Always-online consoles will damage the used games market

Oliver Cragg
games consoles 300x225 Always online consoles will damage the used games market

(Getty Images)

The last two months have seen an alarming quantity of resignations within the videogame industry whether voluntary or ‘voluntary’. But for all the faults of John Riccitiello – formally of EA, voted the worst company in America for the past two years – or Yoichi Wada following his hasty retreat from Square Enix following ‘extraordinary losses’ off the back of failing to achieve a series of frankly absurd sales targets, neither were guilty of the level of idiocy from the reportedly now former Microsoft creative director Adam Orth.

Orth, who goes by the moniker ‘Orthy’ on his a-little-bit-late-for-that-now recently-privatised Twitter account, unleashed a tirade of ill-judged responses to the valid public outcry at the suggestion that future Microsoft consoles would require a constant internet connection and demand that disc copies of games be subject to a mandatory hard drive installation to ensure the disc isn’t ever used again. I would assume his use of the wildly inflammatory hashtag “#dealwithit” was one of the primary reasons Microsoft released a groveling apology with an obligatory line about not sharing the ‘personal views’ Mr. Orth.

Orth’s comments provoked such a fevered reaction from the videogame populous because they trivialize a number of key issues that an always-online design philosophy creates. Not least of those issues is the assumption that everyone is always online. After all this isn’t necessarily fair or accurate, especially for the – granted, increasingly miniscule, minority who are not online at all. Even for those in the privileged position of having a high-speed fibre optic connection, ungovernable circumstances such as power outages or network repairs are still plausible antagonists for an omni-connected utopia. This also relies on dedicated and reliable servers from the source, a barely covered pothole Diablo III and SimCity have fallen foul of. With the always online debate also comes the DRM (Digital Rights Management) debate too; the form of post-sale control of ownership from manufacturers and publishers that was designed – in a relatively progressive manner – to tackle piracy when implemented correctly, but has instead become the buzzword for overzealous management of its IP from conservative videogame companies.

Yet, among the litany of troubling rumours and reports surrounding the next generation Microsoft console there was a detail which, to me, was far more sinister; the suggestion that the always-online infrastructure was being discussed, in part, as a means to block and ultimately eradicate their console’s support for second hand, pre-owned games. While an online requirement and a mandatory hard drive install does not demand the rejection of a pre-used/borrowed game it is not hard to see the natural technological progression to this entirely business-led conclusion.

The impact of blocking used games on the customer is fairly self-explanatory. While I personally tend to only buy new games to support developers, the removal of a consumer’s freedom to purchase, share and play pre-owned games isn’t something I’d be particularly comfortable with if only for the fact that some of the rarer/less financially successful videogames are available exclusively within the second hand market. And what of that market? What of the aisles of traded-in games that litter the shelves of the last few remaining retail outlets that dabble in the sale of the boxed product? While many publishers have cried foul of the pre-owned side of the industry inflicted like a pox by the greedy, heartless high street retailers, this doesn’t exactly ring true when the same publishers are so eager to offer premium, special editions of their games with exclusive content to those same retailers. With high street retailers like HMV and GAME already struggling with dwindling profits it’s hardly a surprise that the margin-friendly pre-owned market takes up the most space on shop shelves. The idea that Microsoft, with Sony and Nintendo already confirming their continued support for second hand games, would risk losing this physical floor space in retail stores which would in turn lessen their presence in the consciousness of the casual videogamer is difficult to imagine as a genuine possibility.

In reality a singularly digital future for videogame consumption is a genuine possibility if only because the medium is so intrinsically tied to technology in the first place. While other mediums originate from the production of a physical object for consumption, it was videogames that abandoned analog technology the fastest when considering their overall production cycles. A purely digital distribution model for videogames is a feasible concept then, but with the cost of digital titles on home consoles still receiving obscene price tags when compared to their physical counterparts it’s not yet a future that’s entirely palatable.

Of the most concern though is what happens to those discs in the present. Should an always-online ecosystem with one-time installs render the disc a redundant material, what happens then? For those who don’t harbor an unhealthy need to hoard together an extensive physical videogame collection like myself, any discs which suffer the fate of being an activation tool will have no resale value or legitimate function. Retail outlets are one thing, but what of charity shops and donations? What message is sent when books, films and music can provide financial aid to charitable organizations, but videogames cannot? This is without even considering how environmentally unfriendly it would be to see landfills populated by discarded cases and discs. Every medium of entertainment and art is defined by its history and at this time my Commodore Amiga and Super Nintendo Entertainment System are still fully functional gaming systems with discs and cartridges that contain memories and experiences I equate to some of my fondest early memories. What if those experiences were impossible to replicate because of closed servers or expired product keys?

I guess I’d just have to “#dealwithit” I suppose.

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  • Miguel Angel Teran

    Great Article, I’m done with XBOX :(

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