A Philosopher's Blog

Used Games

Posted in Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on August 29, 2010
Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, creators of P...
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The folks at Penny Arcade have been discussing the matter of used games. The specific situation that spawned this current debate involves THQ and one of their wrestling games. A new version of the game comes with a one use code for online play. So, if someone buys a used copy of the game, they will not have that code and thus will miss out on that aspect of the game. When there were some complaints,  Corey Ledesma of THQ responded by  saying “I don’t think we really care whether used game buyers are upset because new game buyers get everything. So if used game buyers are upset they don’t get the online feature set I don’t really have much sympathy for them.” He went on to say “That’s a little blunt but we hope it doesn’t disappoint people. We hope people understand that when the game’s bought used we get cheated.”

While this is, in fact, blunt, Ledesma does have a legitimate point. As this Penny Arcade strip nicely illustrates, when you buy a used game from a reseller, you are a customer of that reseller and not the company that made the game. This seems to be one of those matters that is beyond dispute.

Now, it might be argued that even buying a new game from a seller makes the person a customer of that seller. If the game is not directly purchased from the company, then it would seem to follow that the person is not a customer of, for example, Blizzard, but of, say, Amazon or Best Buy.

However, the situation involving a new game is relevantly different. After all, the seller is (in effect) acting as an intermediary between the customer and the company that makes the game. Also relevant is the fact that the company making the game receives payment for the game. In the case of a used game, the company is effectively out of the money chain. After all, the maker gets no money from used copies being resold by third parties.

As such, the people who buy used games really have no grounds for complaint. If they want the full content, they can buy a new copy of the game. If they would rather spend less and buy a used copy, then they would need to accept that there is a cost for their savings, namely that not all the content will be available. Since the person who buys a used copy is not a customer of the gaming company, the gaming company has no obligation to him as a customer. The purchasers of a used game cannot complain that they are not getting what they paid for, after all they did not actually pay for a new, complete game.

Of course, if the seller of used copies does not inform their customers that the used versions are lacking, then the customer has a legitimate gripe with the seller. After all, it is reasonable to expect even a used a product to be complete except when the seller makes it clear that it is not.

Some people might see this approach by companies as mere greed or as a cruel means to force people to buy games new. While companies do want to make profits (preferably obscene ones), they do need to actually make money to stay in business and produced more games. Obviously enough, the used game business requires that new games be put into the system, so even those who buy used games clearly have an interest in new games appearing. So, for the gaming ecosystem to survive, companies need to make enough profit to make the production of new games a viable enterprise.

But, someone might reply, the big gaming companies seem to be doing very well, even with the sale of used games. So they are just doing this out of greed and not need.

However, this reply misses the point. It is not unfair for a company to not ensure that resold, used versions have all the features and extras of a new version. To use an analogy, suppose that a person gets cash back and a flat screen TV for buying a new car from a dealer. The person then sells the used vehicle to a dealer who in turn resells it. Obviously the person who bought the car used has no right to expect to get the cash back and TV that the original customer received. Sure, it would be nice of the used car dealer to through in the extras, but the customer has no right to expect that. Likewise for video games.

One concern that does have some legitimacy is based on the right to resell. In general, the right to resell what you have purchased is rather well established. There are, of course, some exceptions based on licensing, health factors and so on. But, in general, if you buy something you can resell it. Now, if gaming companies follow the practice of THQ and others by having one use codes and so on that are only usable by those who buy new copies, then those who want to sell back their games will be facing some problems. At the very least, they will get less than they otherwise would get and perhaps they might not be able to sell them back at all. This, one might argue, violates the right to resell.

However, it actually does not. Companies are under no obligation to ensure that a used version of their product can be sold back at a decent price or even at any price at all. To use a somewhat silly example, when McDonalds sells you a Big Mac, they are under no obligation to ensure that you can resell it after taking a couple bites out of it. To use a more serious example, if you buy a printer that comes with paper samples and a free 90 day subscription to a service and use both, the company is under no obligation to send you more paper and another 90 day free subscription if you decide to sell it to someone else. Sure, you can sell the printer, but it will not have everything the new printer had. That is one of the differences between new and used and also sometimes a reason used things cost less than new things.

If you do decide to sell your, for example, used printer, then you are not cheating the company. After all, you paid them for it and did not sign any agreement not to sell it. Likewise for video games. A customer who elects to sell back a game is not cheating the company. He paid for it and thus now has the right to resell that one copy. Unless, of course, the license agreement strictly forbids the reselling of the product. However, if companies do this (assuming that it can be done legally), then this will impact the value of their product. After all it is effectively less valuable if it cannot legally be resold. This applies, in theory, even to those who do not intend to sell back a specific product. For example, I generally do not sell back books. However, if I was forbidden by law to sell back a book, I would certainly expect to receive compensation for this potential loss-most likely in the form of a lower price. After all, I might decide to sell it back or, upon my untimely death, those who inherit my books might wish to sell them.

Being an author I have considerable sympathy for those who create video games. As such, I buy games new so that they will receive the fruits of their labor. However, people do have the right to buy and sell used games. They just do not have the right to expect that the used versions of games will have all the stuff that comes with a new copy of the game.

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7 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 29, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Companies can do what they want here, but it is probably in their best interest to be nice to their customers–even the ones who buy their games used.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 29, 2010 at 12:12 pm

      But a person who buys a used game is not a customer of the game company. To use an analogy, if I make a duck decoy and sell it to Kernunos, he is my customer. If he decides to sell it to you, then you are his customer. Unless my duck comes with some sort of transferable duck warranty or similar thing, I would owe nothing to you. I might be nice out of niceness or perhaps in the hope that you’d buy a duck from me-that is, in the hope you’d become a customer.

      • T. J. Babson said, on August 29, 2010 at 12:49 pm

        But, on the other hand, if you buy a used Toyota from your friend Michela, and Toyota has a recall, you are still covered.

        • kernunos said, on August 29, 2010 at 10:03 pm

          It would kind of stink if say the windshield washer fluid only worked for the original purchaser.

      • kernunos said, on August 29, 2010 at 10:03 pm

        Don’t worry, I would improve the duck with heat seeking missiles and laser eyes. You would be better off buying used from me TJ.

  2. Andrew said, on August 30, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    I feel like this is a poor way to go about getting what they want.

    What they should do is actually participate in our democracy and work to get the laws changed so that the video game industry gets what it wants.

    They have chosen the easier (and quite frankly) cheaper way to go about this (prohibiting online use via codes). It’s a very indirect way of getting what you want, one that is going to take a long time to achieve it’s goal, and more than likely won’t change minds. The hardcore video gamers will pay the $60 and get the codes and won’t care, but slowly as these games are purchased and sold back to stores they will eventually lose sales (the more popular games, obviously being the online shooters at the moment, won’t sell as well if people can’t play them online).

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 30, 2010 at 2:11 pm

      But game companies won’t lose sales from this. After all, their sales are sales of new games and not used games. So, having used games lack the full access should not significantly impact the sale of new games. Unless, of course, something happens like a consumer revolt, etc.

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