Digital Resale

As you might have heard, a French consumer group is suing Valve over, amongst other things, the inability of customers to resell their Steam games. The actual likelihood of this case being successful is rather low, as a German consumer group sued Valve (for the 2nd time) and lost last year. Which is interesting, considering reselling software licenses was ruled legal in Europe back in 2012.

The entire issue is fascinating to me though, as it touches on a lot of philosophical, economic, and even political points. There has been this historical dichotomy in gaming since at least the 90s, where we (in the US) have just simply accepted that computer games cannot be resold, but an entire industry can be built around reselling console games. I mean, think about it: why? Why the difference?

It seems we just kinda decided – rather arbitrarily, I might add – that because the PC disk wasn’t necessarily after installing the game, or that it’d be too easy to copy, that we shouldn’t be able to resell it. But what does that actually matter from a rights perspective? “You don’t own the game, you own the license.” Yeah, unless it’s an Xbone copy of Call of Duty, or a music album, or a DVD, in which case it apparently doesn’t matter.

If you have been following this blog for any particular length of time, you might know that I am a stalwart consumer advocate. And thus, I also agree that we should have the right to resell game licenses. None of the counter-arguments are at all compelling, and mostly seem to revolve around “it’s always been that way” or “think of the children game developers!” About the only halfway interesting one was something along these lines:

As a consumer I do care about this, as I can only see digital resales being viable if the game enforces online authentication every time you start up the game. Physical games don’t need this as they use authentication with the physical medium, you need the disc to play.

Some people also brought up the Xbone launch debacle. The problem is… these are non-issues. The Xbone was going to require a constant internet connection, or at least the ability to phone home every 24 hours, which has nothing at all to do with licenses. Requiring a connection for when you purchase or sell a license? Uh… yeah. That’s fine. You’ll presumably need a connection to download or sell the goddamn game in the first place. There is zero reason to require verification after that, other than to be nosy.

As for the impact to game developers? I mean this in the kindest way possible: not my problem. Nor is it yours. It is intellectually dishonest to wring your hands over such a development if you aren’t already very concerned about, say, Steam sales in general. Businesses are abstract, amoral entities that don’t give two shits about you. They are not your friends. If it were up to them, games would cost $2,000 apiece and require you to drive to their headquarters to play them.

Will game companies start doing more micro-transactions/DLC/services bullshit to recapture funds lost by a used game license scenario? Maybe. Then again, that sounds exactly like the same dumb argument that we shouldn’t be paying fast food workers more because it encourages businesses to replace workers with robots. Guess what? They’re going to do it anyway.

Honestly, just like with everything, it’d be best for everyone involved if game companies got ahead of the legislation on this. I don’t see any reason why Value couldn’t implement a system of resale that includes a cut for both Valve and the developer. When I sell a Steam trading card for $0.10, Valve takes two cents. No particular reason why Valve couldn’t take 30% (or even more) of the resale value for facilitating the transaction, and give X amount of that to the developer. If Valve, et al, tries to fight the future on this one, they might be stuck with a defined activation fee at best, while gamers trade licenses on eBay, Craigslist, etc.

Posted on December 21, 2015, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. The dev impact: It becomes your problem when game quality or costs go up, or we get more hoops to jump through via authentication. I only care about the devs in that I want them to continue makes the games I want and for them to start up nice and quick via Steam, but reselling games isn’t going to help me with that, so no thanks because of that.

    The fast food thing: If the human worker is cheaper than the machine, and quality of work is relatively even, the human stays. Right now the human is cheaper at McDonalds, but at $15 an hour, not as much. In a warehouse the machine is already cheaper, because the machine is faster, stronger, works the needed longer hours, and isn’t customer-facing. Everyone who buys anything that travels via warehouse benefits in lower costs and more accurate service.

    Consoles are different than the PC marketplace as well. If a console game drops down to $25, that’s a huge sale. On the PC that’s normal, and $10 or even $5 is fairly common. What are you going to resell a game that is priced at $5 for? Again, for me personally, I don’t want the chance to make that dollar or two off an older game if it means the above negative factors, especially when you consider the possible effort involved in getting that dollar.

    If Steam didn’t exist and PC games were all locked at $50 and as hard to get as console games back in the 90s, sure. In today’s market? No thanks.


    • The issue with worker vs machine is that the machine is almost ALWAYS going to be cheaper, either immediately, or over time. There is zero sense to me to hold wages hostage to an amoral entity that is just going to inevitably automate everything anyway. What is the few extra years of unlivable wages going to accomplish, other than subsidize businesses? Honestly, the sooner we automate everything, the sooner we get to see if we’re getting a post-apocalypse nightmare unemployment scenario or something more sane like Basic Income. But that’s an entirely separate political discussion.

      As far as the game development side goes… same deal. We’re going to get asinine micro-transactions and awkward cash grabs no matter what we do. The good companies will continue being good, or they won’t, and cease being good. I can’t miss a hypothetical game that doesn’t end up existing. Besides, the entire console industry has survived decades of a second-hand market and by all measures they’re doing okay.

      Don’t get me wrong, it’ll be hugely disruptive compared to what we have today and all sorts of things will change. I have zero expectation that the end result will be that I buy a $60 game and am able to sell it for $50 when I get done with it. In fact, the precise dollar amount or percentage isn’t really the issue to me any more than it is when I sell a console game to GameStop. Reselling licenses is just a thing that seems largely inevitable, and if we are concerned about giving the game developers a piece of the action, then Valve and company are going to want to get ahead of this to make sure that happens.


      • “The issue with worker vs machine is that the machine is almost ALWAYS going to be cheaper, either immediately, or over time.”

        Not for a while (years, if not dozens of them) in a lot of basic areas (and not in our lifetime for higher-skilled jobs, if ever). Take McDonald’s for instance. Paying someone $7.50 is a lot cheaper than having to buy and maintain a machine to do all the small tasks said human can do, including dealing with irrational human customers. Now, if that goes up to $15, then McDonald’s not only replaces the human with the machine, but also changes how the service works in general, likely one that has a negative impact on the customer. So in just that specific scenario, we are talking lose/lose. No job for the minimum wager, and a lower level of service for the customer.

        That’s basically what would happen if Steam allowed reselling. Lower game quality overall (since any resale of a game impacts the devs), and likely more junk for the customer to deal with to prevent unwanted reselling (just because we have some level of that now, does not mean piling more on top wouldn’t be a negative). Lose/lose, especially because instead of a livable wage, we are talking earning a few pennies/hr at best from a resale.

        And you can’t compare the console space with PC gaming, because Steam doesn’t exist on consoles. Do you really think Gamestop would still be in business if practically the entire console library was always available, with most titles going for $5-$10? Who but the poorest of poors would bother driving to a store to get $2 for a game, let alone go to the store in the hopes of buying said title when you can just immediately download it for a discounted price? As consoles get closer to being what the PC is today, the clock is ticking on Gamestop as a physical store, and everyone knows it.

        Even the fact that Valve would have to waste time on developing the platform for this would be too high a cost for what very little benefit would exist, honestly.


      • Completely disagree. Cashier kiosks are already a thing some places, self-checkout lanes are already a thing basically everywhere, and they are going to continue getting more prevalent (and cheaper) over time. Japanese restaurants have had vending machine-esque tokens for decades already that let you “order” and pay outside and then just hand your token to the cooks to make. The future is now.

        Hell, kiosks are better than the current setup in pretty much every way, IMO – no entry errors, no bored teenagers to talk to, not having to wait for people ahead of you making small talk with someone they know, etc. If you’re at an Applebees (for some reason), why wouldn’t you want a kiosk at the table to allow you to order at your convenience, instead of the convenience of a frazzled waiter juggling 20 tables? Keeping worker pay depressed to “buy time” is literally just an automation subsidy, because those kiosks work 24/7, never get sick, don’t form unions, and are assets that depreciate and can be written off your taxes. They are already getting made, and will continue getting made even if workers were paid $5/hour.

        As for the rest, sure, it’s probably a negative for Valve and game devs on the whole; hard to imagine a scenario in which they’ll get more money under such a system. But, again, we either have the right to resell licenses or we don’t. If we do? Well, they’ll just need to get over it. And they will. Because the game industry is a market segment that just gets bigger every year.


      • Having the right and being able to do something meaningful with it are two different things. If Valve doesn’t provide a way to move your game off your account, what are you going to do, stop using Steam and start buying hard copies of games again? Of course not. And since selling used games would be a net-negative for almost everyone involved (worst for devs, worse for players who enjoy games made by said devs, worse for Valve/Steam), I don’t see it being a high priority for them.

        As for the machine/humans thing, I’m all for it, but you oversimplify the situation as it exists today. Self-checkout lanes for example are still monitored by humans, aren’t highly used compared to traditional lanes, and have a way to go before they can really be taken as a full alternative (produce pricing, bagging, etc). If the grocery store had to pay people $15 an hour, that would be a disaster for consumers as the cost would get passed down.


  2. @Syncaine ” If the grocery store had to pay people $15 an hour, that would be a disaster for consumers as the cost would get passed down.”
    All costs are passed to customers. That is not under dispute, but what I understood is that you prefer that some persons need to work full time and then need to receive goverment subsidy in order to make a living? You see nothing wrong with that? not the least the fact that it means that your goverment is subsidizing big companies that way?
    And I see no disaster in paying 0.5% or 1% on a store if it means whoever works there is being properly compensated.
    TIP: Try checking out the profit % on most stores.


    • You think doubling the wage of workers in a grocery store will result in a .5% increase in prices huh? Today a lot of grocery stores operate on a razor (if not an outright negative for long periods), doubling payroll would be an massive change for those businesses.

      Also how is $15 an hour for the most basic of manual labor ‘proper compensation’? Why not instead look at this job as most people do, as a transition towards something better or a starting block? Or if not, accept that settling for basic manual labor doesn’t result in all the comforts enjoyed by those who put in more work to get higher up?

      The American dream isn’t ‘show up, get handed a good life’, its ‘work hard, get rewarded’. That exists as much today as any other time, the difference is more and more people don’t get the ‘work hard’ part, and want to skip right to being handed the reward.


      • I’m not sure how serious you are (as usual) but I’ll bite.

        “Also how is $15 an hour for the most basic of manual labor ‘proper compensation’? Why not instead look at this job as most people do, as a transition towards something better or a starting block?”

        Equality of opportunity, poverty trap, etc etc etc, there are innumerable reasons why poor people from poor families are generally poor all their lives and rich people from rich families are rich all their lives. Really disingenuous (especially in the US) to argue that the most basic jobs are merely a stepping stone for all people at all times. Do people make bad decisions? All the time. Some (a lot) of people are circumstantially unable to deal with the consequences of those decisions in the right way or, worse, unable to see things as bad decisions. Let’s not even talk about accidents or bad luck.

        “The American dream isn’t ‘show up, get handed a good life’, its ‘work hard, get rewarded’. That exists as much today as any other time, the difference is more and more people don’t get the ‘work hard’ part, and want to skip right to being handed the reward.”

        I’m not sure this is really true (in fact I’m sure it’s false, but the internet here is so shit I can’t load any sources); most people want to work rather than be on benefits or receive charity. I suppose that’s different from “do you want to work hard?” but answering that question is gonna take a lot of carefully crafted polling, and proving it compared to past generations is going to be especially hard. There’s also the vast demographic and wealth shift in the last 100 years that’s changed the “working class” and what it means to increase your lot socially and economically.


      • I say bullshit on the razor thin margins.
        On Luxembourg the minimum wage is around 1950€, on Spain 800€, on Portugal 530€ , i have been to supermarkets on all three on them, prices are extremely similar on almost everything, fish is way more expensive on Luxembourg. If it’s wages that are the problem for big bussiness, care to explain that.


  3. I’m less worried about poor developers and more about the warping effect this change would have on our own perceptions and behaviors. Remember what you said about GW2’s cash shop, Diablo 3’s RMAH and WoW token: once you can put a dollar value on something, it can’t be unseen.

    Right now, a Steam collection is a trove of cherished memories of good times you had and a promise of good times yet to come. With reselling in the picture, your collection instead becomes a pile of unrealized assets that are rapidly depreciating in value.

    Would you still play Fallout 4 for 100 hours if you had the option to blitz through it in one day and resell it for 95% of the price while it’s still hot?


    • That’s… actually a really good point. It also brings up interesting arbitrage questions, considering I almost always manage to get $60 games for $42 on release. We might encounter a scenario in which bots buy all copies and then tries to sell them on the second-hand market.

      I dunno, though. What’s the practical difference between Steam copies and the “trove of cherished memories” that routinely gets dumped (or not) at GameStop? It’s true what Syncaine says in that no one would ever drive to GameStop to sell a game for $0.10. On the other hand, I wouldn’t re-sell Fallout 4 either, as I expect to want to play it again. Games in which I don’t? I’m halfway tempted to utilize Steam’s new feature to permanently delete them from my library; currently they are shunted off into a “Finished” category, but they can still be annoying.


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