Yesterday we got the first round of rumors for the next Playstation console, allegedly codenamed “Orbis.” Among the details was a note that used games would be restricted on the console. They would be available on a “trial only” basis where users would have to pay more to get the full titles.
Compare this with similar rumors about the next gen Xbox. The common thread is used games, and again there were hints that the “Xbox 720″ would restrict used titles in some fashion, be it tying a copy to an Xbox Live account, or putting in place a “pay extra” system like Sony seems to be eying. Many current titles already have an “online pass” that must be purchased outside of a used game that allows players multiplayer access, and it’s clear dismantling used game sales will be a huge priority for consoles in the coming generation.
The reason is simple, really. If you’re wondering why Gamestop continues to thrive while its brick and mortal brethren like Blockbuster and Borders fall, used games and lack of digital distribution are the reasons. When Gamestop buys back a game from a customer for a fraction of the price, when they resell it, they reap 100% of the reward. For sales of a new $60 game, they might net $10 or $15 for themselves, but when a clerk pushes a used copy for $55, they get to keep the entire pie while those who made the game get nothing.
There are used movie and book sales, sure, but those are overshadowed by each respective industry moving their products online. We have Netflix for movies, killing Blockbuster, and Kindle for books, killing Borders. But there is no equivalent for console games, and as such, consumers still need Gamestop. And pushing used titles hard lets the company not only survive, but thrive in an age when it seems like they should be obsolete.
Developers and Gamestop have tried to make nice in recent years, which is why preorder bonuses now come attached to every new game out there. Companies promise Gamestop exclusive content for trying to sell their game new, rather than pushing used copies that gives developers nothing. But it appears the truce is coming to an end.
Even though these Playstation and Xbox news bits are just rumors, the fact that both concentrate on restricting used games show that the industry is more than likely lining up a killshot. Either they’ll hobble used games to the point where it’s a headache not to buy new (and it’ll cost close to the same), or they’ll wipe out the possibility completely. Another Xbox rumor is that the console will be purely digital and not use discs at all, negating the entire concept of a used game.
What does this mean for the consumer? The way I see it, there are two paths the industry could take from here. One would have us looking to Steam, which has changed the PC gaming industry completely. It’s gone all-digital, which means no one ever buys used games. Rather, older games are put on sale, sometimes to an exceptional degree. While a company might price an old copy of Deus Ex at $40, a Steam sale might have the game selling for $7 for a weekend.