Wednesday, August 29, 2012

GameStop, Used Games, and the Future of Bargain Bins

I wonder how many people have a story that starts with “So my friend let me borrow this game…” or “So I picked up this used game from GameStop for like 10 bucks…” I can remember spending hours at different GameStop stores trying to find the best deal and the cheapest used games for my consoles. With rumors of the next-gen consoles battling used games in various ways, the times of preowned game bargain bins and buy one get one free deals may be coming to an end. But before everyone marks their calendar for the end of days and screams at Microsoft and Sony for being money-grabbing stiffs, let us look at how used games has evolved and how places like GameStop affect the market.

The act of trading in used games and getting the most value out of each purchase has been a staple in the market of video games. Kids in particular don't have the disposable funds for games, often scrounging for the money to buy a $20 used game. And most parents can't/don't/won't shell out the $60 for a new game very often.  For me one of the best parts about buying a game came from figuring out how much value I could get out of the games I was willing to trade in and discovering which games I could actually afford. Unfortunately a lot of publishers have been trying to battle the secondary market by either using their own proprietary online system, like Ubisoft’s Uplay or EA’s Origin system, or having additional content that is available in a new game, but must be purchased if you are playing with a used copy. The more companies try to money-grab at me with first-party online systems and new-game-only content, the less I want to play the game. If this trend continues, maybe the idea of borrowing games will be obsolete when your game system won’t even let you play the game. The sad thing is that this statement isn't even outlandish. A simple registration of a unique game ID to your online account is all it would take to make game borrowing much more difficult
While a lot has changed about video games over time, I hope some of the traditions still prevail, namely borrowing games and split-screen co-op. Some of the most hilarious stories that involve games come from 4 friends sitting on a couch playing Goldeneye or Halo and shooting at each other for hours. And when you don’t have a game that you want to play, the best solution was always to call a friend and see if they have it and if you could borrow it. Once again companies are trying to stifle these things with more content that can either only be accessed on one account. Even games like Halo or Super Smash Bros. are moving into online territory where the experience of playing a game like that is moving from 4 friends on one couch to 1 guy sitting alone playing online with 3 other random people. Of course the solution to this is to just have everyone buy the game right? But the reason 4 player co-op is so popular is because not everyone can buy a console, a game, and more controllers. It’s the same reason we borrow and lend games to friends.
Not every game company is making things worse though. Steam offers the ability to buy a four pack where each person can chip in money and receive a copy of a game that everyone can enjoy. And their annual sales are great for picking up older games that are worth buying at any price. Hopefully, game lending though the digital markets will become easier to do than sharing Steam accounts and risking being banned. I think that right now companies are trying their best to keep their margins up as games become more expensive. They are trying to make at least as much money as they have been while increasing the cost of creating a game. That is also why a lot of prices on games have gone up recently. Now most are paying upwards of 70 dollars when tax is figured in and it takes a chunk out of anyone’s bank account, so how can we come up with solutions that benefit both the companies that create and publish video games and the consumer who walks into a GameStop trying to find the best value on used games? I think the answer lies in changing the model of how GameStop does business. Radical I know, but I think it could work.

When GameStop sells new games and new hardware, a portion of the money paid goes back to publishers and developers. However when someone buys a used game, 100% of the profits goes to Gamestop. So when you go in, trade in 4 games to buy 2 used ones for $40, GameStop gets everything. Instead, GameStop should either pay a percentage of the used game as well or maybe a kind of mass transaction fee. Say at the end of the quarter GameStop can tally up how many used games were sold that come from EA, Ubisoft, etc. and pay a percentage based on those numbers. Sure, Gamestop can threaten to not carry consoles that don't allow for used games, or dictate whether or not to purchase a game that has far less value preowned than it does new, but this leads to a stalemate and something has to give. With this solution, the only one potentially losing money is Gamestop, and it doesn't look like they're feeling that. It may not be the best idea, but I think something needs to change soon. Now, we get 4 different deals that offer “awesome exclusive content!” when you buy with a certain store, and all of that content has to be either bought or somehow obtained via online stores or eBay if somebody wants to grab the game a month after release. Publishers are really starting to hammer home the idea of buying a game when it first comes out so that the buyer can enjoy all of the rewards for being an “early-adopter” and getting a bunch of cool stuff.This strategy is an attempt too get more money out of you, GameStop, and anyone else that wants to buy their game sooner rather than later.

Now I know I’ve started to make the companies sound like soulless jerks who want nothing but money, but that isn’t really the case. All of these strategies and new-game content promotions are just the companies way of keeping their employees paid. Yes it may seem bad from our end, but in reality it’s the companies trying to stay in the black each quarter after spending millions on creating a video game. I think a solution lies with word of mouth. Remember how popular Minecraft through mostly forum posts and people promoting the game to their friends because it was really fun? I think game companies should work on something similar. A lot of record labels have “street teams” that put up posters, post on forums, and do a lot of work promoting music that they really like. If a publisher used their PR to get gamers to promote their game to other gamers, I think more people would listen. I bet a lot of revenue for AAA games comes from friends suggesting the game and showing it off when they get the chance.

I know that these solutions aren’t the easiest to implement and have probably already been suggested to game companies, but if less people buy consoles, and by extension games, because they can’t afford a game at $60, then less games will get made. In this economy it sucks dishing out $60 for a game you might put away 4 months from now. And I know I would hate to lose the ability to let a friend borrow a game because their console won’t play it. I can’t predict the future, but I definitely can see troubles ahead as companies try to get more money from gamers when most gamers don’t have the money to spend on new games every month.

I hope that these kinds of problems will go away, and we can all enjoy our games in happiness ad sunshine, but reality dictates that companies will try to improve their bottom line and gamers will do their best to get the most bang for their buck. Luckily for us, our voice can be heard since we are the ones spending the money. We as consumers can tell them how we think it should be because if we don’t like it, then we can just not buy the game. However I think that the relationship between gamers and game companies like EA, Ubisoft, and Bungie, can be much better for both parties if we communicate and talk in some way. Until then, I will still be searching the shelves for the best value I can get.

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