that is set up with the consumer. Most retail disc console games don’t have some kind of contract legally preventing the consumer from selling the game to someone else. That is the business arrangement that the publisher and consumer have agreed to. Now there have been PC games that are “1 install” or “3 installs” and then they lock or something, but that is made clear to the consumer before the purchase. So the publisher and consumer have agreed to a different contract. Software “pirates” deliberately sidestep the law by copying… Read more »
Paul
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Brad, to say that piracy is essentially different from used games isn’t thinking things through. The creators of a game make exactly the same amount of money from a used game sale as they do from a pirated copy: $0. Buying a used game, or borrowing a game from my friend, or playing a game at my friend’s house, all allow me to enjoy a game I haven’t paid for, while depriving the content creator of a sale. If you think piracy is wrong because it deprives the creator of a sale, you have to acknowledge that borrowing and used… Read more »
Richard Nixon
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[quote=Hank]No way is piracy acceptable, or ethical, under any circumstances. If you make something, it’s yours. Even if you want to charge way more than others think it’s worth, or if you have lots of restrictions, or you are simply a terrible person. I have to believe anyone trying to justify piracy is not creating something, whether that something is a videogame, a book, a song or even a website.[/quote] Thinking in absolute, black or white terms precludes any discussion or exchange of ideas. You might want to reconsider how you think about issues. A decent book is ‘Thinking Fast… Read more »
Hank
Guest
No way is piracy acceptable, or ethical, under any circumstances. If you make something, it’s yours. Even if you want to charge way more than others think it’s worth, or if you have lots of restrictions, or you are simply a terrible person. I have to believe anyone trying to justify piracy is not creating something, whether that something is a videogame, a book, a song or even a website. The truth is, 2012, this is the cheapest videogames have ever been. The quality is higher, and the quality/hr is generally higher than previous generations. And a $50 game in… Read more »
aesquire
Guest
Personally, I’m past the point of engaging publishers in this nonsense. If a game hides single-player content behind an online code I don’t buy it. If a single-player game requires a persistent internet connection I don’t buy it. If a game offers paid cheats, items and other shortcuts as DLC I don’t buy it (as it is an implicit concession that the game is so tedious and un-fun that it’s better to skip enormous chunks of gameplay than to suffer through it). I don’t want to play your facebook or mobile game to get some garish, game-breaking item. I don’t… Read more »
Crofto
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Good article Brad, and I completely agree. The point about gamer’s rights is particularly true, and I’m sure fellow GC writer Peter Skerrit would further congratulate you on highlighting it. In the UK we have a small minority attempting to change things — such as making it harder for publishers to release broken games like Fallout: New Vegas — such as Gamers’ Voice (http://gamersvoice.org.uk/), but like you said gamers themselves seem excruciatingly reluctant/lazy when it comes to their rights as a consumer. I’m convinced that if companies tried to employ similar crap with films, DVDs, and music, that consumers would… Read more »
Anonymous
Guest

Agreed… IMO, the big problem is there’s very little trust between the publishers, the retailers and the consumers, for all the reasons you mentioned. One of the basic rules of capitalism is that trust is important. In the long run, you can’t do much business if you don’t trust anyone and no one trusts you.

Anonymous
Guest
Brad, it is very nice to have critics like you around… Let me first say that piracy is 100% illegal, there is no question about that. The question is whether it is 100% unethical… I believe not. I believe piracy is not in most cases a lost sale, piracy in fact improves the whole industry in various ways, and it certainly isn’t theft, it is copyright violation. Big difference… But let’s talk about the gaming industry for a moment… As you correctly mentioned, most games today do not deserve their MSRP at release. In fact, none of them deserves it.… Read more »
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