In Defense of Used Games

I have talked about used games before. I am going to talk about them again, as a rebuttal against this video from Total Biscuit regarding how he justifies his belief that used games are bad.

Before I start, there is one fundamental truth that needs to be acknowledged: a used game sale is a new game sale at a lower price-point. No one is seeking out used games because they are used, they are sought because they are less expensive. Incidentally, this same principal applies if someone is able to re-sell a game they bought, as the ability to recoup part of the cost means the original purchase becomes less expensive.

Without further ado, let me examine each of TB’s arguments against used games:

1) Used Game Sales support shady/pushy retailers

Or, the GAME (in UK) and GameStop Are Bad argument.

It is absolutely true that retailers who specialize in used game sales push used games sales over new ones; the original sale is a recouping of an investment for the store, whereas each additional resell is nearly pure profit. I am not interested in defending the practices of GameStop (etc) though, primarily because it is irrelevant and red herring besides. No matter how much you swing the “games as licenses” argument, the fact remains that used game sales are legal in the United States and presumably elsewhere – GAME and GameStop would have been sued into the ground otherwise. The shadiness of any organization does not reflect on the product they provide. You can picket Wal-mart for all sorts of legitimate reasons, but that does not make cheap groceries immoral.

I have gone into a GameStop all of twice in my life, whereas I frequented a mom-and-pop used game shop next to the local theater for the better part of a decade. I went there because their used games were cheaper, and you received more store credit (or cash) than GameStop provided, all in a no-pressure sale environment. Ergo, any argument that uses the removal of used games as a vehicle to attack a retailer you don’t like is simply ridiculous. GameStop’s practices have nothing to do with the “question” of used games, as there are alternative stores which do not behave in similar fashion.

2) Used games do not depreciate

This honestly reminds me of the “you wouldn’t download a car” PSA. Even if we take this claim on face value… so what? Is the argument supposed to be that used game sales would have been fine if the AI started glitching out on its own five years from now?

To be charitable, I am going to assume instead that people are referring to how physical depreciation of goods naturally differentiates two otherwise identical products, potentially justifying the premium on the unused version. In which case, I’d argue that something similar already occurs even in purely digital products.

Videogames are not released in a vacuum – they are always a product of their times. While the actual data bits do not decay, the value and meaning of them in the mind of a player certainly can. There are whole classes of videogames that I literally cannot bring myself to play anymore, because the graphics are too primitive, or the resolution too low, and so on. Innovation in mechanics or design can render older titles feeling stilted or slow, even though nothing in the original game itself has changed. Some games hold up better than others, of course, and many older games are arguably better than new titles. But on a certain base level, videogames do depreciate, if not literally then culturally.

If you do not find this counter-argument particularly compelling, that’s fine, but allow me to make two final observations. First, no one expects a game to remain $59.99 two, three, four years after release. If games do not depreciate in value, why do you think we see the companies themselves reduce the price? Second, how much do you think your unopened City of Heroes or Battlefield 2 box will go for these days?

3) Music and Film industries are less harmed by secondary sales

TB’s point here is a roundabout justification for how videogames are a special case when it comes to secondary sales, despite music and movies also being digital goods without depreciation. Buying used movies is less harmful to studios, he argues, because a particular film can make the bulk of its money in the theater, followed by Pay-Per-View, DVD sales, rentals, and finally syndication on TV networks. Similarly, music artists get the bulk of their profits from concert tickets, in addition to (small) payments from streaming services and finally the default CD sales. In other words, music and movies have multiple revenue streams whereas videogames have just the one.

To which I must ask: whose fault is that?

As a consumer, you are not responsible for a company’s business model. It is perfectly fine to want the developers to be paid for their work, or to wish the company continued success. But presuming some sort of moral imperative on the part of the consumer is not only impossible, it’s also intellectually dishonest. You and I have no control over how a game company is run, how much they pay their staff, what business terms they ink, or how they run their company. Nobody asked EA to spend $300+ million on SWTOR. Nobody told Curt Schilling to run 38 Studios into the ground. Literally nobody wanted THQ to make the tablet that bankrupted the studio.

What is worse though is the implicit moral superiority that is derived for buying “legit.” If game companies and their designers deserve to be paid, and we have some moral obligation to do so, doesn’t that mean they deserve ALL the money? I cannot even begin to imagine the mental gymnastics Total Biscuit had to perform when he denigrated used games and celebrated Steam sales in the same breath. When you buy a game for 75% off, that is you robbing the game company of 75% of the money they deserve. Not even deserve, really, considering by many metrics they are entitled to much, much more than the purchase price given the total amount of enjoyment derived.

That sounds absurd, and it is, but that is my point; you cannot make the moral imperative argument and only go halfway. A company either deserves $59.99 or they don’t. Alternatively, you are not responsible for their business models at all, and are fully justified in maximizing your consumer surplus, e.g. by waiting for sales, buying used, etc. It is noble to wish these designers success, at least when such nobility is followed-up with busting out your checkbook. Otherwise, it is so many empty words.

4) Once used games are removed, games will be cheaper

No, seriously, Total Biscuit actually said this, presumably with a straight face.

Why in god’s name would anyone rationally assume that the removal of competition (in the form of secondary sales) would force or even encourage game prices to decrease? Everyone keeps pointing to Steam with its effects on PC gaming, as if Steam weren’t the exception that proved the rule. Everyone acknowledges that used games on the PC haven’t existed for quite some time, but no one seems to follow-up that thought with what should have been an obvious question to ask: were there big discounts on PC games back before Steam?

Good lord, no! You were at the complete mercy of retailers who almost never marked anything down from MSRP. And why would they? You literally could not buy these games anywhere else. If you found a good deal, it was likely because nobody was buying that game and the store wanted to liquidate their stock. Outside of fire sales, there was/is always going to be resistance from retailers over discounting a game’s price because there is a minimum cost involved with pressing a DVD, shipping it across the country, unloading it in the back, and paying people to sort and shelve it.

Incidentally, this is another reason why I don’t think future console games will be cheaper: there will still be hard copies sold. Do you think retailers would let Microsoft sell Halo 6 for $40 online and $59.99 in stores? Of course, there is a pseudo-analog that exists right now between PC vs digital download games, with things wildly alternating for no apparent reason. For example, it’s somehow $20 cheaper Amazon to ship me DVD of Bioshock Infinite than it is to download a copy of it. Or maybe that does make sense, insofar as what I explained earlier about retailers trying to liquidate stock.

If you legitimately believe Xbox One games are going to be cheaper, let me ask you two things. First, what kind of deals have you seen on XBLA titles? Similar in size, scope, and frequency to Steam sales? Microsoft has already dabbled in digital games for which no secondary sales exist, so their pricing behavior now may reflect any potential behavior in the future. Second, what kind of deals have you seen on Origin in the last, I dunno, two years? There have been a few recently, but very rarely more than 50%, and they are not nearly on a scale as Steam. That is a publisher who has as near a 100% profit margin on every digital sale as possible, and even they are not willing to compete on price with retailers who sell game codes on EA’s own platform!

The point here is that Steam is the exception that proves the rule. I bought Tomb Raider on the PC for $20 a mere three months – three months – after its $49.99 release. Granted, it was via Green Man Gaming, but it activated on Steam. Do you honestly believe that the only difference between our present console MSRP reality and a hypothetical all-digital future is the mere possibility of resell? That companies would be fine with a $30 markdown for a limited time a few months after release? Maybe. Maybe we don’t see similar sales because GameStop (etc) would buy a few pallets of discs at $20/each to sell at $40 after the sale is over. Then again, I could have done that exact same thing via GMG and just sold the activation codes. Actually… that’s not a bad idea…

Simply put, this argument requires a striking amount of faith in game publishers to work. Consumers are being asked to cede an enormous amount of implicit value, not just in resell value, but also in control over how they play these games (tied to accounts, phone home every 24 hours, no borrowing, etc). We are asked to cede these values all in the hopes that companies like Microsoft will not simply keep charging $59.99 out of… well, out of the goodness of their hearts. That is not enough for me. There is certainly every economic incentive to keep things running business-as-usual, after all.

5) Used games cost the companies money in terms of support/servers.

It is true that game companies “must” provide support to even non-paying (i.e. used game) customers in a way that movie and music companies do not. However, there are two things wrong with the argument TB is presenting. First, it sort of assumes that the game was not worth playing for very long in the first place. Total Biscuit’s example was how a company would need to provide support to a gamer for two months, and then a new player who bought the copy from the first guy for another two months, and a third person, and so on. The difference between that scenario and one guy who plays continuously for 6+ months is… what?

Total Biscuit’s second point about non-payers in multiplayer (presumably driving up bandwidth costs or whatever) caused me to facepalm IRL. Maybe he has never heard about why the Free-2-Play model works, or more importantly how it works? Someone playing the latest Call of Duty secondhand is providing content to “legitimate” players in a way that a no-longer-playing gamer by definition is not. I mean, that’s the premise of the argument, right? That the first dude sold his game, and is now an empty seat in a lobby somewhere. You do not even need to have the full F2P development plan set up to appreciate the fact that an extra body is making your multiplayer experience that much more worthwhile when it otherwise could/would have been nobody.


As I pointed out in the beginning, let me point out again: used game sales are new game sales at a lower price point. Nothing is stopping companies from lowering the prices for their games and otherwise being more competitive with used games. You might think that used game prices would simply adjust to compensate, and maybe they would, but that is an argument against selling at anything less than full MSRP, ever. Which is clearly ridiculous.

In any case, time marches on. Even though I see this forceful transition into all-digital games as a net-negative for gamers (and it is), I am obviously not against digital platforms themselves. I am just a bit miffed that the transition is being accelerated by Microsoft (etc) before the question on the transferability of licenses is fully settled, at least in US law. Believe me, the day will come when we shall be able to buy a Steam game (license) and then sell it to someone else after we are done.

At which point I’m sure the suits will pine for the days when it was at least possible for someone to lose their disc.

Edit: Removed incorrect “et tal” usage. Thanks, Tobold.

Posted on June 3, 2013, in Philosophy and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. One of the things to note for the “games would be cheaper” argument: the price of a new video game has barely varied since the late 80s, in nominal dollars, even without taking into account inflation (this doesn’t really count the old budget/shovel-ware market, but the rise of free/”free to play”/cheap iOS and online games probably more than makes up for it if you were to average it out).

    That an argument against used games is that the absence of a second-hand market, publishers and retailers would lower prices substantially is a bit odd, when things like multiple levels of collectors editions, day one DLC, and “Project $10” have seen them desperately trying to turn enthusiasm into a higher effective price for years.

    I’m half convinced that the move against used games this concole generation is a way to reassure publishers that the inevitable jump in development costs won’t ruin them (it’s almost certainly coming- the Xbox one supports 4K output, compared to the 720p native output for the 360- while I doubt it’ll run games at the higher resolution, there’s still a jump in visual fidelity that’s going to be expected, and that they’ll have to deliver).


    • Yeah, I’ve always puzzeled over the argument that “games are cheaper than ever before because inflation.” No one seems to care that prices were originally set at niche hobbiest levels, and not the more reasonable mass-market prices. For example, when FF6 on the SNES was released in the US, it was sold for $79.99. No one would think that’s a reasonable price for a non-collector’s edition game today, but in 20 years the normal MSRP for a new game is still $59.99.

      Have development costs increased? People say that without really proving it, but let’s just assume that it is true across the board. So what? The market for videogames is undeniably larger than it has ever been, and thus volume should be more than sufficient to cover the costs, assuming your game is worth buying. And besides, like I mention in the article, no one is telling these companies that they need to spend outrageous sums on development costs in the first place.

      You are probably right that some consumers may eventually expect games with 4K graphics. And maybe some titles could not afford to not throw millions of dollars down that hole for fear of losing their market position (“Halo 7 does’t support 4K but CoD 16 does, boo!”). But all of those things are choices companies choose to make themselves, not realities of the marketplace. We have enough indie blockbusters (*rimshot*) to defininitely prove that the price of a game is completely arbitrary.


  2. Really interesting and polarizing subject. We do not see “used games” disappearing anytime soon. They are still a necessity for many gamers.


  3. So many people seem so stubborn in their views on this that maybe it’s time to go back to the drawing board and remember why intellectual property is a valuable concept to begin with.

    A game isn’t a commodity. It’s not a physical thing at all. Like all IP– film, literature, music– a game is a reproducible pattern, in this case a pattern of data [proverbial ones and zeros], and according to IP law the person or people who figured out that very very specific pattern that makes that game experience happen has the sole right to profit from it, because we recognise that people creating things is good and want to ensure they are rewarded for their contribution to society.

    So what I’m saying is that intellectual property is good for our society. Hopefully we can all agree with this at least.

    It’s easy to dehumanise big companies [and the relationship between company and actual creators is a subject for a different debate] but the fact is that they are creating value for our society. Our world is richer because they created an awesome thing that didn’t exist before.

    You can’t own someone else’s intellectual property. You can own the disc, but you don’t get to own the IP just because you paid the creator to use it. Because you don’t own it, you don’t have the right to sell it legally. Many many people just can’t seem to wrap their heads around this conceptually; they can’t get past the feeling of “I am holding a thing therefore it’s mine” that having a physical object creates.

    I’m not going to tell anyone not to sell used games; that’s not my right or responsibility. What I feel like I need to say though is that any argument for selling used games is an argument against the value of intellectual property itself.

    It wrinkles my brain a bit that people talk about profiting from other people’s IP as though it were some kind of inalienable human right.


    • This:

      […] has the sole right to profit from it […]

      and this:

      Because you don’t own it, you don’t have the right to sell it legally.

      …is wrong. To argue otherwise is to claim that GameStop and thousands of other stores are breaking the law. Are they? Did no one tell Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft? Why did a used game market ever exist in the first place if they could be sued into the ground? No, the entire question of this and any used game debate revolves around when the IP holder’s claim to copyright (regarding sale) ends. And pre-digital era, the answer has unequivocally been after the first sale.

      Yes, I cannot print new copies of, say, Heavy Rain. I cannot claim I designed the game. But I can sell my copy of it to someone else. Hell, I bought my copy used off of Amazon in the first place. Someone call the police, amirite?

      Right now, you and Tobold and many others’ frankly asinine worldviews are holding up in US court; that purely digital games are somehow magically different than those same digital games sold on a storage medium. But that will change. Indeed, the entire house of cards of digital music resale is currently resting on the fact that you can’t move a digital file without necessarily creating a copy in the process – a technicality that will either get paved over and adequately addressed eventually. From there, it’s a short hop, skip, and jump to tackling “game licenses” wherein companies still claim you buy/purchase something when in fact they mean lease/rent.

      As for conflating used game sales with an attack on the value of IP itself, spare me the sensationalism. If you want to invoke what’s good for society, fine, but try and justify how life of author + 70 years in any way benefits society, and not simply the rent-seeking corporations that exploit the very artists who created the value in the first place.


  4. My apologies for being factually incorrect. Could have done without the condescending tone and sarcasm though. Christ man…

    At some point the law will need to catch up to the fact that IP is not something we can “force” to be tangible enough for our old ideas about ownership to work properly. I doubt it will ever happen, and I’ve nearly given up convincing people that having something is not the same as owning it, people who seem to care more about the name of the transaction than what they actually get from it.

    I don’t mean to be sensational, I’m clarifying why I think IP laws need to be protected, not eroded– our society is better for the fact that we support people who create things. Selling a used game detaches the creator from the IP system that supports them. I’m not saying it’s a huge crime, but it is wrong. I think it should be illegal, if only to stop game stores from exploiting it on the massive scale they currently do.


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