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The Joy and Pain of Used Video Games

I remember those last few pages of EGM or VG/CE back in the day with the mail order used video game section. I would scan the page and create an imaginary list in my head of the games I wanted to buy, never did, I never had the money for it but it opened up a new (low-priced) avenue for video game players. If a new game came out you would drop by Sears or Montgomery Ward’s or some other department store, maybe play the game for a few minutes in the store, pay your full price and that’s it, an older game would still be full price and if you missed a game you were pretty much S.O.L. If you couldn’t afford the game then you rented it but if you were really into the game that whole rental thing sucked.

Anyway, the arrival of Funcoland, Babbages, E.B. Games began to shape the video game landscape, instead of scouring bins at Goodwill or a flea market, you now had a legit store that had rows and rows of used video games at prices below the retail cost. You could buy that new copy of Super Mario World or you could buy a used copy for $10-15 less, as a teenager without a job or an allowance, of course you’re going for the cheaper alternative. Who wouldn’t?

As I got older the used video game area was less about saving money and more about discovering that gem of a game, just hidden away under a few hundred copies of Mortal Kombat, I actually purchased complete in-box copies of Earthbound twice at Funcoland before eventually trading it back in with a few games for like an Atari Jaguar or something lame.

Used game stores are almost like archaeological digs, you go through a lot of dirt and trash until you finally find the femur of an Apatosaurus. Then you eat it.

Let’s flash forward a bit and the used game market has been attacked by the video game industry as of late. The online pass that unlocks exclusive content to those who buy a new copy of the game or the rumor that the new XBox will use some sort of connection with XBox Live to prevent you from playing a used game. It’s been called a form of piracy and that it hurts the developers because they don’t actually make a profit after that initial sale so to combat it they’ve started limiting options available to the person who purchased a game second-hand. For example, a code comes with a game, you enter the code and download your alternate costume for Wolverine and trade the game in. The next person buys the game and tries to enter the code but of course it doesn’t work and now he doesn’t have access to it and most of the time the DLC isn’t available at game launch (to limit used game purchases) so that person will never have the ability to pay $.99 for that costume and actually generate a sale for the company. $.99 isn’t $59.99 but it’s better than nothing.

The piracy connection is loose at best, yes the game developer doesn’t receive a profit from additional sales of the game but they are still additional sales and they can still take advantage of that fact. If someone bootlegs my album I can’t do anything about it, I can’t take advantage of the fact that the person is in possession of my product and flip it to my benefit but video game developers can. DLC’s, upgrades within the game, etc. can help the developer generate a profit even when the game was acquired from a used game retailer.

Labeling the purchase of a used game as a form of piracy is an an insult to the consumer and clearly outlines that one-dimensional model of a lot of these companies. I purchase plenty of new games, I purchase plenty of used games but the key word here is “purchase,” when I acquire a game, someone has made a profit, a profit option that is never available for pirated albums.

I understand the frustration of the video game company, sales are down and the thriving used game market doesn’t send any cash their way but they need to use it to their advantage. Instead of condemning the practice they need to embrace it so they don’t water down the experience for a person who bought a used copy, rented it or borrowed it from a friend. Now if we could figure out how to take advantage of it as musicians then we could open up a whole new realm of financial and social possibilities.