Used for Good: Why Used Games Are Vital

I’m not going to pretend I like all video game companies exactly the same. While I’ll never say a game is bad or refuse to play it because I dislike the company that makes its system, and I can like an individual system better due to its game lineup, I’m not going to deny that between Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft I have a fairly distinct tier list in how much I like them as companies. As you can probably guess if you’ve seen my previous articles, Nintendo is at the top. Microsoft is at the bottom, and I am disclosing this because I want to emphasize that my… strong… reactions towards some features in the upcoming Xbox One are not because of pre-existing dislike for Microsoft or the Xbox brand. If Sony or even Nintendo did this, I would if anything be more angry, since I would be forced not to buy a system I would otherwise be likely to. So the gist of this is that Xbox One and how it treats used games is why I am so angry at Microsoft, not the other way around.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here’s a summary of Xbox One’s approach to Digital Rights Management (DRM). There are (among others) two features in X1 that no other mainstream video game console has ever attempted: a required daily online “check-in” for games to be playable, and the need for external permission from a company to use a game disc on more than one system. The online check-in has a host of issues unrelated to used games, but for this article the main issue with it is that it allows the enforcement of requiring “permission” to use a disc on more than one system. This online check-in means that you can not simply keep a system offline so that the disc does not use its one time activation code, and if you do have the disc’s ownership transferred to another system, you will be forced to go online so that the system can take away your permission to play the game even if you have the disc inserted in the console.

Now, as I’m sure you can guess, the reason why a disc will be prevented from working on more than one console is an attempt to control the used game market. Like nearly every other purchased good in a free society, video games can be sold or given to another person by the original buyer. If someone buys a used copy of a game, they will most likely not buy that game new, so the publisher will get one less sale. Publishers (some much more than others) do not like this. The Xbox One’s system requires the cooperation of a game’s publisher for a used game to be sold, since they must give the disc a new activation code for it to work on a new system. Microsoft has stated they will not charge publishers for this, but publishers are free to charge retailers or gamers to activate the disc on a separate system. They may also not charge, or not allow the disc to be reused at all.

The point of this article is not to convince you that Microsoft and the publishers who pressured them to do this are bad companies we should be angry at (although that is certainly true), it is to stress that Xbox One is a danger to both the rights of gamers and the preservation of gaming, and regardless of how you feel about the companies involved, the system must not succeed while using the DRM setup it currently has. Yes, I’m angry. I’m really freaking angry, but I will be doing my best to focus on logical arguments instead of my emotions.

Now, the first issue that has to be addressed is the position that video game publishers have a right to be so upset about used games and try to limit them. I understand that it is possible for used games to cost a publisher some sales, but every goods based industry depends on a balance between the interests of consumers and producers. The simple fact is that publishers do not have a right to people buying their games, while people do have a right to sell and give away their property. Allowing used games is clearly the preferable option to taking away the rights of consumers. People who compare used games to piracy are missing an obvious distinction: used games are a finite resource. If I make pirated copies of a game I own, I can still play the original and hundreds, thousands, theoretically millions of people can all play my pirated copies at the same time. If I sell a game I own, I can no longer play it, and if the person who bought the game sells it they can no longer play it. The amount of used copies of a game is limited by the amount of new ones sold, a good game that people want to play for more than a weekend is not going to have its sales killed because people keep reselling it. There is an enforced balance to the sales of used games, one that rewards publishers that provide high quality and substantial games. Eliminating used game sales can harm gamers even if they don’t buy used games, since it cuts down on incentive for publishers to release good games with high replay value.

Now, as Microsoft would be quick to point out, Xbox One does not technically ban used games. It is possible to transfer a disc between consoles, but developers will have the option of charging players or retailers that act as a middleman a fee to do so. Companies also have the option of completely stopping a game from being sold used by refusing to reactivate its discs. Which companies will take which approach to used X1 games and what the fees will be is still a matter of speculation, but what I want to stress is that it does not matter how much companies charge to reactivate game discs, needing the reactivation at all is a disaster for game preservation. No matter how many companies agree to reactivate their games for free, regardless of whether you feel it’s fair for a company to get a cut of used games sales, the simple fact is that this service will not be around forever. Systems stop being supported, and publishers move on or go out of business. With X1 as it is now, in a decade or so every game on it will be unobtainable by legal means. It is still possible to buy games and systems that are decades old and well out of production, that will not be the case for Xbox One. Any game exclusive to it will be lost forever (except, ironically, in the form of the pirated copies that Microsoft and third parties want to stop) in the future. This is something we can not allow to happen to games, the future of the medium is being directly threatened by restricting used games. Whether you play old games or not, I hope that out of respect for the medium of video games and empathy for future gamers who want to experience its past that you can understand how important this issue is.

Some argue that games will inevitably be delivered exclusively through digital services in the future, and that therefore used games will die anyway and it doesn’t matter what happens to disc based games. I will not deny that digital distribution will most likely become the sole form of game delivery at some point in the future, but the technology to preserve games will also advance. Legally backing up copies of digital games, especially on consoles, is simply not advanced enough at this point for us to entrust the preservation of gaming to it. There may come a time when playing and storing a game on a computer is as simple as a song, video clip, or even text. That time has not come yet, however, and for the time being being able to preserve games through transferring physical copies is necessary for the games to be playable in the future. There is also the issue of Xbox One’s daily check-in, which is a more severe form of DRM than even digital services like Steam (which will for the most part let you play games from it offline after the initial download) employ. Xbox One’s approach to the issue not only falls short of the hypothetical method that would make it acceptable, it is worse than currently existing ones.

In conclusion, I would like to make my beliefs on Xbox One clear: the system, as it is now, should not be bought by any gamer. This is not a matter of company loyalty, gamers as a whole must look past that and unite to defend their rights and the future of their hobby. I understand that this may be more difficult for some gamers than others, depending on how much X1’s exclusive games appeal to them, but if you really care about the future of the Xbox brand and those games you must help make Microsoft realize their mistake. No company makes permanent decisions, if the backlash hurts Microsoft enough they can change this. Even if it’s too late to fix the systems being released, we could at the very least stop the bleeding and maybe force Microsoft to make a new model. The more resolute we are in not supporting the system, the quicker the disastrous decisions made on it can be reversed. The quicker this happens, the less games will have their future endangered. We have to look at the longer term picture, especially gamers who want to be able to enjoy Xbox One and its games. It may seem frustrating now if there is an exclusive you really want on X1, but you will not regret your decision if your patience ensures that game can be enjoyed in the future.

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