And I say, let them do it! Pick the nuclear option! Block used games from running on your console. I don’t say this as a former THQ executive trying to protect my bonus, or even as a lowly developer simply trying to protect my job. I say it as a consumer of the gaming industry who thinks there might actually be a huge benefit to gamers if this is pulled off correctly. I just don’t think it will be pulled off correctly.
Some would say that PC gaming has been revitalized by its great exclusive titles such as Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft, or Civilization V, but I would argue that PC gaming is back because of its new buying platforms like Steam and GoG.
Gone are the days of going to the store to buy CD-ROMs or ordering multi-disc DVD games in the mail, now we can purchase the game we want in less than a dozen clicks and have it downloaded a few minutes later. Steam is even easier than piracy, and making a game readily and instantly available for a reasonable price is the only thing that’s ever going to defeat PC gaming piracy.
But the reasonable price is the catch. Since Steam’s success, both Sony and Microsoft have introduced digital copies of games available for buying on their respective platforms. I can go out to the Xbox Marketplace right now and buy Dance Central 2 for $49.99. That’s instant and readily available, right? But is it reasonably priced?
I would say no. Maybe five years ago I would have shrugged and said “sure”, but Dance Central 2 is over six months old, positively ancient on the Steam store. Last week I could buy Batman: Arkham City for $14.99 on Steam! Fifteen dollars! Ignoring the fact that it’s not even available to download on the Xbox Marketplace or PlayStation Network, can you imagine a six month old game such as this ever retailing for $15 on their stores? Never.
And that’s the problem with the nuclear option. There is no competition on the Xbox Marketplace or PlayStation Network. If I want a game right now, I have to pay Microsoft or Sony’s price. I can’t shop around at Steam, GoG, Amazon, and GamersGate to find a sale, I’m stuck. As far as I can tell, neither Xbox or PSN hardly ever even have sales, and if they do, they’re usually just knocking 20% off the price. Certainly not price slashing a $30 six month old AAA game in half to $15.
A few years ago I decided I didn’t want to buy digital games because I didn’t want to be locked into the platform and possibly lose access to the game I own. Heck, I went as far as buying a retail copy of World of Goo so I would never not have access to my game if download platforms disappeared. Well, guess what? I’ve since misplaced the disc, but my Steam copy of the game which I activated from an indie bundle is seconds away from being played at any time. Sure, Steam may very well disappear someday, but the convenience of quick and cheap access to the game has trumped my views on property ownership.
But I still don’t see the console marketplaces in such a light. I’ve never bought a full retail game on my Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, and try to limit my Xbox Live Arcade purchases as much as possible. Unlike Steam, I can easily see Microsoft shutting down my access to the games I own in a few years when they’ve moved on to the next big thing. This is the kind of crappy move that's been pulled before and it will happen again if it meant saving them a few bucks in servers and hard drive space.
But my biggest problem with the console marketplaces is price. With no competition, there’s no incentive for them to price their games aggressively. Shadow Complex, an Xbox Live Arcade game I’ve been interested in playing since its release three years ago when it was priced at $15. What does it cost today, three years later? $15. This is the kind of game that would now be priced $5 to $10 on Steam with sales pushing it down around $3 if you timed it right.
I bought Braid on the Arcade near release for $15, less than a year later I could have picked it up for a penny in a Humble Indie Bundle. And gotten a bunch of other great games thrown in with it at the same time. It’s a joke even imagining a pay-what-you-want indie bundle happening on a console marketplace.
But back to the original issue: if Microsoft and Sony prohibited used games on their next generation platforms, and didn’t allow third party stores to sell downloadable games at the prices they want, they will fail. Hopefully they can patch in a firmware update that allows used games, because the tactic will bomb and gamers will flee to the PC or Wii U. I would never buy a console that didn’t allow used games...
...unless there was competition. If Steam and Amazon could receive game keys directly from the publishers, it would be a completely different story. If a new game fell in price 75% in six months we would be on to something. This is what happens in the PC world now and developers and publishers are both successful. Why couldn’t this happen on our consoles too?
The used game market on the PC is essentially non-existent. Outside a few people trying to sell games on Ebay or Craigslist with promises that the CD keys will activate and any DRM won’t blow up in your face, everyone buys PC games new. That’s the simple truth, and that’s how it has been for over a decade now. But we don’t mind! The games are cheap! I have hundreds of Steam games, more than I could ever play, but I never paid more than $10 for one.
So, Sony and Microsoft: go nuclear, but do it right. People will buy more games, you will make more money, developers and publishers will make more money, and GameStop can do whatever they want, even open their own download service if they think they can compete. Done right, you may actually better the industry.
And of course, there's no reason used games and multiple competing download services can't co-exist either.
Please leave a comment with your thoughts. Thanks to Paul at Grinding Down for the images.