Penny Arcade decided to flamebait the blogosphere this week with a post about how purchasing used games is comparable to piracy in that the proceeds do not go to the game's developers. By this standard, PVD is apparently a pirate blog, as the copy of Assassin's Creed that I posted about playing yesterday came not from a retail store but rather from Blockbuster. More to the point, if buying used is akin to piracy, then waiting for the price to come down before purchasing the game "new" is ninja looting.
The initial sales figures for games - and increasingly pre-sales - have a huge impact on the game's ultimate fate. More sales convince retailers to order more copies and allocate more shelf space. More sales lead to more buzz which generates more sales by word of mouth. If you're hoping for continued support for a title, whether that's DLC patches, new content, or future expansions and sequels, that possibility is determined by the EARLY sales, not the number of copies that are sold at $20 a year later when the retailer gives up and wants its shelf space back. At a minimum, there's an analogy to the raider who does not show up to raid nights when the guild is learning new content, but then ambles along to farm nights to reap the loot rewards once the content has been beaten.
MMO's and the effects of banning resale
All of this matters because, as Zubon points out (too succinctly to quote without stealing the whole post) the potential ability to resell games is factored into the game's value. For the buyer, resale is a conditional, partial money-back guarantee. Most of us aren't looking to get rid of the classic game that we've played over and over again. We're looking to ditch the $60 game that offers 8 hours of mediocre gameplay (a third of which feels like padding added to justify the price tag). In an era where it is really difficult to get complete and objective reviews at launch, the knowledge that we CAN unload a game we don't like is an insurance policy - this game costs $60, but we can get back $20 of that if it sucks.
We don't have to ask what the effect of removing resale is on player willingness to take risks on a day one (or before) purchase of a new title. As MMO players, in a genre where accounts cannot be resold legitimately, we already know. Though some still swear by the "land rush" of an MMO launch, the more conservative approach is to wait for months or even a year to see where the dust is going to settle before investing your time and money in a new game. Those of us who do take the plunge on launch day are quick to cut our losses by stopping at the end of the month that was included in the price of the box.
Caution is a natural defense against marketing and hype that is exaggerated and embellished at best, in an era where new MMO's often need six months of continued development to deliver what they promised for launch. Unfortunately, these delayed purchases and canceled subscriptions can lead to decimated dev teams that never get to finish games that might have had more potential. Players lose, developers lose, and sometimes even the investors lose.
An economic decision
Of course, console publishers know this, which is why they're looking to "tax" used sales with $10 or more in one-time DLC coupons in the box rather than trying to eliminating them altogether. As Chris at Game By Night points out, they could try to capture a larger share of the price-conscious market directly by allowing prices to float downwards with demand (as they do online). My guess is that they would prefer NOT to do this to defend the concept that all new games should be worth the $60 MSRP, even when some games are arguably worth more and others are worth far less.
The reason why Blockbuster bought so many copies of Assassin's Creed back in 2007 was because the strong sales at the time suggested that people would still be willing to pay them to rent the game in 2010. In the end, those early sales might actually have been worth more to the developers than the possibility of selling the game to me "new" for $20 three years later.