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TIGA: next gen consoles will "water down" pre-owned, power up developers

Digital sales "put more power in the hands of the developer"

Last Thursday, nosy individuals over at NeoGAF unearthed a Sony patent for a technology that slaps a "use permission tag" on game discs, blocking playback if the user's personal details fail to tally with the terms of use for that game. As our chums at CVG note, this could well serve as a basis for an anti-preowned system of some sort, whereby games are locked for the exclusive use of the original buyer.

There's certainly precedent for this kind of behaviour. The industry's grudge against the lucrative trade-in market is widely documented, and publishers have spent the past half-decade experimenting with software-side incentives to buy first-hand - chiefly, by requiring players to redeem a one-time-use code to access features like online multiplayer.

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"It is not unexpected," observed Dr Richard Wilson, CEO of The Independent Games Developers Association, when I contacted him for comment on the story and the state of the great pre-owned standoff at large. As the chief of an organisation which furthers the interests of creators, Wilson entertains a certain sympathy for the view that trade-ins harm developers - but that doesn't mean he's comfortable with the idea that manufacturers should impose technological constraints on what is generally held to be a consumer right.

"There is a body of opinion against the second hand market and there is an argument that it damages development. Developers do not make any money from the sales of pre-owned titles," Wilson told me.

"It could also be argued that the more games that are sold second hand, the less likely it is that retailers will order new versions. It's the same stock going round and round which places more emphasis on sales in the first week or two."

He's not blind to the benefits to the consumer, however. "On the other hand, the second hand market is well established and it operates in many industries. Additionally, by purchasing a game second hand, gamers are able to widen the number of games they play in a given year, allowing them to take greater risks on titles and experiment with genres."

The dilemma of preowned may, in any case, be vanishing into the annals of history. New consoles (hotly tipped to arrive this year) are likely to rely on digital distribution to an unheard-of extent - only yesterday, Microsoft unveiled a new London-based studio run by a crack team of industry veterans that will develop games exclusively for the cloud. Meanwhile, high street retailers in the UK are losing millions.

"The market is changing and digital distribution is booming," Wilson commented. "Retail sales, on the flipside, are falling. So it could be that manufacturers don't necessarily have to do this. This is a strategy for coping with issues relating to physical games."

The need for pre-owned will diminish as the shift towards digital eradicates the middlemen in publishing and distribution who are responsible for eyebrow-raising RRPs. "Without a physical copy to sell on, it will put more power in the hands of the developer. It will also make it cheaper for developers to produce games and maximise their revenue - there will be less need for a traditional publisher.

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"Furthermore, there will be greater experimentation," Wilson promised. "Digitally distributed games show far more creative flair and willingness to take risks and that is because, piracy aside, gamers buy the games 'first hand'.

"The next generation will probably push digital distribution to a greater extent," he went on, "and that will water down the pre-owned market despite attempts in recent times to create a second-hand market in digital products."

But Wilson cautioned against concluding that the digital market will put the physical market out of commission entirely - at least in the foreseeable future. "This remains a grey area and we believe it will be so for a long time."

We had a think about how to "kill off" pre-owned without screwing over consumers last year. By all means give the piece another whirl.

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