Psychonauts and the Tragedy of Used Games

Yahtzee Croshaw called me a craven douche last week because I chose not to purchase the 2005 action-adventure game Psychonauts when it was released. My first instinct was to defend my honor by telling him about all the other weird games I’ve bought over the years (got a copy of Bad Mojo on your shelf, Yahtzee?), but I decided instead that maybe my energies would be better directed toward discovering what all the uproar was about.

The tricky part is despite all the acclaim it’s been receiving from the horde of critics I seem to be surrounded by, Psychonauts wasn’t what you’d call a smash-hit game. It didn’t sell a million copies, it didn’t spawn an interminable franchise and you’re not likely to see a Saturday morning cartoon based on Raz and the gang. So the likelihood of nipping over to the local EB and picking up a copy is remote, to say the least. I added it to my ever-growing list of “if I see it someplace” games, and then spent the rest of the afternoon thinking instead about what I was going to do with myself while I waited to purchase a new video card that would run BioShock.

Several days later, while in the aforementioned EB to pick up my pre-ordered Limited Edition version of the aforementioned BioShock (No, I can’t play it, and yes I bought it anyway, and if I couldn’t explain it to my wife I’m certainly not going to try to explain it to you), I was rifling through the shelves while waiting for the line to shrivel a bit, and what should my eyes fall upon but a pre-owned copy of Psychonauts.

I was faced with a dilemma. Springing for BioShock was a risky proposition itself, putting me at risk of the Great and Terrible Wrath of the Missus; telling her I bought not just one but two games, one of which I can’t play and the other I’m not all that terribly interested in, would be nothing less than begging for it. Gutless coward that I am, I brought home my Big Daddy and left Psychonauts behind. Sorry, Yahtzee.

And while I’m not playing Psychonauts (or BioShock) as a result, I did happen to trip over an interesting thought on the way home: What if I had bought it?

As a pre-owned game, it would have meant nothing to Double Fine Productions, the game’s developer; all money made from the sale of pre-owned games goes straight into EB’s pockets. The retailer makes big profits, while the developers and publishers – the folks who actually made the game – get nothing. It’s a fairly common complaint about pre-owned software, and in this case it’s at least partially valid.

Developers who take chances on non-traditional game designs – like Double Fine, Planet Moon and Irrational, to name a few – should be supported. A steady diet of EA games and releases with titles that end in numerals is the alternative. Buying Psychonauts now is irrelevant from this perspective, because while I get the game (good), EB gets the money (bad) and Double Fine gets screwed (also bad). It’s enough of an irritant that in 2005 a rumor spread that Sony had patented a technology that would allow it to prevent the use of used games in its PlayStation 3 console.

Essentially, games would be “matched” to a particular console when they were first purchased, after which they would refuse to run in any console but that one. The problems with such a scheme were obvious, and while Sony denied everything (and has not yet introduced any sort of game-crippling mechanism in their system) the uproar was significant.

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But is it believable? On the surface, perhaps. Sony likes money, and the pre-owned game business means it might not be getting as much as it could. Of course, a two-footed leap into such an obviously disastrous strategy seems beyond unlikely, but it did serve to bring into focus how much a large part of the industry would like to see the pre-owned market disappear.

Which is mystifying. Pre-owned games, even in their current “easy money for EB” state, represent a potentially huge tool for the industry. Much like the music industry’s heavy-handed approach to music piracy, opposition to the mere existence of pre-owned game sales is entirely wrong-headed.

The sale of a pre-owned game may mean a new and, for the publisher, revenue-generating game sits on the shelf a little longer. But it also means a gamer may find himself exposed to a developer he’d never heard of previously: A used copy of Giants: Citizen Kabuto today could very easily result in the purchase of a brand-new copy of Armed & Dangerous tomorrow. Pre-owned sales also allow gamers to be more experimental with their purchases, as a result of the lower prices. A gamer who discovers his secret love of real-time strategy through a $15 pre-owned copy of Dawn of War is suddenly a money-spending fanboy in a store packed with the genre. Sequels are another great beneficiary of pre-owned purchases.

Just getting people into the store is of huge benefit to the industry. Since pre-owned stock tends to be random, there’s always an excuse to pop in for a bit of browsing, and let’s be honest about it: Who goes into the store to have a peek at the pre-owned selection without at least taking a glance at the regular stock, too? Getting people into the store is vital; pre-owned games are a huge asset in drawing customers.

Equally undeniable is the fact that allowing gamers to trade in old games encourages them to buy new ones. While waiting to shell out for BioShock, a fellow ahead of me in the line dropped off two of his old Xbox games while paying for his own copy of the game. I have no idea what he got for them in exchange, except to say it doubtless wasn’t much, but exchanges like that are a very common occurrence. Gamers, especially younger ones, are far more likely to lay down money for a new game if they can get a break on it, even a small one, through games they no longer play. For many, EB’s mantra of “play ’em and trade ’em” is the main reason they keep going back.

Rather than taking a stance against pre-owned sales as being harmful to the industry, publishers need to embrace the concept and make it work for them. Which isn’t a very difficult proposal; at its simplest, it involves little more than standing back and letting retailers sell the stuff. More proactive initiatives, such as transferable activation keys (or the elimination of them altogether) or perhaps a collaborative advertising effort for new releases (material from Microsoft encouraging gamers to trade in their Halo 2 for a discount on Halo 3, for instance) may be a bit too forward-thinking at this point, but should absolutely be on the table.

I have no idea why it isn’t happening already. But while it’ll be too late for me to contribute to this month’s The Escapist Game Circle, I’ll still have my eyes open for that copy of Psychonauts next time I hit EB. If I see it, maybe I’ll buy it; if I buy it, maybe I’ll pay more attention to the next thing to come from Tim Schafer and Double Fine Productions. And maybe someday, the industry will come to understand how that is, in fact, a very good thing.

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