Periscope Depth

a little goodwill goes a mighty long way

Yesterday, Jerry Holkins (a/k/a Tycho of the popular video game webcomic Penny Arcade) said some stuff about used games:

In a literal way, when you purchase a game used, you are not a customer of [game developer THQ]. If I am purchasing games in order to reward their creators, and to ensure that more of these ingenious contraptions are produced, I honestly can’t figure out how buying a used game was any better than piracy. From the the perspective of a developer, they are almost certainly synonymous.

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It’s exceedingly rare that I purchase a game from Gamestop these days. I got tired of being harangued for trying to buy products there, or being told that they didn’t have a product when they did, or going across the street to Best Buy or Target or Fred Meyer and finding fifty copies of the game I was trying to buy heaped up like some heathen altar to commerce. There’s more, besides. At some point in the last few years, I became incredibly uncomfortable with the used games market.

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I traded in games for a long time, there’s probably comics somewhere in the archive about it – you can imagine how quickly my cohort and I consume these things. It was sort of like Free Money, and we should have understood from the outset that no such thing exists. You meet one person who creates games for a living, just one, and it becomes very difficult to maintain this virtuous fiction.

Ouch! Harsh words. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Jerry’s partner on the webcomic, Mike Krahulik (a/k/a Gabe) wrote the following about eight hours later:

My Twitter and my email are both exploding today. People on both sides of the used game debate are crazy passionate about this. If Penny Arcade was a talk radio show this would be a perfect time to “go to the phones”. Since we can’t do that I’d like to do the next best thing.

If you are a developer or a gamer or both I’d like to hear your thoughts. Shoot me a mail and let me know how you feel about this but try and do it in a paragraph or so if you can.

So I took him up on it, sending Gabe an abridged version of the following:

Selling used games doesn’t cheapen the developers’ product. If I buy a copy of Dragon Age: Origins for $60 when it’s first released, play it for a few months, then give up in frustration (as I have done), I have a couple options. I can let it sit on my shelf and gather dust, benefiting no one. Or I can trade it in at GameStop for store credit, where someone else can buy it for $40. I haven’t magically created a second copy where the developer only intended there to be one. I’ve put it out of my hands and into someone else’s. In fact, by putting it into the hands of someone who’ll play it, I’ve done the developer a favor.

Of course, Bioware – the developers of DA:O – don’t get that $40 from the resale. GameStop does. That can rankle some developers. But there’s no alternate scenario in which the developer gets that $40. The alternate scenarios are:


  • The game sits on my shelf (to no one’s benefit);
  • I give the game to a friend (I get some goodwill; the friend gets the game);
  • I sell the game myself, on eBay or Amazon, to a friend or stranger (I get some cash; someone else gets the game);
  • I turn the shiny plastic disc into decorative jewelry or a mural (to no one’s benefit).

People get tired of the games they buy. They want to make room on their shelves for new games. Trading in a game disc for cash or credit doesn’t water down the developer’s intellectual property, since I stop having it the moment someone else does. And it doesn’t take bread out of the developer’s mouth.

I know that Holkins isn’t proposing a buying cycle where buying a video game is a sacred trust – where the purchase of EA or THQ’s latest offering means you become custodian of a product that you must guard for all time, bequeathing as a rich legacy unto one’s issue. But there’s no other logical conclusion to his complaint. If the idea of people reselling games bothers him so much, what would he prefer? Some ridiculous new law? Some bizarre standard of behavior which applies to video games but not to bicycles, cars, leather jackets, books, houses, DVDs, cameras, lamps, unlocked phones, bed frames, coffee tables, curtain rods, vases or collectible plates?

One thing that might keep the discussion from getting too rancorous is separating the idea of buying used games in general (which is harmless) to the practices of Gamestop (which are sketchy and questionable). Shopping there becomes less fun every time I go in, as the staff aggressively hypes their magazine, their frequent buyer programs, game protection, pre-orders and every other possible way to extract money from me without adding much value.

But I don’t think selling a game, or buying a used game, takes money out of a developer’s pocket. I don’t know as many developers as Jerry and Mike do, but I know a couple. And I don’t think they mind.

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