Thoughts on Used Game Stores and Digital Downloads

Used game stores are interesting.  Not only are they great for selling games you don’t play and picking up new-to-you games for a usually good price, but they’re also generally a place to know other gamers.  On the other side of the fence, you have publishers trying to tell us that dealing in used games will destroy the game market in a fiery apocalypse.  On the third side of the fence (it’s a fence designed by H.R. Giger) you have the main competition to the used book stores, digital downloads.

Used game stores have been around almost as long as video games.  Retail stores tend to have a policy on returns—if you open the product, you can’t return it, or at least not for anything but another version of said product if you’re trying to return it due to it being defective.  If you beat a game and knew you’d never play it again, or if it wasn’t what you thought it was, or if you just needed a few extra dollars, well—you were out of luck unless you went to a used game store.

They used to be rather ubiquitous, usually one part of the store’s business as a whole.  A typical store would deal in comic books, trading card games, table-top role-playing games, as well as video games.  As video games became more popular over the years, they became the focus of those stores, with entire chains eventually coming out revolving around them.

FuncoLand was one of the first nation-wide chains, and the first chain I had any dealings with.  While apparently there was a lot of vitriolic and profane vulgarity-infused hatred of the chain, I for one didn’t have many problems with it.  The employees went through their required spiels, but between those, most were actually pretty knowledgeable.  I was actually turned away from a few games after chatting with employees, as they said I probably wouldn’t like them based on discussion about my general preferences in games.

FuncoLand was eventually bought out by GameStop, another nation-wide store, though at the time it was more focused on selling new games and hardware.  Six years ago, it was announced that GameStop would be merging with E.B. Games, which would effectively mean the GameStop collective was a few steps closer to ruling the gaming world.

Around the time FuncoLand was gobbled up by GameStop, I was looking for another store.  I found Captain Nemo, a store in a town not too close to me, thus inconvenient to visit with any real regularity.  However, they made it worth the trip.  While even the used games were a bit higher in price than what I could find locally, they were guaranteed to work—guaranteed.  And it wasn’t for just a few days, like you see in national chains even these days.  It was for an entire month.  A whole month, and you got that guarantee without spending any extra on warranties or the like.  Plus they had a great selection of comic books, table-top role-playing apparatus, and so on.

Then they were bought out by Cheap Thrills, a company I’d had next to no experience with.  Their original store was a bit away from Captain Nemo’s, so I’d seen it now and then in passing but never had occasion or desire to step in and browse.  I did know that they were a music-oriented store, and could see vinyl records, even eight-track tapes, and more on display.  They looked to be to listeners of music what Captain Nemo’s was to gaming nerds—a one-stop shop for everything you could want of any age.

I was still rather—hesitant.  How many of us really have good experiences with our favorite stores being bought out?  Not many, that’s for certain.  There’s a reason for that—for whatever underlying reason, the new company usually comes in and tries to change things around, which typically ends up altering or downright ruining the very thing that made the store popular in the first place.  Lower costs and raise prices, that’s usually the rule of the day.

So it was that I was quite cautious when I next stepped into the place and poked around.  I found that the new owners actually understood what it was that made Captain Nemo a popular store, and didn’t change that.  All they did do was basically combine inventories, so that on top of everything else, that one store starting offering the music-related items as well.

To keep this from sounding like I’m advertising for them, let me just say that Cheap Thrills proved to be the exception in the world of company buy-outs, and to this day offer nothing less than Captain Nemo offered before, only now they bought the place next door and knocked down a few walls so offer even more things.

The last time I was there I was thinking about how, over the last few years, various developers and publishers have decried the used game market.  As a matter of course, over the years various gaming web sites have broached this issue—like this article from GamePro, suggesting that the prices on new games is at least partly the reason for used games to do so well.

While I think that may be true to some extent, no matter what price you put on a new game, a used game will always be at least a little bit cheaper.  It’s simple reasoning, really—something that’s been open and used before should be cheaper than something that hasn’t been opened.  There’s a reason why you find used items—from games to clothing to lawn ornaments to whatever else—to be cheaper than new items.  It’s a common-sense expectation of the customer, whomever the customer may happen to be.

This article from PCWorld raises a different question altogether: Should developers and publishers get part of the money when a customer re-sells their game?  It does make a certain amount of sense—developing a game isn’t easy.  Aside from the technical knowledge one must possess, there’s the work environment, dealing with publishers who don’t seem to understand how much time must be invested to make a coherent game, and so on.  If you purchase the game new, you’re paying the developers and publishers a percentage.  Why shouldn’t the person who purchases a game you turned into the store?

Well, it’s the same product, that’s why.  If you purchase game X new at sixty dollars, you’re essentially paying the developers and publishers a percentage.  Over-simplifying for the sake of this example, let’s say you’re paying ten percent, or six dollars.  So you purchase the game new and basically give the developers and publishers six dollars for it.  Once you turn in a game to a used game store, you’re not getting that six dollars back from the developers/publishers.  They still keep the money they made from your original purchase.  So you giving the game to a used game store doesn’t eat into their profit one bit.

I firmly believe developers should be financially rewarded for their hard work—but I also believe it should be done fairly.  I don’t believe more than one person should pay the developers for one product.  If that one product were copied, then, yes, there should be as many payments made to the developers and publishers as there are copies.  That would only be fair.

The other issue brought up is the subject of digital downloads.  The cousin of such is “cloud gaming”, which we’ve discussed before, so there’s no need to go into it too deeply this time around.  The basics are that I don’t see cloud gaming as viable in the near-future, regardless of what those in the business—whether the same side of the business as myself or as a maker/producer of the games—would say on the matter.

Arguably one of the most famous companies of digital downloads would have to be Steam, though it’s certainly not the first or only one out there.  Personally, I don’t like Steam for a multitude of reasons.  Apparently I’m not alone, either.  I don’t like how you have to have Steam running in order to play games, even when the games themselves or at least the mode you choose are normally off-line.

That means extra strain on the computer, and not everyone can afford a top-of-the-line gaming rig.  I’ve tested out Steam on a computer before, and games that ran decently enough without Steam ran like molasses with Steam.  It’s acceptable if you want the services it offers by staying connected to the Internet—chat with friends, instantaneous patch-downloads when available, and such.  But if you don’t want them, you’re stuck with the software running in the background anyway.  Tough noogies for you, as they say.

That’s my primary complaint, the unnecessary drain on resources, but it’s not the only complaint out there.  People have cited the lack of easy access to a customer service number, the difficulty in using the software, and more.

Another complaint I have about the service as a whole is that it takes out a lot of the gamer interaction.  The last time I was at Cheap Thrills, I spent a lot of time just shooting the breeze with one of the employees.  We talked about various gaming-related ideas and issues—and that wasn’t the only time.  A lot of stores are, or can be, like that.

Another complaint is that it takes out the ability to easily mod the game, which as can be seen in that linked discussion on consoles becoming the next coin-op, I am a proponent of.  Modders can take a game and make it truly interesting, but a service like Steam—while it doesn’t outright disallow it, it does make it more difficult.  It would be understandable, to a degree, if modders sold their mods, but as a rule they don’t.  Garry’s Mod is the exception, not the rule.  It’s a valid exception, but an exception nonetheless.  Garry put a lot of work into the mod, and it’s technically a game in its own right (more or less).

The problem is that Steam automatically updates games, without your consent, so if you have your mod designed around a certain version and a patch comes out that completely undoes your mod, you either have to give up or spend more time trying to get your mod to work.  The problem there is that it’s unnecessary work—gamers will, as a rule, patch up to the latest version of their favorite modded game, but they’d like to wait until the mod itself has been updated.

There’s really nothing inherently wrong with that, either.  They still paid good money for the game and the mods are usually free—all the gamer is doing is trying to enjoy their game.  Yes, patches are good things in that they fix bugs, add content, and so on—but the mods may take care of at least some of the bugs, and they add their own new content.  The developers and publishers are still getting paid, so why make it more difficult for the consumer to enjoy the product?

Some say digital download services are another way for developers and publishers to hammer at used game stores.  I don’t know if that’s true, though it would seem to make some sense.  After all, if you download a game you can’t exactly trade it in somewhere for store credit, now can you?  If you’re at a point where you know you’ll never play the game again, well, you’re stuck with it.

That’s perhaps the main draw of used game stores—if you don’t want your game, you can trade it in for money, or at least store credit for another product.  That lets another gamer enjoy something you don’t while you enjoy a game someone else didn’t, and everyone’s happy—well, everyone but the publishers and developers.  As I said before, however, the used game store model doesn’t actually affect their profit one bit.  It’s still one product being used by one gamer with the payment for that product still in the hands of the publishers/developers.

One major complaint from that end seems to be that gamers will potentially buy more used games than new games—and that might even be true.  Gamers around the world are in some sort of recession—jobs are down, prices are up, so on and so forth.  It’s the thing you can see on your local news.  For the price of one new game you can get a small handful of used games.

That’s an important factor, the price.  The problem with that analogy (and why the complaint that gamers might buy more used games than new might be true) is not every gamer has the sixty bucks to spend in the first place.  Sometimes we only have ten or twenty to spend on our hobby, which would get you laughed at (or a poor game) in a retail environment.

Many people in the retail side of the hobby have negative things to say about the used side, and some of them are even fair.  At the end of the day, the used game market will continue, whether it be on-line or in physical stores.  I for one hope the physical store stays around for a long while.  The services it offers, from the actual sales of games to the camaraderie, are important factors in the hobby and why many of us have stayed in the hobby over the years.  The importance of them are hard to overestimate, but fundamental in our enjoyment.


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