The Used Games Debate: Kingdoms of Amalur Locks Up Content

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Let’s talk about the entitlement mentality. No, I don’t mean welfare, tax incentives, or a national healthcare system. I’m talking about video games — used video games, to be precise — and the publishers and development studios discombobulated about so-called “lost sales.”

Buyers fork over $60 (on average) for a new, store-bought video game these days. When they’re finished, they’re incentivized to sell the game back to the store, either for cash or store credit. The store then resells the game at a slightly reduced price. Since the game data on a new or used disc is identical — it’s all ones and zeroes, remember — the only distinction between new and used software is the state of the packaging. Just like buying a reasonably well-kept music CD secondhand, the advent of digital technology renders the very notion of “copies” obsolete.

The used games market is big news, accounting for as much as half (or more) of retail games giant GameStop’s annual revenue. That’s partly because of the way easy trade-back programs have flourished, partly because video games are the most popular form of entertainment in America today (if we gauge popularity by annual revenue, anyway). From both the consumer’s and retailer’s standpoint, used games tend to be a great deal.

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But publishers and development studios have repeatedly cried foul, complaining about lost revenue and occasionally making wild-eyed comparisons (of used game sales) to software piracy. While online game services like Steam, Xbox LIVE and the PlayStation Network get around the issue by selling digital-exclusive copies of games that can’t be resold, publishers who depend on the sale of physical copies of games have started to lock pieces of content away online, requiring buyers enter a (free) code after purchase to unlock that content. But buy such a game used and if the code’s been redeemed, it’s no longer valid — you’ll have to pay the publisher a fee to unlock the content for yourself.

Enter Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, a fantasy-themed action-roleplaying game by Ken Rolston, the lead designer on Bethesda’s Elder Scroll-series fantasy games Morrowind and Oblivion. Rolston hit my radar back in 2007 at the Game Developer’s Convention in Leipzig, when — while on a storytelling panel — he leapt from his chair and moved his arms up and down in a sawtooth pattern to illustrate the way story cutscenes and gameplay jerk players around. (Two of KoA’s names I’m less impressed with: R.A. Salvatore, the game’s writer, whose lowbrow, cliché-riddled fantasy bestsellers define all I dislike about genre writing, and Todd McFarlane, the game’s artist, who once tried to screw writer Neil Gaiman over and lost.)

KoA, which ships next week, is in the news because it puts sections of the game behind an online code-wall. Retail copies — and I can confirm this, because I have one — include a slip that reads “Activate Your Online Pass,” stating “Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning Online Pass gives you access to the House of Valor faction quest, featuring seven additional single-player quests.” (That’s a picture of it above.)

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