Talking Point: The Increasingly Complex Issue of Used Games on PS4
Posted by Sammy Barker
The significance of Sony’s stance on used games is spiralling by the day. While the platform holder has categorically stated that the PlayStation 4 will support pre-owned content, the comments made by the likes of Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida seem a bit vague in the wake of last week’s Xbox One gate. But just how complex is the issue, and what can the Japanese manufacturer do to appease both publishers and its loyal fans?
The storm that’s surrounded Microsoft over the past few days is partially due to poor messaging. Even at the time of writing, the manufacturer has yet to clarify its position on used games. As far as we understand, the company will allow consumers to trade content into pre-determined stores, with those outlets being forced to pay an activation fee to the game’s publisher and the Redmond-based firm itself. This pre-owned ‘tax’ will essentially allow the organisation to control the price of second hand content.
Of course, it also comes with a unique set of questions. Will you be able to share games with your friends, for example? Originally, the Xbox maker said that you will – but your buddies will have to login to your personal account if they want to play the game, otherwise they’ll be prompted to purchase an unlock code. In response to these reports – many of which stem from the company's own vice president Phil Harrison – Microsoft has said that its policies aren’t decided yet, making it increasingly difficult to make any sense of the situation.
But while this is very much the Redmond-based manufacturer’s own public relations inferno to douse, it would be naive to assume that Sony is merely looking down on the furore from the heavens. The platform holder’s silence is not necessarily indicative of a greater narrative, but we’d be shocked if there wasn’t more to the saga than is currently hitting the headlines. And for that very reason, the Japanese giant has some challenging decisions to make over the coming weeks.
Speaking on the latest episode of the Bonus Round, connected industry insider Geoff Keighley revealed that the PlayStation maker may not be quite the knight in shining armour that some gamers are painting the company to be. “Based on some of the things that I'm hearing [...] I can't see publishers allowing one system to do one thing and one to do another,” he said, insinuating that the PS4 will boast similar restrictions to the Xbox One.
However, the advantage that Sony has is time – and some gamers are hoping that that will work to their advantage. A select number of NeoGAF users started a Twitter campaign over the weekend targeting high-ranking PlayStation executives, using the hashtags ‘#PS4NoDRM’ and ‘#PS4UsedGames’ to send a message. It snowballed within hours, prompting some company employees to respond, without really saying much of anything at all.
“This is why I love PlayStation fans,” said SCEA’s head of hardware marketing John Koller. “The passion bucket overflows.” Worldwide Studios’ likeable Scott Rohde made a similar comment, while producer Nick Accordino even added that “we hear you”. And we do truly believe that the company’s listening to the complaints, feedback, and comments from its users – our biggest concern is that the firm’s hand is already well and truly tied.
It’s no coincidence that EA announced the abolishment of the online pass mere weeks before this backlash blew up. The voucher code-driven endeavour – which forced gamers to pay extra in order to unlock online components in pre-owned titles – was essentially designed to recuperate some profit from used sales, and it worked, netting the publisher between $10 million and $15 million in its first year of operation. At the time, we pointed out that that’s not profit that the publisher’s going to pass up.
Of course, should the Xbox One employ the aforementioned used game ‘tax’, the company stands to earn the same amount of revenue from second hand sales, if not more – an attribute that even the staunchest optimist would struggle to overlook. And that brings us to the PS4 and Geoff Keighley’s comments – it’s hard to imagine that the industry giant’s going to neglect the fact that it’s earning significant revenue from pre-owned content on one platform, and not on the other.
It’s true that this could be the basis of Microsoft and EA’s touted “special relationship”, but there’s more than one publisher at play here. The likes of Activision, Ubisoft, Namco Bandai, and more are all likely to be wooed by the promise of an extra revenue stream, and that gives the PlayStation maker very little wiggle room. Systems sell on the basis of their software support, and if Sony loses favour with these companies, it could cede a significant advantage to Microsoft’s machine.
The argument against that scenario suggests that by following a pro-consumer approach, the PS4 has the opportunity to cultivate a larger install base – but we’re not convinced. History has proven on countless occasions that gamers are a fickle bunch, and should the Xbox One secure a steady stream of content, many of those outraged will pony up for the platform anyway. Where will that leave Sony?
In light of the latest rumours, it’s not even like the PS4 will even command a greater presence in retail stores. Originally it had been speculated that outlets such as GameStop and GAME – the ones that are likely to be affected the most by pre-owned game restrictions – would favour Sony’s next generation system in their shops should Microsoft block used sales. But based on the scenario described above, these franchises are certain to be clued into the system, meaning that not much is likely to change.
It puts the PlayStation maker between a rock and a hard place. There are numerous advantages to second hand sales, in that they actually increase the adoption of fresh content and encourage consumers to try out new experiences which may help to build brands moving forward. But the reality is that publishers are probably only eyeing their bottom line, and in spite of any arguments that the Japanese giant could make, they may not hold much weight among short sighted firms.
Should Sony buckle under the pressure of its content partners, though, it will find itself subject to a similar backlash to the one that Microsoft’s facing right now. The platform holder can mitigate that damage by sending a clearer, more understandable, and cohesive message than the Xbox maker’s managed, but even the most perfectly prepared statements are not going to gloss over the death of the pre-owned market as we know it.
As previously mentioned, the one advantage that the company’s got on its side is time. By being much coyer than Microsoft at the PS4 unveiling earlier in the year, it’s earned the opportunity to observe the backlash to the Xbox One reveal and reconsider its policies. We’ve no doubt that there have been some hurried meetings between PlayStation executives over the past couple of days, with many more to come in the run-up to E3. And it’s pivotal that it happens upon the right conclusion during these sessions, because this is going to be a key topic at the Los Angeles convention in June. Sadly, we’re just not convinced that there’s a solution that will please all of the parties involved.
Where do you sit on the subject of used games? Do you think that Sony should stand its ground and risk irritating publishers? Are there any other alternatives? Let us know in the comments section below.
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