Second Hand : Steadies The First?
The New Year brought with it many a headache, one of which being the news that Sony has finally patented technology that would, if implemented, completely eradicate the second-hand game market of any device that it is featured upon.
Employing NFC technology and a tag implanted into each disc, an owner’s identity would be branded onto said disc, rendering it useless on any device not linked with that user’s PSN account.
Now, I’m no sporting man, but that doesn’t sound quite like cricket to me.
We’ve been acutely aware of rumours and speculation surrounding both Microsoft and Sony’s R&D departments for some time now with regards to such technologies, but seeing actual schematics and patent documentation pertaining to them hammers the point home considerably harder.
Long has the used-market been a thorn in the side of the games industry. Viewed as an unacceptable leech, allegedly bleeding-off profits at an alarming rate, it still remains open to some debate exactly what that rate is. The apparent growth of the gaming industry over the last decade across platforms that are relatively free from piracy, seemingly indicates a very healthy and robust industry indeed. It’s also perhaps a little churlish of said industry to bemoan the likes of GameStop for turning a healthy profit when they themselves are so publicly hell-bent on doing the exact same thing. Then again, it’s undeniable that the industry would enjoy a far greater profit-margin were there no other option than to purchase new, as opposed to used products. But the same could be said of the automotive industry; and the fashion industry; and the film industry; and the housing industry; not forgetting the [insert almost any industry here] industry.
Conversely, the end-user sees that very same used-market as a positive means by which old titles can be off-loaded and new ones purchased much more readily and frequently, arguably driving new sales in, at the very least, a fair capacity. To many, it is quite simply a lifeline that sustains their habit at the rate to which they have become accustomed to. And whilst gamers often complain about the poor return that they see on products traded-in at bricks-and-mortar stores, what they’re paying for is expediency, with 21st century channels such as eBay and Amazon offering them the option of playing the long-game for a healthier return. But perhaps most importantly, the ability to buy and trade goods is a social blueprint as old as society itself and to threaten the removal of that ability without offering any tangible benefit to the consumer is guaranteed to stoke the fires at the very deepest of levels. But who, if anyone, is right and whose needs, if anyone’s, are the greatest?
The beautiful and often overlooked truth of the matter is that the gaming industry needs gamers just as much as gamers need the gaming industry. Each one lives and breathes off the other’s passion and commitment and this symbiotic relationship has been perhaps closer and more positive in the world of gaming than in any other industry. It’s a relationship that has been tested somewhat in this generation, however, with the gradual encroaching of blatantly business-driven tactics such as exclusive pre-ordered content, downloadable content, in-app-purchases, micro-transactions and season-passes, to name but a few, being an unfamiliar and unwelcome manifestation of the cut-and-thrust approach of a multi-billion dollar industry clawing at the door. The simple fact that we’ve been able to largely ignore these optional extras should we chose to, however, has at least helped to maintain the age-old sense of trust and balance and, as such, we’ve managed to limp on together in an uneasy alliance over the last half of this generation.
Whilst the industry’s been undisputedly more ‘pushy’ than ever before then, it’s not, as yet, ever really held a gun to our head.
And so to find ourselves in a situation where the battle-line finally seems to have been drawn is a rather uncomfortable one indeed, taking us into a dog-eat-dog, profit-margin driven battle zone, tipped heavily in the favour of the opposition, in a little over a generation.
Has it really come down to this?
The music and film industries seem to have encouraged vast swathes of the public to quietly and calmly moved towards an increasingly digitally driven method of delivery through monthly subscriptions to the likes of Spotify and Love Film in addition to digital ownership in the guise of the iTunes juggernaut. In many respects, these two industries are beginning to rise from the ashes of a very different war against piracy as opposed to the war against second-hand that we’re about to rush headlong into. Sure, the story of gaming has been tainted by piracy at times but it is, in most sectors, far from the norm. But given the mixed efforts and fortunes of cloud-based pioneers OnLive and Gaikai, we seem to be some considerable way off an affordable, high-quality method of streamed games given the sheer volume of near immediate, two-way data exchange required to experience them as intended.
So we find ourselves left with the significantly less palatable option of digital ownership of games that are often priced at a mark-up considerably higher than even new physical copies, let alone used ones. Surely we can be forgiven for being deeply sceptical of further moves down that particular street? Surely we can plot a different course at this most pivotal of technological junctures so as to keep all parties happy and to give bandwidth a real chance to catch up?
Perhaps, but ultimately, I sense that this decision will be taken largely, if not entirely, out of our hands.
Should Sony and Microsoft conspire to introduce these nuclear options at the same time, gamers, particularly core gamers, will be left with very little room to manoeuvre indeed. The PC market, damaged by years of rampant piracy much like the music and film industries, has gradually moved towards a purely digital method of Steam-powered distribution and the Wii-U is unlikely to keep a very large sector of the market exclusively happy with its leftfield interface and distinctly family-centric heritage. Either platform presents an ultimately limited range of options as opposed to the depth and breadth that can be found in the release schedule of the core gamer’s console.
And so many of us will feel forced to adapt to a world where pricing is dictated solely by platform holders and publishers and where competition is largely non-existent.
What this world will look like is entirely down to Sony, Microsoft and the heavy-hitting publishing houses. Should they recognise the huge price that gamers will have paid and repay it in-kind with products priced much more reasonably then it’s a world that I’d generally be happy to be part of. If, however, they use this newly-found digital monopoly to capitalise on their long-held ambition of significantly higher profit margins, it may well prove to be the beginning of the end of a beautiful relationship.
The romantic in me is hoping for the best; the realist in me is planning for the worst.
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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.