Gaming has been a pastime of mine since I was about 5 or 6. Some of my earliest memories are of playing Ice Hockey and Kid Icarus on the NES, and as I grew, so did the industry. As I type this at 28 years of age, I’m now able to purchase a full game — the same game that sits on a shelf at GameStop — directly from my console, download it to the hard drive, and play it without having to leave the couch (yes, PC gamers, I know you’ve been able to do this for a while, but it’s still relatively new to us console folks).
But as much as this convenience delights me, it also frightens me, because it comes at a price.
The philosophy of sharing and borrowing is deeply entrenched in our culture. It’s why libraries exist; we all share these publicly-funded collections of books and movies and borrow from them as needed, because it just not economically feasible for every single one of us to own every single book or movie that comes out. As much as media companies would love that, it just isn’t possible. It’s why our grandparents lent each other records. It’s why our parents swapped cassette tapes. And it’s why my generation traded CDs and really took to Napster when it first arrived. We like to share the things we like, and if we own a copy (or not, in Napster’s case), we’re mostly okay with letting a friend borrow it for a while.
The music and book industries have mostly come around in the digital age in terms of sharing and borrowing. Digital Rights Management (DRM), which was heavily-used by online music stores in the early 2000’s, has mostly faded away, and services like Spotify have popped up to essentially become the “libraries” for music; services where those who pay in can “borrow” from collections that are millions of songs strong. On the ebook side of things, Amazon knows that Kindle owners want to be able to lend books to other Kindle users, and they’ve built such a feature in. While it’s unfortunate that authors and publishers can deny lending permission for specific books, having the feature at all is at least a semi-win for those who want to treat their ebooks just like they do their hardbacks.
Unfortunately, for gamers…
…digital copies aren’t getting that same share/borrow love, and it doesn’t look like it’ll happen anytime soon. On the Xbox 360, you can’t even buy a digital copy the same day the disc hits stores; Microsoft is still too reliant on its relationships with brick and mortars in other key areas of its business, so it puts their interests ahead of customer convenience and its own digital store’s success. Digital game downloads also tend to be priced higher than physical copies available at retailers. Add to that information the fact that you can’t lend, borrow, or transfer licenses for games, and you might start to wonder where the game industry was when its music and publishing counterparts were having revelations.
Perhaps part of the problem is the game industry’s misplaced notion that used games are killing its sales figures. Some rumors even claim that the next Xbox console won’t play used games at all. It sounds eerily similar to the claims that the music and movie industries made about how piracy was killing them, when the reality was that technology and consumer needs had passed their old business models by. The popularity of used games — used anything, really — has to due with the price of the new product, which some people just aren’t comfortable paying. $60 is a lot of money to fork over for a game you might play for 10-20 hours, tops. And when the highly-restricted digital version, which holds way less value, is actually more expensive than the physical product at a retailer, used games start to look mighty attractive. At least you can let someone borrow or buy your copy when you’re finished with it.
The game industry is an industry that hates the sale of its used products, hates sharing, and constantly seems at odds with itself in terms of what is best for the industry as a whole and its consumers. If we continue down the path that the industry would prefer, we’ll someday all be forced to buy a new retail copy of a game, even if we just want to try it out. And if we don’t like it, we’ll be stuck with it, since used games will have no value in the secondary market. It’s a scenario where the game industry wins at the expense of its customers, who will either take the hit to their wallets or will play less games. Suddenly, the music and publishing industries don’t seem so bad.
Is there a fix?
I’ve spent the last few days thinking about ways that console game stores could improve, namely in the areas of sharing/borrowing and pricing. Here are a few of my thoughts.
- Console makers and publishers could work together to implement some kind of game lending feature that removes the game’s license from the owner’s console while the game is being borrowed (much like Amazon does with Kindle lending). After the borrowing time limit has passed, the license is returned to the owner’s console.
- A console maker could put together a Spotify-like library for video games and charge users a monthly or annual fee for access. OnLive does this, albeit with lesser-desired titles. I’d gladly pay a nice chunk of change to have access to a console’s entire library — I certainly don’t have the $100,000+ needed to purchase every title myself.
- If console makers aren’t willing to add lending capabilities to games, or allow the resale of digital games, they need to acknowledge the fact that these games have much less value than their physical counterparts; I’m talking at least half as valuable, since you can’t share your game or recoup your investment in it. Price your hot new title at $29.99 and I’ll stop whining that I can’t let anyone borrow it.
I won’t be holding my breath for console manufacturers and game publishers to take my ideas into consideration, but it doesn’t change the fact that something has to be done. The act of lending or borrowing media is probably as old as the first book itself, and we’re headed down a road where one of my favorite mediums of storytelling and artistic expression might someday lose its ability to be shared.