It was April 9th of this year. I went down to the bookstore at the first opportunity I’d had to pick up the latest of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books. At the store there was a shelf right inside the door with about three or four dozen copies of the hardback. I picked one up and flipped it over to make sure I had enough cash to buy it when suddenly I saw a second rack of books. Above it was a sign for “Previously Owned Books” and on that shelf was a copy of the book I had in my hands, only instead of being $26 like the one I was holding, it was $20. Sure, I had $30 on me and could afford to buy the new copy, but who doesn’t want to save $6? I put the new copy down and picked up the used copy, bought it, and marched home with my new book to read.
The preceding paragraph isn’t true. I’m not sure it could be. Yeah, you can buy used books, but the number of times you’ll have the opportunity to buy a used copy of a hardcover book just three days after release is so small as to be non-existent. But what am I getting at?
I posted a couple weeks ago about the issue that blew up the gaming sphere of the Internet. Discussion has continued, and many people keep on trying to equate the sale of used games with the sale of used… well… anything else. My book example above, I’ve never seen that happen. I’ve also never seen someone buy a $30,ooo car, drive it for 2 or 3 days and then go sell it to CarMax for half the value so that CarMax can sell it for $28,000 (if anything, they’d return to the dealer and try to undo the sale and get a lot more of their money back). Now, I’ve seen that happen with music CDs, but that’s because people buy, rip and then resell since they don’t need the CD anymore to enjoy the music, but that is a whole different issue. We aren’t talking about people making illegal copies of games. But speaking of games, I’ve known plenty of folks who will buy a game new, play it for 3 days, either finishing it or disliking it, and then sell it to Gamestop or some other used game reseller. I have walked into a Gamestop just 2 or 3 days after the release of a new game and found used copies $5 to $10 cheaper than the new one sharing shelf space with the new copy.
The fact is, in most products with a healthy secondary market, that secondary market doesn’t have a large impact on the initial release and first month (or two) of sales, and that is really the meat of the matter. Video games, in some respects, have such a short shelf life (except for the occasional blockbuster that bucks the norm) that anything which hurts that hurts the industry. To combat that you have companies trying to offer multiplayer experiences that encourage the consumer to retain the game instead of reselling it, and one-time access codes that reduce the value of the game on resale. And of course you have digital distribution models that prevent reselling altogether.
I think secondary markets are great, even vital, but I also think that the creators of a product need a reasonable amount of time to make their money before the secondary market kicks in and takes that away. I don’t like the idea that game companies are looking for ways to eliminate or hamstring the used games market, but I also hate seeing places like Gamestop selling used games within that first month of release, knowing that’s it’s contributing to less profits for the creators (and more for the secondary market).
Eventually, I think the game companies will win, and destroy the secondary market with unlock codes and digital distribution. Imagine a future where you buy a game for $60 and inside is a one-time code that you must enter to play the game. If you buy the game used, it’s little more than a demo, giving you 30-60 minutes of play unless you buy an unlock code from the marketplace for $60 (perhaps a bit less… $50? $40?) to open the rest of the game. Suddenly, the used game would only have a limited value (the disc being needed in the drive to play), which kills the resale value. Your $60 first purchase becomes a $5 resale that Gamestop can sell for $10… or maybe Gamestop can sell you the disc AND the unlock code for $60. Who knows…
Luckily for me, I only buy games that I know that I’ll keep, and I don’t buy used games (if I want an older game, I’ll just buy in new when it drops to $20 on Amazon or at BestBuy). But I do occasionally lend a game to a friend, or borrow one, and whatever they do will impact that as well. We’ll just have to wait and see what they decide to do…