Videogames are sold like videogames

Sophie Houlden felt like being controversial today, and sent some tweets, like so:

> I feel like being controversial again today; anyone who thinks selling pre-owned games shouldn't happen is a big fat poop head

> dont want people making money off something you have done (and already made money off)? then sell licences to play instead.

> making people who cant afford to pay the ridiculous cost of a new release feel bad makes you (as previously stated) a big fat poop head

I'm not entirely sure her argument, but it turns out I have Opinions, and so I thought I'd lay them out in a bit more detail.

First off : pre-owned games happen. They're a fact of life, and people buy them and don't feel guilty. And they're pretty much the only way for shops to make money selling games these days. The margins on a new console are pretty much zero, and only a little better on those shiny new games. That's why they push them. I'm not so sure they make all that much money on pre-owned games, either - turns out, selling to digital-savvy consumers from a physical location is difficult. Who would have guessed?!

But these days a lot of games get sold in ethereal and gaseous form.  Mainly by Steam. That's groovy, but it turns out when you don't have a physical artifact, your right to resell the product purchased becomes equally ethereal. This is due to the medium, pretty much - a digital copy is identical, and is also the only way of transporting the game. And games would be awfully expensive if buying one meant you could sell unlimited copies to other people. So we move to this world where you only have a license to play games, which kinda sucks, because everyone is quite used to the notion of ownership by this point. The rules are kind of instinctive, but they're made weird and twisted when all you own is a license. It offends your natural state of fair play.

So this is going to happen, and physical copies will become more tokens of appreciation, and treasured artifacts than Ways To Play Games. You buy the Nidhogg figurine, and get a free physical download. How many people buy vinyl, then listen to the music on Spotify? These artefacts are treasured, and hold their value well over long timespans. Even if they're only tangentially connected to the work itself. Is it wrong to show appreciation for music or a webcomic with a T-shirt?

Those are the two future forms of games, in my opinion - licenses and per-month payments, with everything in the cloud, and treasured mementos where the actual playable game isn't quite the point. Mass produced plastic boxes, all alike - who wants those? They're the awkward child of two divorcing parents.

Sophie also was driving at a point about comparing the medium with other mediums - some of which have lively second hand markets, and some don't, but in almost all of which things hold their value better than the traditional box of videogame.

I guess I have to take a stab at explaining why this is, and I think the most obvious point is that videogames are computer programs. Viewed as a weird, unproductive computer program, they start to look a lot more normal. How much is a second-hand copy of Quicken? (it's notable that other programs are almost always licensed, not sold - the same digital weirdness infects them) How quickly does Madden 2007 go out of date? It's no less fun, but... How soon do fashions and technology move on, and cause games to look like ancient crusty cripples, clinging on to their DOSBox life support? Sure, some games stand out as timeless, beautiful classics, but most really don't (though naturally when you think about old games, you'll think about the best - they're the ones that still endure). And even if they are still beautiful in gameplay, graphics and sound, they become increasingly less easy to play. Consoles die with age, and TV connectors get ever more complex. Pick up a book printed 90 years ago, you can read it fine - pick up a game made 9 years ago, and see how much faff it is to play. And the second-hand market begets the second hand market. Some buy games as a form of rental, counting on the trade-in value to get them their next game.

(A lot of these criticisms don't affect indies. We distribute digitally, and so have no second-hand ephemera to leave behind. And we can't afford the cutting edge of shininess, so we tarnish slower. Not that theres a market at the moment, but I like to believe there will be. Like CD-Rs sold by the Arctic Monkeys in their early days - those retain their value and then some.)

It's also - I'm probably wrong, but I could understand a tone of defensiveness about this. How come videogames aren't lasting durable art forms, like those others? Roman statuary retains beauty 2000 years on, but we can't even manage 2 months! Well - fuck that shit. Mediums are different, and they should be allowed to be. A game becomes obsolete quickly? That's because the state of the art is (hopefully) advancing rapidly. The world of games is exciting at the moment, but I hope it becomes ever more so, that what we have is but the tiniest fragment of the range of games we'll have soon enough. If the work we make now appears worn-out and worthless then, then how much better will the form be? Even for indies - try to make a 3D game with real physics and good lighting and online multiplayer in a month. Difficult but possible, yes? Now go back to 2005 and try. Technology runs on, and hopefully if we run with it, we'll cover more ground than the games of yesteryear thought possible.

08 October 2010