The Backwards Way The Industry Looks at Used/Rented/Borrowed/Pirated Games

This fox isn't evil. It's just doing what it needs to do.

This fox isn’t evil. It’s just doing what it’ supposed to do.

Look at this fox for a moment. Imagine that the rabbit in its mouth is the very last member of a specific rabbit species. The fox has just hunted this particular family of rabbits to extinction, without any help from humans. But does that make the fox evil? Of course not. The fox is doing what it’s supposed to do: find creatures smaller than itself and eat them. The rabbit, for its part, failed to evolve to outrun or outbreed this predation, and therefore was not fit to survive. There is nothing moral or amoral about it. It simply is.

The biggest mistake the industry has, collectively, made with regards to used games is to treat it as a moral dilemma. Gamers are failing to support us. Retailers are stabbing us in the back. Pirates and Gamefly are destroying our profits. We rant and rave in interviews and on Twitter. We decry the wickedness of anyone who does not purchase a new copy on day one, and rail against a vast conspiracy eroding our bottom line. How dare they, these people who call themselves our fans, not support us with their money. The unbelievable gaul of these corporate leaches that have spawned whole new industries, like malignant tumors, on the back of our hard work and have cut us out of the profits. Don’t they understand what they are doing to us?

I humbly submit that AAA console games are an endangered species, and, if they go extinct, it will be because they were not fit to survive, not because consumers or retailers are evil.

Except, much like one species hunting another to extinction, morality has nothing to do with it. This is not a moral issue. Much like the fox above, gamers and retailers are doing what they are supposed to do. An oft-sited excuse for corporations to get away with consumer-unfriendly practices like DRM is that corporations exist to make money. But that door swings both ways: consumers exist to engage the offers that give them the best deal for their dollar. And if a bit-torrent or Gamefly or GameStop or their friends at school give them a better value than a publisher, then the publisher looses. Simple as that.

I humbly submit that AAA console games are an endangered species, and, like the rabbit above, if they go extinct, it will be because they were not fit to survive, not because consumers or retailers are evil. They’ve had a good run in biological terms. The commercial environment supported an exponential population growth for just about two decades. There was a good amount of genetic diversity. Sure, a genus or subfamily here or there went ass-up, but, overall, AAA console games thrived. However, over the last decade, new environmental pressures have emerged in force. Budgets have skyrocketed. Used games went from being a thing Blockbuster did periodically to clear out obsolete inventory to a mainstay of GameStop’s profit margin. Discs were easier to pirate, rent, and share.

The attempts that AAA developers and publishers have made to stave off these new predators have been less than impressive. The once genetically diverse kingdom of console games has converged into a few stalwart, but horrifically inbred, genres. Budgets have further bloated in a ham-fisted attempt to win sales through shock-and-awe presentation. The various technological attempts used to discourage used games have mostly served to anger the consumer base, which does not encourage loyalty. If the species does not become leaner, meaner, and more efficient, we’ll be looking at taxidermied boxes of Halo 5 in the Field Museum one day.*

The AAA PC space is a little less grim. Within the digital distribution enclaves of Steam, Good Old Games, et al, AAA games have an environment free of some of the pressures of the physical media space, but not from the budget creep produced by a never-ending tech and features arms race. It also helps that those channels make it a point to have a collaborative relationship with their customers, rather than an antagonistic one.

Free-to-play represents an evolution in gaming business models, in the biological sense of a systemic response to environmental pressures.

Now, before anyone feels a smug sense of superiority over EA and Activision, you should realize that there is another consequence to this predation. The rise of mobile gaming and the free-to-play market is a direct response to these market forces. Free-to-play represents an evolution in gaming business models. When I say “evolution,” I don’t mean in the Zerg-sense of an improvement. I mean in the biological-sense of a systemic response to environmental pressures. Free-to-play, especially when combined with mobile, represents a fertile new ground for the games business, a space where projects with very simple mechanics and relatively circumscribed production budgets can make obscene profits.

Developers have started to migrate to free-to-play, in part, because the reduced risk provides more flexibility, more entrepreneurial opportunities, and, ideally, a healthier work/life balance. With the notable exception of Activision, large publishers are also wading in and learning the ins and outs of this new market. At some point, they may decide that bet-big revenue model of AAA games† is just not worth the risk, and they might abandon console gamers entirely and make less risky games for a much less discerning, far more lucrative audience in some other market, be it Free-to-Play or whatever other new business models emerge in the future.

If that happens, it’ll be console gamers who go extinct. And there still will be nothing moral or amoral about it.

*Okay, I admit, I’ve taken the analogy too far.
†Here, I’m referring to AAA games as a whole. There are certainly examples of very profitable console games, but CoD and GTA are the exception, not the rule.

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