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…
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?
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?
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…
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.
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.