Used Video Games: The New Software Piracy: Part Five

Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Becoming the Stop For Games
Part Three: The Feeling of Being Used
Part Four: A Programmed Response
Part Five: A Conclusion on Distribution; Corrections

Before we conclude our journey, let’s get this straight: This entry is not a vindication or exoneration of GameStop resale policy. Fuck GameStop. Any company that conditions employees to meet sales quotas in exchange for little compensation and zero commission deserves no more praise than the word “wretched”. If GameStop went under tomorrow, I would only cry over the burning ravages of the company if my tears were gasoline. (Sorry, Mr. Pomije. I have respect for your both your business ethic and FuncoLand as you created it, but you done helped create some monster.) That out of the way, I have no intention of feeling bad for the game industry because the first-sale doctrine, cemented as a staple of American copyright law for over one-hundred years, has somehow destroyed their business model during the last five. And on the chance that they’re selling an honest story, that used video game sales are a threat to the medium and the artform, I have zero sympathy for them. Used video games are firmly established in the modern history of the medium and I’m sure that back in the seventies, people sold their Odysseys, their Telstars, and their Fairchilds to relatives, friends, and consumers. The traditional video game industry knew about resale, they saw it grow, they gave no fucks, and only decided it was bad once it stopped being good. They’re as much responsible for the problem as GameStop.

But this goes deeper than resale. The two most important technological revolutions of the last decade (the spread of high-speed internet and powerful portable devices that can use the internet) have changed the world. Willingly or else wise, the console video game industry confused the casual video game bubble created by Nintendo for “growth”, a casual bubble that yielded way to a massive market for video games (as primitive, simple, and otherwise lousy) on mobile phones and tablet computers. The “growth”, as people thought it to be, has disappeared. Since 2007, a period that seems oddly consistent with the industry’s cockamamie fetish for distribution control there has been zero growth. All signs point to a broken business model, and if the pay-to-own video game industry collapses in the next five years, do you know why it will be? It will be a combination of terrible business practices, out-of-control game development budgets, saturation of the market with year-to-year sequels, a total misunderstanding of the casual gaming demographic, the use of motion controls and three-dimensional displays as a step sideways, and further restriction on what the consumer can do with hardware and software, the restriction of potential consumers from sampling your wares. It will not happen because of used games.

Yes, the best video games are still being made for consoles and computers, and to a lesser degree, the arcades. The best games are still being designed for devices that use fast and efficient input schemes. In spite of this, money is going elsewhere. Console game developers, publishers, and hardware manufacturers have two means of dealing with it. The first is to adjust their business model, potentially losing their marketing identity in the process, potentially causing calamity amongst shareholders as these companies scale down their operations to become more competitive. Yeah, that’s going to happen. They’re going to take the second option. If you believe that your business model is in crisis, you do everything you can to control distribution. Whether it offers a better product or not, you control distribution. If the market does not favor your pricing model, you force it to.

Why does Microsoft respond to the most visible and successful period in the history of computer video games by releasing a video game console? Because the personal computer is an open-source platform. Anybody can make a game for the personal computer. At the turn of the century, “creating a closed-source platform and convincing people to make games for that platform” seemed like the only way Microsoft could charge companies for distribution and licensing fees on a Microsoft operating platform. (And I’m sure that Bill Gates spent the years after Steam’s release hitting himself over the head with a hammer.) Microsoft created the Xbox as a means of controlling distribution.

Why would Activision CEO Bobby Kotick state that he is interested in developing versions of Guitar Hero where the software does not require a game console?* Where the software and the hardware come as a single package? (Well, at least before the series tanked and collapsed.) Activision would do this to circumvent the distribution policies of a Microsoft or Sony, where Activision offers a cut of revenues for their software sales on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Activision would like to design their games so that they can circumvent the distribution process. Activision wants to control distribution.

Why does Blizzard Entertainment design StarCraft II so the multiplayer game mode cannot be accessed locally? (“Connect to the server and tell the server you want to play offline” does not count.) It wasn’t about piracy on its lonesome. It was to make sure that the South Koreans and Western tournament organizers cannot create televised StarCraft tournaments and play the game without paying licensing fees. It was to make sure they can control the price point of their software, assuring that they do not have to compete with unlicensed copies of the game. Blizzard designed StarCraft II and Battle.net 2.0 to control distribution.

Why do companies fling themselves at unproven startups like OnLive in a market that is already saturated with means for playing the software? The service would give developers and publishers peace of mind. People would not be able to hop on the internet and charter for assistance in how to unlock and distribute the data on his copy of Call of Duty 9. Quite simply, the player would control no data. In a world where OnLive is the only dominant gaming platform, companies could pull their games from the service as they become “less popular”, creating a video game market where the medium’s greatest accomplishments can be pulled from the service in favor of the company’s next project. Lasting works of art can be programmed to disappear. The companies that support OnLive want to control distribution.

Controlling used video game sales is one such means of controlling distribution. Nintendo went after rental because it threatened distribution. Hell, Japanese game companies went after resale on the grounds that they controlled distribution. And instead of working to make better video games or scaling back their development practices, they will continue to victimize and punish those who purchase used video games, just as they victimize software pirates and punished legitimate customers with digital rights management. All of the above means of controlling distribution would not necessarily provide a better product and this would be no different. Hell, at this point in the history of the medium, it’s not established that they’re providing a more profitable product. If any of those decisions had transformed video games into the Silicon Valley Casino, I don’t think we would be talking about this. And when things were good, when things looked up, they weren’t.

I guess we’ll see. If publishers are successful in banning the resale of used video games or getting a cut of the profits, then I guess the Internet Nerd Rage Bible commands that I have to get back at them. Those games beholden to the sixty-dollar price point? I guess I’d have to start downloading them off of the internet.

You know, software piracy. The old “used video games”.

Corrections

Anachronisms concerning 2006: In the first edition, I categorized the 2006 woes of the major North American publishers (Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft) as a direct result of the November 2006 Nintendo Wii launch. Obviously, that’s a little bit disingenuous, since Nintendo’s hardware launch occupied the last two months of the year, and the North American publishers did well during the continued boom in 2007 and 2008. Based on what I know, their impact on each other stands as inconclusive.

The “fuck used video games” cycle: Previously, the matter of used video games was categorized as a “cycle”, which was not only bad semantics (as a cycle repeats itself), but it has become clear that changes are more likely to come through software and hardware programming than legal action. The first edition categorized a ban on used video game sales as the endgame for the video game industry, and that seems unlikely. It also categorized the yelling and screaming by the game industry as independent from their pre-order strategies and use of “online passes”, when they are mostly part of the same plan.

Sales of Madden 10 and Madden 11: First edition: “As of November of 2010, the sales of Madden NFL 11 are currently down more than half compared to the previous installment.” According to VGChartz, the web site used as the source for that statement, sales of Madden 11 ultimately declined about 15 percent. Discussion of the sales figures has been omitted from the article.

Xbox success: The Xbox was described as “the first major American foray into game consoles since the Atari 5200.” While Atari’s success positioned the game console as a visible successor, it was a financial and critical failure when compared with the 2600. Changes have been amended as necessary.

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