The Right Approach to Used Games and Software Piracy

The Right Approach to Used Games and Software Piracy

Developers and publishers hate the used video game business – the rest of the world, unfortunately, loves it. Blame simple economics: Any money saved through the purchase of pre-owned software directly benefits shoppers’ wallets and retailers’ bottom lines, but not game makers’ budgets, as they don’t see a dime from the resale market. Worse, chains such as GameStop are as apt as not to place used titles on-sale at steep discounts within 24 hours of any given offering’s ship date, immediately negatively impacting prospective sales. (Ask yourself: Which would you be more tempted to buy – a $50 or $60 version of the same title, each of which differs in no way whatsoever from the other, save perhaps a more beat-up box and scuffed manual?) It’s gotten so bad that Electronic Arts is even offering an Online Pass program that demands you pay $10 to enjoy multiplayer options (previously available free of charge) in sports game titles whose one-time use serial codes have already been redeemed.

Where do we sit on the subject? Somewhere in-between – an admittedly more comfortable position when we’re not the ones looking to offset a $40 million-plus investment in our internal studio’s “latest and greatest first-person turn-based strategy beat ’em up.” But it’s a reasonable position in our opinion, given that we were all 15, strapped for cash and/or un- or under-employed at least once in our lives, not to mention understand the practical benefits that used games offer. At current retail prices for new releases, there’s only so many games any given individual can afford, and we shouldn’t keep today’s top titles from being experienced by impressionable young minds and/or ardent enthusiasts who have a genuine passion for the medium. But at the same time, game makers do deserve to be rewarded for their creations – it’s how they keep food on the table, and manage to keep cranking out all those much-adored sequels.

While there’s no easy solution as a result, we generally advocate a simple strategy. Sell a compelling experience out of the box, but also supplement it on the back-end with online security (DRM) options that require custom user identification and authentication to prevent resale, while simultaneously rewarding players with bonus content (i.e. new levels, maps, missions and other exclusives) for taking part in the process. (Keep in mind security options can be made more palatable by taking the form of user accounts or profiles where your custom character, collected loot and notable in-game achievements are persistently stored.) Coupled with supporting connected content delivery services that offer microtransaction-based programs or the purchase of optional subscriptions and virtual goods, which provide added ways to generate incremental revenue for game creators, it can be an effective combination. Essentially, what it comes down to is providing meaningful incentive for your most passionate fans to actively want to seek out and enjoy original game copies, without violently penalizing those who simply prefer giving titles a passing glance.

Considering the simulation genre’s decline in retail sales, we fail to see how draconian DRM schemes (which make titles even tougher for fans to enjoy) to outings like UbiSoft’s Silent Hunter 5 improve matters from either game publishers’ or players’ perspectives.

Because while it’s all well and good to decry factors like the pre-owned game market and, of course, everyone’s favorite scapegoat, software piracy, the world tends to operate based on everyday convenience and practicality – especially from everyday shoppers’ standpoint. If it can be sold faster, cheaper or better, it will. If it can be downloaded in 10 seconds over the Internet, it will. If you don’t have to pay for extensive online multiplayer options or extras, you won’t. But that doesn’t mean that publishers can’t turn human nature to their advantage. Encouraging more people to check out a title by eliminating barriers to entry can often be an effective way to promote a franchise, build buzz for future sequels or generate communities around specific properties that can be monetized in other ways. Just look at the millions who’ve flocked to PlayFish and Zynga’s myriad games for social networks, or MMOs such as MapleStory, Dungeons & Dragons Online: Eberron Unlimited and Runescape. Some call it thievery – others viral marketing.

Obviously, as with any issue of this magnitude, there’s no clear back and white solution, or one-size approach that readily fits all scenarios. Moreover, we certainly don’t advocate piracy or purposefully malicious game swapping by any stretch. But simply hoping to wave a hand and wish the entire used game business or software black market away is also a pipe dream. Meaning that if we’re ever to come to resolution here, all sides of the conflict and their arguments must be addressed. Our suspicion? That the best answer lies in creating copy protection schemes that deter and prevent casual piracy (if 30 years has taught us anything, it’s that determined hackers will quickly circumvent even the most advanced DRM methods), while at the same time offering value-added bonuses that reward fans and recompense those who have to suffer their indignity.

Where do you sit on the issue? What solutions do you recommend? We want to know. Unless, that is, you’re too busy playing that cracked copy of Modern Warfare 2 online to chime in below…

About Scott Steinberg
Scott Steinberg is CEO of strategic consulting and product testing firm TechSavvy Global, and a noted keynote speaker and business expert. Hailed as a top tech expert and parenting guru by critics from USA Today to NPR, he’s also an on-air analyst for ABC, CBS and CNN.


  1. If games are second sold that quickly, maybe they aren’t good enough to keep them longer…? The resale market is just the logical reaction to publishers move to aim for 6-hour-entertainment to sell more. Just take a look which games get resold, i for my part haven’t seen a lot of Civilisation 4, TES Oblivion, Diablo or GTA being ebay’d. These games pack huge amount of replay value. That’s the way the industry should be thinking instead of treating their audience like thieves. Investing 60 bucks in to a game is a big decision and i expect to get a certain value for my money. If the game doesn’t deliver on that, sorry EA, Ubi, Activision and Co., but then it should be my right to get rid of that junk and get some money out of it.

    I will now play some Starcraft 2 because it’s good.

Leave a Reply