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Is The Death Of Single Player Games Due To Used Games? No.

Amongst an otherwise interesting interview on Gamasutra with David Braben is a discussion on what Braben thinks is killing the narrative driven single player game. According to Braben that death is being dealt by the used game market. I can barely begin to explain just how wrong he is. So let’s take this a bit at a time.

The real problem when you think about it brutally, if you look at just core gamer games, pre-owned has really killed core games. In some cases, it’s killed them dead. I know publishers who have stopped games in development because most shops won’t reorder stock after initial release, because they rely on the churn from the resales.

Now there is a lot wrong here. So let’s take this apart bit by bit. First we have the idea that publishers will kill a game based on first run sales projections. Now this is most likely true. However, I have little faith in his insistence that such low projections are based solely on used turn over. There are a lot of factors that go into such a decision. These decisions are based on the whims of the games market. If a game will not sell enough in the first run due to other market factors, most publishers will kill it. Used games turnover is one of the factors measured but not the only one.

Then there is the blame he places on retailers for such practices. I agree that some retailers rely on used game sales for a large chunk of their profits. This is primarily because the profit margins on new games and hardware are so slim that it would be nigh impossible to stay afloat selling only new products. Even the high margin sales of hardware accessories is not enough to cover all costs and allow for expansion. Used games are used to bring in the revenue needed to stay afloat and grow.

It’s killing single player games in particular, because they will get preowned, and it means your day one sales are it, making them super high risk. I mean, the idea of a game selling out used to be a good thing, but nowadays, those people who buy it on day one may well finish it and return it.

Really, the behavior described here is less a result of the used market and more a result of gaming culture both from the consumer side and the developer side of things. Core games today have become nothing more than a checklist for many gamers. This checklist behavior is compounded by the design decisions of game developers and publishers. Achievements and Trophies are part of this. Gamers are given incentive to power through as many games as possible to get as many Achievements as possible. The easiest and cheapest way to do this is to trade and sell their games in order to get more games.

For the developer, if they truly want to end this, they need to look at ways to change the behavior of gamers to get them to replay games they would otherwise trade away. Making the games prohibitively long is not the way to do this. Making more engaging stories and gameplay would be a better solution. But doing so requires actual effort on the part of the game designer. Something that many publishers are not willing to invest in.

People will say ‘Oh well, I paid all this money and it’s mine to do with as I will’, but the problem is that’s what’s keeping the retail price up — prices would have come down long ago if the industry was getting a share of the resells.

I honestly can’t believe this claim at all. Let’s look at the retail PC market. There is no used PC game market at least not outside player to player trading. However, there has been no drop in price for retail PC games. They are still $60 along with the console version. If what he said here was true, these PC versions would be half or less the cost of the console version.

Perhaps it is not the absence of a used market and more the idea that used resellers should be sharing the profits they make on used games. Would prices fall then? Who knows, there is not a way to properly estimate the impact of such a move. We do not have a market to compare it to. Unfortunately, I have my doubts about such a prospect. Mainly, this has to do with how such a move would be managed. Who would make sure that the right people get paid? Who would determine who those right people are? How would you make sure that all that money doesn’t just get “lost” in the massive bureaucracy that will be created? I have seen the problems in the music royalty process and would not wish such a massive hindrance on my worst enemy.

Developers and publishers need that revenue to be able to keep doing high production value games, and so we keep seeing fewer and fewer of them.

What this really points out is that console game development is a high risk, low reward business. It costs a whole lot to make a common AAA game these days and if your game is not a break out success, you will fail. So rather than try to fight the will of the consumers, perhaps it is time to shift your focus away from AAA development and move on to lighter affairs that cost a fraction of that. AA and A development is still a viable market but you have to be willing to spend less than $10million and often less than $5million developing them. Sadly, most publishers are not willing to invest in such games.

It just becomes a higher and higher risk… But justifying that is much harder at the moment.

Yep. It is. That is why you need to look at other ways to work around such risks. Find ways to mitigate it. Part of that is working with a long tail in mind for your games. If you focus solely on the first month of sales, then yes, you will have problems. Yet, if you work from a long haul perspective, you can make a lot more money and be happier, even if it means people buy your game used.

Used games are not going to kill the games industry. High risk, low reward game development will and is. There is a reason mobile and web based gaming is growing right now. I think it is time that game developers like Braben look at those avenues of gaming and work on finding out what makes those games tick and how they can be applied to console gaming.

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