We know any information about the Xbox 720 and PS4 should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s hard not to be concerned about the latest rumor: According to Edge (opens in new tab), the next Xbox will block used games from working (opens in new tab) by tying games to specific consoles. Despite being unconfirmed, the news resulted in disdain and frustration from gamers. Unlike most internet rage-fests, however, this one might actually be justified, especially to those wishing to prop up gamer culture.
Some of the problems with blocking used game software are obvious. It’s true that new games become rapidly discounted in the weeks and months after they’re released, which somewhat invalidates the argument that used games are the only way to make gaming affordable. However, without used game sales, many titles will become much harder to find, especially for niche games (Xenoblade Chronicles, which was just released in North America last year, is already one of this generation’s rarest games (opens in new tab)). That's an issue that's already being exasperated by the industry's growing adoption of download-only games.
Borrowing and sharing games among friends and family members has been a staple of gamer culture for decades, and Microsoft's move would significantly impede this pastime. Bringing your copy of Halo 4 (opens in new tab) to a friend’s house for an afternoon of co-op would be impossible unless you want to bring your console too. Lending your buddy the first two Dead Space games so he can decide whether or not to pick up Dead Space 3 (opens in new tab) won’t happen either; if he wants to get into the series, he needs to come to your house and play or buy his own copies, either of which is discouraging. Plus, sharing games has been a way to raise interest and expand the gaming audience since the dawn of the industry, and it would be a shame to see that tradition wiped out when the next generation starts.
Even multi-gamer households would be negatively impacted by console-tethered games. It’s unclear whether Microsoft’s rumored plan would tie a new game to the console itself or gamer profile, but either way, homes with multiple gamers or consoles could be put out, even if they only buy new games. What about spouses who have separate profiles on the same console? Or roommates on a budget who have their own consoles but share games? And how about siblings living under the same roof, whose parents are unlikely to start buying multiple copies of games instead of just one? For them to have to buy more copies of the same game is ludicrous. Will gamers in any of these situations buy more copies of games... or just not buy them at all? Is that really a question publishers want to force us to answer?
It’s not hard to understand where Microsoft is coming from, assuming this is true (and as a reminder, all we have to go on are persistent rumors). As a publisher, it must be incredibly frustrating to see retailers selling your product secondhand, cutting the price by a mere $5 or $10 and keeping the entirety of the profit. Publishers have already begun taking steps to discourage used game sales, with online passes from third-party (opens in new tab) and first-party (opens in new tab) having quickly become an industry standard. And that's in addition to always-on DRM, CD keys, on-disc DLC, and other schemes these companies have already put into place to protect themselves from secondhand game sale drain at the expense of their fans.
There’s no easy way for publishers to discourage used game sales, and the clear trend has thus far been to punish the everyday gamer. But here's an idea: Instead of taking options away, perhaps game makers should be focused on offering more incentives for buying new. Perhaps all of our fretting is for nothing, but if these rumors turn out to be true, we can only hope that Microsoft (and potentially Sony (opens in new tab)) would implement these features in a way that’s pro-gamer. It would be even better if they completely disregarded the idea of blocking used games, though. It’s not screwing retailers; it’s screwing us.
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