Friday, June 21, 2013

You should have the choice to buy a used game, but you should also choose not to.

(This is the longer version of the post ran on Edge Online.  It's a bit wordier, but makes some more specific points worth covering)

I wrote a series of tweets earlier with some thoughts on used games, but as anyone can tell you who has tried to say anything meaningful on Twitter, it’s a recipe for misconstrued points and a format devoid of subtlety.  People get immediately heated about the topic of used games, and motive fallacies and heated accusations flare.  It’s only slightly less touchy than telling someone the FBI is coming to seize their guns.

Regardless, I’m a developer asking you (not telling you) to hear me out and make an informed decision on the issue.

First, as is my habit, a couple disclaimers to frame my points and focus the discussion.

1) This isn’t ‘about’ Xbox One, or Sony, or anyone specifically - these are points about used games in general, formed loooong before the new console wars began.

2) I’m an outright enemy of “always on”.  If Blizzard (with all the experience from being the leading massively MP online developer) botched the launch of Diablo III, and EA (with countless online titles, their own competitor to Steam) catastrophically fumbled the Sim City launch... surely it’s understandable why people would be nervous at best at the idea of an entire console being hamstrung with the same limitations.  “Always on” and “used games” are not the same discussion.

3) I believe AAA games are too expensive.  I don’t care about history adjusted for inflation arguments... the bottom line is $60 is not an impulse buy for nearly anyone, solid income or not.  I don’t often by a AAA game unless it’s recommended by a couple trusted opinions.  So, I completely get why people want to buy a used copy of a game for a couple bucks cheaper.

4) There’s few ‘right answers’ and no ‘good guys and bad guys’ with this issue.  Despite the hyperbole from many sides of the issue, it’s all part of one very large and complicated equation.  Used games, piracy, DRM, DLC, microtransactions, etc are not 100% responsible for anything, they’re all just factors... players on the field of how people stay in business or fire everyone and go home.


Buying new or used is a personal choice.  That said, here’s a pretty unavoidable truth for consumers.  When someone buys a used game, that specific transaction does not support the artists, designers, programmers, musicians, etc... the people who created that game.  100% of the money they hand over the counter for a used game goes to the people they just handed their money to.

When someone purchases a new game the funds are divided equitably between the studio that made the game, the publishers that created and marketed the product, the distributors who put it into your hands, the creator of the console gets a portion, and of course with the store for selling you the new game.  Everyone gets their agreed upon cut for playing their part.  The gamer just voted with their dollars to support what a group of people created.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, nobody is calling anyone a jerk for purchasing a used game.  It makes a lot of sense on the consumer end.  But used purchasers do need to be aware that they’re completely cutting out the developers who created that game, and consider if that’s what they really intended.

An online comment... “But don't the developers get paid to do the work? and only certain devs even get a cut of the retail money, so I've heard”.

Generally AAA developers get paid salaries while they are creating a game in the form of a loan from a publisher, it’s an advance on future sales.  When those sales numbers aren’t recouped, when income from a game’s sales aren’t reaching the studio that employs people, those studios fail.  There’s nothing victimless about it in terms of the individual artist and developer.  It matters to them.  They’re not free and clear while ‘evil businessmen’ absorb the sales hit... it’s usually the opposite.


Often in these discussions there are these dark undertones of gamers distrusting developers.  Never is that more apparent than the argument of “make better games and we wouldn’t trade them in”.  When I read those comments, I just want to crumple at my desk.  Look at a rack of used games and ask yourself if those are all ‘bad’ games’.

For starters, I know there are bad games... oh God I know.  It is ‘buyer beware’ out there.  We’ve all dropped $50 on a game and excitedly ripped into it only to decide instantly we thought it was horrible.  But that mistrust is about as productive as guys assuming all women are going to rip your heart out because of a previous bad relationship.

The issue with “make better games” is simply that it’s not true, and it’s actually shaping the games available to you in a very distinguishable way.  Most games have ‘an ending’, even fantastically polished 10/10 games.  The Last of Us, by nearly all accounts is a stunning game... but it has an ending, and millions of happy users will sell it back.  Constantly we see articles about wanting games with great characters and stories and interesting narratives... but in nearly any case that means a game that you experience once and ‘complete’.

If “we only trade them because they’re too short” was true, there wouldn’t be a used copy of Skyrim to be found.  Regardless of campaign length, often when people are done with a game, they’re simply done with it.  The average consumer isn’t deciding if they should trade it in based on the game being “good” or not, it’s based on them being “done” or not.

“So, make games that don’t end”.  I have sat in many meetings at several companies and witnessed firsthand the destructive power rentals and used games have on AAA creative decisions.  If you don’t gamble a large portion of your budget on multiplayer, your game won’t be considered by nearly any publisher out there.  It’s also a catch 22 that will sink most projects.  You’re spreading your team out to add features that don’t actually fit the project theme (Ico, Journey, Heavy Rain), and at the end you’re left with a game that people are comparing unfavorably to projects like Battlefield or Halo with 100+ developers on the multiplayer aspects alone.

Making ‘better games that don’t end’ is counter to the cries of making games with lower budgets, not charging as much, looking next gen, and being more creative.

The alternate methods of making games not end are equally disdained by consumers, the dreaded DLC and expansions debate.  For ~7 years I’ve heard the term among developers of keeping “disk in tray” (a term that predates mobile and freemium games more than 4 years, it’s a response to used games) as a method of drying up the used game supply and making “games that people won’t sell when they’re done”... but honestly everything that comes out of those discussions are the features currently lamented by gamers.

Here’s what developers are up against:  Every game design, every concept, and every execution can’t fit under the umbrella of “make games that don’t end”.  It’s disappointing as a developer to be forced into that predicament, and it’s a factor in why gamers get a lot of “same-old” experiences.


“What about used cars, and movies?  Why are they ok?” is a time honored argument in this discussion.

Movies make at least half of their money in the narrow window when they launch.  Why do game studios ‘selfishly’ demand to be treated differently?  For movies, that opening window is protected by the fact that it’s exclusively in theaters.  On day one, you can’t swing by Best Buy, grab the new Superman movie, watch it, and sell it back.  It’s not freely sold in private form for a couple months.
With games initial sales is even more important.  Most of the units move in the first month or two, and stores decide if they want to reorder stocks of a game based on those sales.  Honestly, if games were protected from being rented or sold for 2 months after launch, game studios and publishers would almost certainly call it even and go home happy.

Comparing games to cars is a pointless metaphor game.  Cars depreciate, data doesn’t.  When you buy a new car it’s because it’s quantifiably better and less ‘used’ than the one with 50K miles on it.  Cars eventually fail, and people must be buying new ones.  Cars always need replacement parts and service from the dealers (think DLC and microtrans).  If cars were as timeless as data, this would be a good analogy, but it’s not.


“But I trade in games to buy new ones” is a common point, and it’s not without merit.  However, if you completed a game, especially if you enjoyed a game, know that what you’re trading in goes on a shelf and then serves to undercut the future purchase of the game you enjoyed.  It’s all part of the same economy.

Personally, I’m in the habit of finishing a game and never going back to it.  I eject it... it’s done.  I actually give most of my games to neighbors who are way more casual about gaming than me.  These are generally people who would not have bought the games I loaned them, but I’ve made them fans of genres and done what I could to turn them into “gamer gamers”.  I love that people especially kids loan and trade games organically and expose people to what they think is cool.

You can say I’m a hypocrite, but here’s one big distinction.  When a person goes into a store and carries a new game up to the counter, they have the intent of purchasing that game.  It’s at that point when a salesperson intercepts the sale and says something like “that’s $5 cheaper if you buy used”, that they’re actively interfering with the process.  Everything that made that person walk into the store... word of mouth, ads, reviews, demos, E3 shows, box art, the creation of the game itself... the expensive and risky ballet that led up to that purchase decision goes unrewarded and becomes rerouted to the guy at the final step of the chain.

It’s destructive and parasitic by nearly any measure, and it baffles me to this day when I hear ‘developers’ are perceived as being selfish in this equation.


In closing, again... it’s not wrong, but it’s certainly not right either.

All I’m asking for consumers is to give the decision at the counter the same amount of consideration they would if they were at a restaurant.  If you spent the $50 price of a used game at a restaurant you would tip the waiter at least the difference between a new and used game; consider giving the equivalent of a tip towards the writers, artists, AI coders, network guy, animators, etc...  The studios that make these games deserve that consideration, even if you’re not legally “obligated” to them for that disc.

(If you’re the type who doesn’t tip because “the waiter gets paid a little hourly”... well... so be it, I’m not in that camp)

We don’t really need creative analogies and metaphors about waiters and cars and movies though.  There’s only one reality to any situation.

Consumers, ask yourself if you’re buying the disc, or the game... and decide consciously if you choose to support the people who created what you’re buying.  If you consider yourself a fan of game developers and if you want to support the people who create what you’re playing... splurge the extra $4, do what supports the people creating your hobby.

If you honestly don’t care if the developers are rewarded for their work, well, you’re still not ‘the bad guy’ here.  I would say though, you have no ground to stand on when interacting with those developers, complaining about something in their game, or lamenting that they offer DLC.  You’re not really “their” customer and fan... you’re just fans of the used game store.

Thanks for reading.


  1. As someone who's worked for GameCrazy and Gamestop,and someone who wants to eventually (hopefully soon) make games for a living...I feel worse and worse about my time spent working on the gaming retail side of things.

    I've been trained from day one to sell pre-owned over new at all costs. They actually go through coaching techniques as to how to go about it, stuff like making small talk while you grab a pre-owned copy of the new game they just brought you, to show them that the pre-owned disc is in pristine condition, and $10 cheaper, with a 30 day guarantee on it.

    Bottom line is, though, my experiences in working with Gamestop and these other companies, has been a large part of why I don't really buy from retailers, and try to go digital whenever I can. The only real exceptions to the rule, is if it's something that I really want to own physically, like when I get my Ps3 fixed, I'll be picking up Last of Us in a physical form probably, but nothing on my Vita will be Physical in all honesty, unless it's some collectors edition of a game.

    A part of me wants to believe pre-owned isn't the monster that it's made out to be, but having seen some of the sales numbers first hand, I kind of do believe that it is. There are times when a retailer will have an amazing day in sales, and 50% of their sales for that day are pre-owned. It's kind of sickening to think of, reading stuff like Cliff's blog yesterday about the Gears of War 3 trade-in offers, and articles like this.

    As a former Gamestop employee, I definitely do apologize for it all, though I know it's not really needed. I know you guys understand that the employees are just doing their jobs, but man it sure as hell doesn't stop me from feeling like a jerk.

    Here's to hoping for a brighter future of developer support, and more people showing their support by buying new, or buying digital. I, for one, will be doing my best to support the industry whenever I can.

  2. I currently own around 165 xbox 360 games and about 50 ps3 games. I have never bought a used game yet for any of my consoles i dont believe in buying used games. Personally i hope all the big publishers put a stop to it somehow.

  3. Thanks a lot for sharing your opinion with us Lee, I'm proud to say that every title in my game collection I bought it brand new just for the very same reasons you mention here. I'm from Costa Rica and was attending E3 last week and dropped by a GameStop store in Westfield Century City in LA to pick up a couple of games, when I got the counter to pay for my games the clerk said to me "you can save $5 out of that Skyrim Legendary Edition if you buy it used"; I said no but he tried to push the used game on me saying the game was "just like new" and they do a lot of quality checks to make sure the game works fine and so and so. Then I asked him "how much money of this used game goes to the developer?", at that point he stopped talking and asked me "cash or credit card"?

    It's so sad to see people arguing about this kind of things because they assume they "own" the game when in fact they're just paying for the right to play the game and the disk, publishers are better off educating people about this topic than trying to enforce DRM and other unpopular methods to get some money on their bank accounts.

  4. The bottom line will always be money. As consumers, we always look to pay the least amount for a product, unless there is some value attached to a more expensive price. Sticking with cars, people will happily pay more for a luxury car because it offers things that a budget car doesn't.

    Developers and publishers need to offer gamers that value. Can physical copies be bought directly from devs/publishers? Would the price reflect that a retailer and distributor are not a cost?

    I'd be much more receptive to buying digital if the prices reflected that. But a game on Xbox Live or PSN costs the same $60 as it does at retail. For that, I'd rather get more for my money in the shape of a disc, instruction booklet (of some sort), and protective case. I also get to lend/borrow/sell it. So there's value to my purchase - even if just a few bucks.

    I agree that everyone should get paid for their work. But I'm in the camp that every used game was bought new at some point. And (lots of) money is being made under the current model.

    I'd happily buy new and support the game makers, but as a consumer, I need some sort of value added to something that is just a luxury.

  5. Very nice article! I'll admit, I am an avid buyer of used games and have only started exclusively buying new in the past 2 years (which has drastically limited what I now own).

    I am curious what your perspective would be if game developers instead offered to buy back those games from consumers so they can resell them? In this scenario, places like are great resources to utilize for even the smallest of studios/developer teams.

    1. Great idea!
      In my post above, I mentioned that maybe there's something developers can do to sell the games themselves. This would be a great alternative.

  6. Thx for this accurate & peaceful post, I really can't bear anymore the flame war that goes on since the official launch of this new consoles gen.

    But I think that the problem with piracy and used games can be partially solved by education. Making regular campaigns of informations and preventions about how work this industry and why Piracy & used games kill Devs and games variety should be common, but I've never seen one from publishers, and I wonder, does that kind of communication is not also the point of publishers' association like ESA?

  7. Ever thought the reason why a lot of games don't make the money back they spent making the game isn't used games. Maybe its because they cost too much to make. Look at a game like Metro Last Light. Its a game that looks and plays better than most AAA titles and was made with a much smaller team and budget. Publisher aren't out to make a good profit, they are out to make that money Call of Duty makes.

    1. Yaeh but, at what cost?

      It's also a question of the lamba consummer mentality, Publishers and Devs come to this and over use of outsourcing, because they can't stand against AAA activision/EA crusher games, and most of people will only see the difference of content (lack of coop, lack of multi, etc.) and visual quality and absolutely don't mind about who is behind and the difference of budget of those games.

  8. If trading used games is fine when it's done "organically" but a problem when big chain stores are doing all they can to obtain and sell second hand stock instead of new stock, then why the hell do publishers still deal with these guys at all?

    Here's an analogy for you. It's a product that's got all the immersion, story, character depth etc that you say gamers want. It has a strict ending. Every replay is exactly the same. It's sold as a commodity in stores from launch, not in theatres as a performance. I can't see how it can be considered to be different from the video game market in any way. Books. They sell like crazy. And the market is only growing.

    Almost all authors consider second hand book sales, and even lending, to be good things. Because it gives them exposure. It gives them fans. It sells sequels. People are proud to own them.

    All of those things can apply to games if they're made skilfully. If you can't make games like that then tough luck, make room for someone else in the market who can.

    Reiner, you say people are wrong when they think they "own" a game. Do you believe people who "own" books are similarly mistaken?

    1. - They only deal with them (for now), because console is a physical product only, MS and Sony need physical retailers for this, and publishers need consoles to sell games, that’s also why on the current gen digital games come on console's digital store many months after the physical release.

      But this is slowly changing as people are used to buy online.

      - I completely agree on the fact that a used/pirated product can lead his owner to discover something amazing and make him a fan that will after buy a legal copy or the next creation from these authors.
      But no, you can't make a direct comparison to products as different as books and games, their cultural integration and consideration are not the same, books are seen like sacred objects, most of people learn that a book is something that deserve respect. There's a differences of consumers’ mentality, I’m sure almost all people who read Tom Clancy’s books buy them, even if they find some of them not good, I’m sure that a lot of people who play Tom Clancy’s games rarely buy them, particularly if they think they are not so good, but still play them...
      It's the same things with movies, they are pirated a lot probably because you can see movies freely since TV exists because lots of private channel get theirs revenues through advertising. We get used to it and think "what harm I can do? They already diffuse it freely everywhere". It's the same thing with music and radio (But nothing is free, never; there is always someone who pays)

      - For owning a book part. Actually like every cultural/artistical product, you only own the physical support, paper in the case of a book, but never you own the story inside which is actually the intellectual property of its creators. And in this case, like most of product when you buy a movie for example, you get only an individual right of use of this product. This right is extended to your «family» only for practical reason, but while sharing and resell are heavily tolerated even by law for cultural reason, it still basically illegal and a violation of the creator's right.

    2. "sharing and resell are [...] basically illegal"

      You need to do your research mate. This is the _opposite_ of what the law says. "Reproduction rights" are different to "distribution rights."

      When you buy a book you gain the distribution rights to that copy of the book. You don't gain the reproduction rights. So you can't copy a book you purchased and start handing it out. But you can sell or dispose of the copy you purchased in any way you want.

      This doesn't conflict with copyright law at all. In America distribution rights are given to purchasers _by the VERY SAME law_ that protects reproduction rights.

      It's bloody sad that people are growing up seeing the sad position digital consumers have been put in by monopolistic publishers and assume that's the default way that copyright is meant to work.

      Lee Perry, you should write about how ridiculously uninformed most people are about copyright laws. Half the people I talk to don't know the difference between "copyright" and "trade mark."

      MSX, you say movies are pirated a lot because people are used to watching them for free on TV. I'm not at all surprised that you haven't heard of a thing called a "library" where you can read books for free too.

      Movies are pirated because it's easy to do so. And once you've downloaded it there's no difference in the experience of watching it - except it's sometimes even better (no damn discs).

      You can't pirate a book and read it on paper unless you print the whole thing out and bind it. That's important to a lot of people. I don't agree with them, but it's a fact. Go look it up.

      I think the only reason people might have more "reverence" towards books is purely because they have no DRM. You can put them on your shelf and come back to read them 10 years from now. You can give them to your grandchildren. You can loan them to your friends to share your passion. You can't do any of those things with most video games, because of the obstacles put in place by publishers.

  9. Sincerest thanks for all the thoughtful comments one way or the other. It's definitely a giant gray area, but people continually fall back on the analogies that don't really fit the exact situation.

    I don't want to keep posting rebuttals online and making it a heated back-and-forth thing. There are two comments I've seen frequently online that I would call out as problematic IMO.

    One is when people say they often buy a used copy of a game, but that somehow makes them converts and they buy future games in that series. The performance of the first game in a series is when it's the MOST important for you to support a project. We lament the amount of sequels out there, but if this behavior pattern is true, this plays a role in that behavior.

    The other comment that brought me pause was how someone justified used games by the fact that games weren't patched as often as they believed they should be after ship. For starters that's something that varies greatly from one studio to another. But, the bigger oddity is one of entitlement. If you buy "The Last of Us" as a used copy, does Naughty Dog really "owe" someone future support and patches? Certainly they should want their product represented well, but the idea that anyone is "owed" something from a developer is curious if that developer didn't benefit from that customer. I can imagine the used car analogies flying already for better or worse, haha.

    Anyway, thanks for all the thoughtful discussion.

    FWIW, I was pretty surprised with the quality of discussion on the NeoGAF thread on this subject, reasonable comments on both sides.