I don’t like arguing on the Internet, especially about video games. My rule of thumb is: if I don’t have anything new or unique to contribute, I don't say anything at all. There’s no point in crafting a well-written treatise about which of the Final Fantasy games is like, totally the best, or bemoan the uninspired gameplay in Call of Reach Battle Honorfieldfare, if some snot-nosed jerk behind a computer is going to tear it to shreds in 30 seconds by injecting a Flood-like, er, flood of word goblins into his keyboard. Back and forth exchanges that devolve into GIF-offs and name-calling aren’t really my style.
Once in a while though, man, you just gotta take a stand. Even if “taking a stand” means resurrecting a lightning rod of controversy…which is exactly what I was compelled to do after reading EGM Managing Editor Brandon Justice’s recent opinion on the used games debate, “Used and Abused.”
For those that haven’t read it, Justice’s piece in the July issue chronicles his recent trip to GameStop – replete with overzealous, pre-order happy sales clerk – and his reaction when the guy suggested he save himself a cool $5 on a copy of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow by buying it used:
“I paused, gave him a slight frown, and explained, ‘Honestly, man, I’d rather see the publisher get paid for this one, if you don’t mind.”
We’ve all been there, right? Those guys are the worst. “(sigh) No, dude, I DON’T wanna preorder Grand Theft Auto 5 and get a free ten year subscription to Cheatz N Stuff!” But then there was this (emphasis is mine:)
“…given that GameStop ties an estimated 35 to 40% of their multibillion-dollar revenue stream directly to their used-game initiative, I think it’s time to start asking ourselves about the role we consumers play in the whole equation.”
“…(retail outlets like GameStop are) personally responsible for quietly “relieving” game companies of hundreds of millions annually…a practice that, frankly, is largely responsible for the host of woes currently assailing our favorite industry.
“Sure, it’s nice to save a few bucks here and there, but if you really love video games, it’s time to wise up and take some accountability for what that piddling 5% discount really gets you: game cancellations, layoffs, studio closures, and the advent of annoying programs like “online passes” and DLC packages. All are a direct result of publishers scrambling to find a way to recover losses dealt by this systemic war on revenue sharing.”
“…for the love of all that’s good in gaming, make sure that your dollars are going to the folks who’ve earned it.”
Now, I’m not going to sit here and bore you with a blow-by-blow analysis of this controversy. (if you’re not up on the particulars, go ahead and Google “used games debate.” I’ll wait.) I want to address the above claims in particular – claims that I truly feel are irresponsible, misleading, and frame this debate in such a way as to avoid the bigger picture.
There’s no question that there’s a negative correlation between the used games market and the video game industry’s problems. Something must be done. But I don’t think the onus is on GameStop, a company that, like them or not, is operating in the interest of what matters most to them: their bottom line.
Furthermore, the law is on their side. GameStop is not operating in any sort of gray area, so they’re not going to be taken to court over their used games business. Critics have argued that what they’re doing is morally wrong, and that might be true; but whether the game industry likes it or not, this problem isn’t going away. They can either choose to acknowledge and cope with it, or they can continue their current strategy of insisting it’s not fair, firing shots at retail, and making consumers pay. How do you think that strategy will play out?
If history is any indication, it could get ugly.
When Internet file sharing became a worldwide phenomenon, the music industry faced a similar conundrum. Now, unlike selling games used, stealing music is illegal, and no one disputes that. But the choice was the same: either admit that the good ol’ days were over and respond accordingly, or plant their heads in the sand. In the end, record label titans chose to try and sue their way out. When that didn’t work, they clung to their existing model like a flimsy piece of driftwood en route to a waterfall, paving the way for progressive companies like Apple to reap the benefits.
More than a decade after the advent of Napster, the record industry is a much smaller, less lucrative place to be, but (surprise!) music still exists. It’s easier than ever to connect with your favorite independent bands and support their music directly via online merch and concert tickets – no money grubbing middlemen required. The only ones who are upset about what happened are the corporate yutzes that got left in the dust.
Around the same time as the mp3 boom, the American automotive industry faced similar turmoil. Pressure from lawmakers and growing concerns over fossil fuel consumption led to heavy speculation in the late 90s that we’d all be driving quiet, earth-friendly electric vehicles in just a few years.
Oil moguls didn’t want to hear it – they weren’t going to let something like an energy crisis get in the way of making trillions. The pressure American auto manufacturers faced led to the rise of gas-guzzling SUVs and Hummers – and in conjunction with rising oil prices and an uncertain economy, the Big Three automakers collapsed. Bet you’re losing sleep over those poor auto execs losing their LearJets, huh? But it was their negligence, greed, and lack of foresight that led to the suffering of their industry. And it doesn’t seem fair that thousands of people lost their jobs as a result.
GameStop doesn’t wield the same amount of power as the oil industry or the lawless Internet. But the game industry hasn’t been tested like its automotive and music brethren, and it will take a lot less to make it come crashing down.
This might sound like pretty grim stuff, but there’s every reason to believe that savvy game companies aren’t going to let things like the used games market get in the way of their success. As Chris Kohler pointed out in Wired last year, part of Nintendo’s huge success has been taking a good long look in the mirror:
“Nintendo saw this problem coming long ago in Japan and took action. First, it aggressively moved towards producing software with smaller development budgets that it could sell at lower price points — price points that it could maintain throughout the lifetime of the software without having to slash the price later. It attempted to develop games that would be sticky over long periods of time, so that users wouldn’t want to sell them. And most notably it established Club Nintendo, a loyalty program that rewards purchases of new games with cool prizes.
Lower prices, better games, free stuff. Contrast this with everybody else’s plan: higher prices, chopped-up games, less stuff than you used to get.”
Nintendo’s success is the face of so many uncertainties for other companies is astounding. What’s keeping them from adopting a similar strategy? It’s the stubborn refusal to accept that the current model for monetary success – 150+ person teams, multi-year development cycles, $60 titles, annual sequels, eight-figure budgets – is unsustainable for all but a select few.
Justice’s other point was directed towards his fellow gamers, whom he believes are hurting the industry as long as they continue to buy used titles. And ultimately, we’re hurting ourselves because of the response the industry is compelled to make – the studio closures, layoffs, and what have you. I feel like this is where his argument flies completely loses touch with cold, hard reality. You tell me: who is it that makes decisions like locking out content in games; charges full retail price for games that they know full well aren’t worth the box they came in; churns out sequel after sequel of the same brand until gamers are drowning in a sea of plastic instruments; charges 1/4th the price of a brand new game for a handful of multiplayer maps; forces development staffers to work 110 hour work weeks in exchange for free pizza so their mess of a game can meet a deadline (and then doesn't), wastes millions of dollars blowing through employees and is forced to seek outside help to complete a project, cancels entire projects due to low turnout in online forums, and launches a media blitz for a good-but-not-great game and expects it to perform like Halo – and then dissolves the studio when it doesn’t?
It wasn’t me, and it wasn’t any gamers I know, either. Now, I want to see games succeed. I want to see game companies succeed. But the games industry is a business – and it seems like a lot of the people running it have poor business sense. You can’t expect to get ahead when you're making the sorts of boneheaded missteps I mentioned above, particularly on the publishing side. Why should we feel obligated to reward these decisions?
I’m guessing Brandon Justice feels this way because he thinks the alternative is less palatable. But what would really happen if the industry did a 180? Perhaps more of what we’re already seeing: a flood of innovative content in lower-budget, lower priced games that don’t have to sell a bajillion copies to turn a profit? Maybe a new Call of Duty every OTHER, November, instead? Maybe less games altogether, so that we can all find time and money to play them? Sounds alright to me.
Justice definitely knows the industry well. He's worked in both games journalism and as a designer at studios like Visual Concepts for more than a decade. To hear him tell it, he's witnessed first-hand what the used-games business has done. But I think it’s possible that because of his experience, he can’t see the forest for the trees.
I told him as much when I unleashed my nerdy vitriol on his article via Twitter several weeks ago. And, despite the somewhat douchey tone of my initial tweet (apologies, dude, but I was fired up,) he responded. What followed was a lengthy back-and-forth exchange that, although pleasant, didn’t result in the kind of breakthrough I was hoping for.
If Brandon Justice happens to read this, I hope he has a better understanding of the frustration that gamers like me feel when we're told our used game purchases are the reason the industry is failing. It's a claim that lacks any statistical or logical merit, period. The games business holds its fate in its own hands. As long as their modus operandi is passing the buck, they're living on borrowed time.