Microsoft's decision, now aborted , to severely restrict the use of second-hand games on the Xbox One sparked massive criticism – but also its fair share of defenders.
The most common defence was focused on the cost of making so-called AAA titles. Take Penny Arcade Report's Ben Kuchera :
It needs to be made clear, if all the studio closings and constant lay-offs haven't made this explicit: The current economics of game development and sales are unsustainable. Games cost more to make, piracy is an issue, used-games are pushed over new, and players say the $60 cost is too high. Microsoft's initiatives with the Xbox One may solve many of these issues, even if we grumble about it. These changes ultimately make the industry healthier.
But it's a defence which rings hollow. In other industries facing the same problems, massively anti-consumer moves didn't lead to trickle-down benefits; instead, they made it harder for consumers to use their purchasing power to force publishers to give them a better deal. Compare and contrast, for instance, between the movie and music industries. The lack of copy-protection on CDs meant that there had to be a genuine value proposition when it came to buying music digitally, leading directly to the world of Spotify and Last.fm. The same was not true of DVDs, which couldn't be ripped and so presented no real competition with gouging download services. (Yes, this analysis is obviously over-simplistic, but it gets to the kernel of the problem)
Firms do not sit down and decide on a certain level of profit which they want to make, and pass any excess down to the customer. Instead, pricing decisions are made essentially separately from facts of production: the price is set to maximise revenue. That's true even if we accept the assertion in Kuchera's piece that games are getting so expensive that studios can't afford to make them with the revenue they're getting.
But there is one way in which the new model – specifically, one without used game sales – could be beneficial to gamers. Writing for Edge, developer Adrian Chmielarz details one game designer tactic to boost profit :
And, you know, just like salesmen and gamers are great optimizers, so are the developers and publishers. A good few years ago, a mantra was born: “…so they keep the disc in the tray”.
That is… how filler content was born. Far Cry 3 is not a better game because you need two boar hides to craft a simple rucksack item, but it certainly is longer. For some game players, length equals value. But then somehow the same people often do not finish such a game (industry standard is about 25 per cent). They put it back on the shelf, promising themselves that they will finish it one day. Most of the time, they never do. But the important thing for the publishers is: the gamers hold on to the game, they’re not selling it, all is good.
This is how artificial extenders were born. The hardest difficulty is inaccessible on your first play-through not just because the developer wants to stop you from making a mistake. It’s so you replay the game at least one more time and double your play time. And if you don’t care about that? Hey, there are always achievements to collect, right?
In other words, a trend in game design has been to purposefully create games which keep the player from feeling a true sense of fulfilment or closure, because that sense can also cause the player to think they're done with the game.
But at the end of the day, financial motivations only drive the actual games made to a certain extent. Long before "pre-owned" was the bugbear of the industry, interminable collection quests were extending the length of games (I had 150 pokémon in Pokémon Red. I am still proud of this.) but not adding much extra joy to playing them. And even now, as the commercialisation of the gaming world hits new highs, a few big budget games are being released without DLC or artificial extenders – typically by companies like Nintendo, which seem to have an admirable/foolhardy separation between creative and commercial wings.
If commercial pressures can save the video game industry from itself, then they aren't going to come by limiting the freedom of customers. It'll be the exact opposite: only once publishers are forced out of the complacency of knowing that they can carry on going pretty much as they always have done will they start learning the lessons which need to be learned.