Or: Why Some Games Are Easier To Buy Used.
I don’t buy used games often.
The last time I did was a copy of Blue Dragon; an old XBox 360 JRPG that it was impossible to find elsewhere. I always thought that was the right way to go through the used market, when you’ve genuinely looked everywhere else and there’s no chance in hell of buying a new copy, either because the company is defunct or the games production has long since ceased. Buying used games is part of my obsession with collecting the rare, the unusual, the strange. Often there’s no good way of telling when that is going to happen, you have to wait for it to happen, and by that point getting a copy can be a bit of a pain in the backside. These used games go into carefully-lined boxes for future prosperity, with the anticipation that some years down the line their value will increase and I will be sitting on a potential goldmine.
Of course, I’m no fool. The focus on a digital future has reminded me that this hobby may become harder in future as more and more of the strange and exotic material that used to be an almost sure-fire collectible is pushed into the digital space, as fewer publishers take the risks on such content and it is further sidelined accidentally into the “Indie Scene”, where many otherwise professional games outfits appear to be ending up as of late. The very games I want, as a collector of games, are becoming harder to find in a physical format. They’re becoming an extinct product.
This leaves me primarily with most of what the industry would call the triple-A stuff. But you know something? I don’t see a future in collecting this stuff, because the used market gets so saturated so quickly.
Tomb Raider, for example. Square-Enix over-estimated sales, the budget was vastly over-inflated and in spite of the games quality, it was a near-£40 game which most avid gamers would and did demolish in a few days. Ordinarily, that sort of mythic cock-up on the end of the developer and publisher would easily make this a future classic in the making, talked of in hushed tones as if not to invoke some ancient curse that befell a company at some point somewhere at some place in time. It’s the sort of thing that tends to add some kind of value, if only because heck, it makes it more interesting than the actual game itself.
Except not. Because Tomb Raider sold 3.4 million copies in its first month, and most of those – shock horror – have found their way to the used games market. Square-Enix can complain as bitterly as they want about the horrible evils of the used game market in this case, but as a collector and observer of these things it was an inevitability that this was to happen. Tomb Raider is a big franchise, but Tomb Raider 2013 is a small game. It really is a terribly small game, and the reality is that it doesn’t quite survive the ideals of being clung onto by people who love it.
It is this is that makes the lives of GameStop and GAME far easier; when a big, triple-A title like Tomb Raider can be so soundly and thoroughly thrashed out in a week, most people will take it back in that period of time and trade it in for another new game. This means that this relatively new game can be completed and discarded, only for a shop to be able to sell it on for a larger sum of money than most used games would otherwise enjoy in the market. Square-Enix may lament used games as much of the industry as a publisher, but ultimately the primary problem is has with the used games market is that it has created this problem on its own accord; games created primarily as disposable content, with options and features people don’t try, aren’t interested in and discard without sympathy or mercy for the publisher in question, preferring to move onto the next consumable piece of entertainment the market is willing to provide it.
Had Tomb Raider been longer, stronger, less prone to violently brutalising Lara Croft at every available opportunity and focused on a deeper, richer adventure rather than multiplayer and online functions I suspect, much like Tomb Raider: Anniversary, it wouldn’t have found its way so swiftly into the second hand market. I’d have kept my copy and not traded it in for something else. I love collecting games but Tomb Raider 2013 isn’t the sort of thing that strikes me as a collectible of the future. The game isn’t bad, but it’s not life changing. It’s not deep or complex. It’s not a great game, and it has many problems. But the real problem with it is that it lacks… balls.
Tomb Raider: Anniversary had balls. It takes balls to take an old game and remake it from the ground up. It takes bigger balls to make distinct changes in order for that to work. And it takes enormous, massive balls the size of one of Jupiter’s moons (probably Titan) to do this to a series that had almost run its course at the time. Tomb Raider needed someone to reinvent it; Anniversary was as good a reinvention as was possible at the time, by breaking every remake rule in the book. It was an admirable, complex and glorious affair as a game and I still have my original PS2 copy of it. I also have a 360 version of it too. Many of us actively kept our copies. It was brilliant and as a game I promise still holds up against… well…. Tomb Raider 2013, really. I’d recommend the old game over the new one – it’s longer, deeper, less prone to tantrums and a more satisfying experience as a game.
But it is because people like me refused to part with copies, that the game became harder to find used. And therefore holds value in its second-hand state.
The discarded husk of Tomb Raider 2013, once beaten, doesn’t have that same appeal or give the same connection. And therefore becomes an easier game to buy second hand as a result, crushing its market value.
This is one of the most important elements of the used games markets that publishers like EA, Square-Enix, Capcom et al prefer not to take into account. Because for a game to hold its value, it has to see less games hit the second-hand scene. People have to want to keep them, and keep them for a considerably longer period of time than you’d like. If a game can be beaten in a day or two, the likelihood is that it won’t have the kind of lasting effect of a customer. They will turn it over for another game, which might end up the same way but you never really know what will stick with you at the best of times. When games hit the used market in that manner – say, Brink – the value collapses. Brink began at something like £35. By the end of the month, used sales were well below the £10 mark. The game was a resounding… well, “Meh…”, actually.
Compare this to Dark Souls. Sure, it sold less copies than Tomb Raider (and Brink, I believe). But – here’s the thing. Many of us who bought Dark Souls originally have still got that original copy. Sure, there are some used copies out there but nothing like on the scale of Tomb Raider or Brink or a number of other modern games. Most of us have held onto it and invested hundreds of hours into its core structure; and it is unlikely any game this generation will come close to Dark Souls (although Demon’s Souls comes very close) in this. It makes second hand copies hold their value, and denotes an item that in future could become more desirable, increasing the likelihood someone like me will retain their original copy somewhere.
Of course, there are other factors – Dark Souls didn’t have the budget of Tomb Raider, that’s for sure. This makes it easier for a company to make money from it. But ultimately the value of a game comes largely from how long a person is prepared to play it for. The more content and the more value there is, the less likely that the market for a new game will become saturated with used copies of that same game. You’d think then that this means that most companies would consider this as an important thing; that it’s often not the game, nor the budget, but what you can pack into that shiny disc to stay with the buyer that matters most of all.
Some would say they already do with multiplayer options; except online multiplayer modes are often time and region specific. Or not interesting to people, in spite of what developers would like to assume. There is creating value within a product and adding false value that dissipates the moment you try it. If people don’t want it, or can’t use it, its potential value is reduced to… nothing. Zero. Nada. There’s no point in keeping a product that you’ve (a) completed and (b) can’t multiplayer. Me and my friend Ewoud tried last year to play copies of Hunted: The Demon’s Forge online. Except, you know, we couldn’t. No Gamespy. No co-op. Servers die, online communities fade, and the games suffer as a result. Especially if that is part of their whole ethos, to be played with a friend. Borderlands is the same – the original depended on Gamespy servers. Without them, we played parallel games at the same time but we couldn’t merge into one game.
This does indeed screw the second hand market – where the games become worthless – but it also screws the first-hand sales, by making them… worthless. It also makes them less desirable for me as a collector. Video games in particular are a commodity that only has value when it can be used in the manner intended – an old SNES has no actual monetary value if it doesn’t work, after all. The same with SNES games, any broken or temperamental games simply don’t have the same value. They may have some residual value, but nothing compared to a fully functional product. It’s as true in the market now as any.
And in a digital future, this is going to become a serious problem for games. Developers and publishers may indeed find themselves selling games for far longer with fewer overheads; but the moment games servers falter, or digital services struggle, their products become worthless. The killer features that are so widely touted are casually tossed aside and the games become harder to justify. Games as collectibles and games as valuable products can only ever see that if, ten or fifteen years down the line, they can still provide the same experience as they do now. More and more games these days just won’t, and that’s a serious problem as it shows a devaluation of the product, a cheapening of the basic concept of what a video game is.
It’s this problem that the industry struggles with most of all now; not least that we’re facing the prospect of next-generation games increasing in price. In the UK, this could be dramatic; current talks are that games will end up moving from the £39.99 marker and up to around £59.99. Placeholder pricess for XBox One and PS4 games currently stand at £89.99, a quite significant sum of money should those prices not reduce. Either way, an increase of 50% would still end up doing some considerable harm.
When you put the price of something up, the market has to adapt and a next generation market is, fundamentally, for the first year or two a very niche audience. To attract people in, you need to show they are getting value for money. This is where we see Microsoft lauding over TV and interactive features. Where we find Sony and its ambitious social networking scheme. The impression is these additions add value to the product, when really – they don’t. Ultimately they are superficial additions and what people buy games consoles for, and why I would keep them for future use; games. Microsoft and Sony may talk a good game about increasing the horizons and appealing to other markets, but ultimately their machines are going to be seen primarily as gaming machines, games consoles, and not pinning every last note on getting every single part of that primary function right does seem rather strange, almost reckless.
The value of a product is always in its primary function. An MMO that cannot be played online is a useless object – Tabula Rasa, for example. And yes, I still have my copy of Tabula Rasa. An online shooter with no servers to play on is a pointless endeavour. A co-op game where the primary system has been shut down seems like a waste of time. Similarly, Tomb Raider 2013 – its main selling point is in the actual solo campaign. It always has been, and it always will be. Whatever reasoning there was behind the idea of online co-op play, it was fundamentally at heart not in the spirit of the product. And right back to where I began, when that solo campaign, the soul of the whole experience, is shallow and short, the actual value of the product is lessened as a result.
The industry struggles with the idea of value as well as making money. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry which has a chequered history of providing top-notch value for money. As prices increase, however, and the future moves more and more away from physical media, the value of the product is going to become an increasingly large headache. When you have the choice between a 10-hour title like a new Tomb Raider or a 100-hour epic like a new Dark Souls in front of you, on the front page of a digital store, both for £59.99, I know which one I would buy. It’s a no-brainer. Why settle for anything less?
The games industry blames a lot of things on the used games market. But primarily in my life it has always been the market to find the exotica, the strange and the wonderful that may have passed under the radar. To a collector, the used game market is more of a treasure trove of the past. To most consumers, however, the used game market is where they pick up games slightly cheaper than new, days after the product has released onto the market. It’s a cost-cutting exercise, and yes, it may have been eating into the publishers sales numbers. I cannot dispute the logic of that argument.
However, in the same breath, the industry needs to stop asking why retailers do this – they’ve been selling used games since the late 80’s, after all – and instead ask itself why a new game can ever see so many used copies of itself days after its release. Why is it that Tomb Raider can sell millions of copies in its first week and then spend the next few months seeing that game recycled and passed around cheaply on a market that it cannot get money from?
It’s easy to blame the retailers. But again – why is Tomb Raider on the second-hand scene so quickly? Why do customers not hold onto their copies? What drives them to trade them in so soon and with such gusto? And, importantly, what can be done to ensure in future that a future game doesn’t meet that same fate?
Sometimes, value isn’t monetary. It’s a state of mind, a sense of belonging. I kept Anniversary because it was amazing and I still replay it. I kept Dark Souls because it was a massive sprawling epic of brain-bending proportions – and I still play it (learning to forgive the whole Sif thing). I keep some games because they are interesting, fascinating, strange and wonderful. And the rest… I trade in for more to add to my collection.
Some games have value. Others have a trade-in value. The distinction is stark, real and the very core of the whole used games debate. When is a game worth something at heart, or just worth something for something else?
When the industry works this out, it may be surprised to realise just how quickly the used games issue ceases to be an issue…