What if Sony’s So-Called ‘PlayStation Orbis’ Really Does Kill Used Games?

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Here we go again: There’s a new next-PlayStation rumor out, and like most early-days scuttlebutt, it’s full of stuff no one cares about (or ought to, anyway), like the system’s name. “Orbis.” There you go, look it up if you must. It’s the name of a Doctor Who audio play, a quarterly journal of foreign affairs, a Polish hotel chain, an alt-history novel by Scott Mackay and appears in the title of one of my favorite Borges short stories. Trying to back-trace Sony’s marketing rationale, whatever the name turns out to be, may be the Dumbest Thing Ever. After all, no one buys game systems based on their names. Look at the Wii.

What’s under the hood? I wish we’d stop worrying about this stuff, but for the sake of those genuinely curious (and not playing the “who’s more powerful” game), it sounds like “Orbis” is looking to use AMD processors (including a GPU based on AMD’s current 7000-series graphics cards), which would presumably herald the end of Sony’s “Cell” architecture. It’ll also supposedly have the ability to display games at up to 4096 x 2160 resolution. I know, you can’t buy a TV or even a computer monitor that comes near that today, but maybe Sony’s planning to make one. Oh, and we’re back to a “holiday 2013” release timeframe.

Turning to the two actually interesting bits, rumor has it Sony’s going to ditch PS3 backward compatibility and make it impossible to play used games. That’s what I want to talk about, though I want to go well out of my way here and apologize to Sony if any of this is untrue or inaccurate. Criticizing (or attaboy’ing) a company based on innuendo’s irresponsible, so consider the rest of this piece the equivalent of a boolean “if then” statement.

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Sony’s PlayStation 3 originally played PS2 games, just as the PS2 plays PS1 games. But early on, Sony pulled PS2 support (both via chip and software emulation) and made it pretty clear the reasons weren’t cost-related, but use-related. The PS2 remains the most successful, globally widespread video games console yet made, with a games catalogue to match. Sony was worried PS3 owners wouldn’t buy as many PS3 games, and so PS2 support vanished. That always bothered me — not because I felt entitled to PS2 support, but because the mechanics for it were already in place, and the decision to yank support for it seemed purely political.

The PS3, by contrast, is a much more complex and expensive system. I’m not sure emulation’s really possible, and including the multi-processor Cell architecture would destroy Sony’s margins and drive the system price up (probably way up). Leaving PS3 games behind at the outset thus makes sense. But remember Sony’s talked about the PS3 in terms of a “10-year” cycle. That means the company should, in theory, continue supporting the system through 2016, though with less than half the PlayStation 2’s global sales at this stage, I’m pretty sure development support’s going to taper off earlier and — assuming Sony eventually drops the PS3’s price to $100 or less — we’ll see the system become the budget alternative for gamers who don’t want to drop the $300 or $400 Sony could well ask for whatever’s next. To sum up: If losing PS3 games support keeps the next system well below the PS3’s exorbitant launch-price levels, I’m all for it, and I’ll just hold onto my PS3 if I want to play PS3 games.

As for this “won’t play used games” rumor, in which you’d be required to tie each game to your PlayStation Network account, it sounds more like Sony moving with the times than a purely Machiavellian maneuver. On the PC, the number one games distribution platform, Steam, has no physical retail presence (to speak of). Playing games through Steam requires the Steam client, which ties them to your personal Steam account and makes their resale functionally impossible. You’re not paying for a physical product, you’re buying access to a digital one. It all but eliminates piracy, while ensuring the money from each copy sold ends up in publisher/creator pockets. And I suspect even the days of paying for games as one-offs are numbered: In the future, we may simply pay monthly access fees, ala Netflix, to play a range of games, be they downloadable and local or cloud-based via streaming services like OnLive.

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I’m not saying the death of used games is cause for celebration — far from it. It’s clearly a power-shift that favors and benefits content publishers and creators more than consumers, whatever the former want to claim about it adding resources to produce even “better” games. Movies still cost much more to make, on balance, than most video games, yet movie studios managed to flourish in spite of the used video market. A lot of this has to do with ownership arguments, of course, and that’s too complex an issue to raise in detail here, but the secondhand market is as old as civilization itself. Sites like eBay and Craiglist are simply channeling millennia-old practices.

The elimination of the secondhand market at a point where a strong economy’s nowhere in sight, mega-inflation that may be on the horizon and income growth that’s been stagnant for decades probably means consumers will be forced to spend less on games going forward (assuming games continue to cost $60-$70 and up). Eliminating the secondhand market could thus mean we’ll play and experience less — that we’ll be less likely to take chances on otherwise superb games that fall outside the mass-marketing spotlight. With the Internet, word-of-mouth more than ever can make or break a game. I’ve never seen a study that correlates used-to-new game sales in this way, but I’ll bet something like Dark Souls continues to move new copies based, to a notable extent, on word-of-mouth from gamers who’d never played Demon’s Souls and first encountered Dark Souls through a used copy.

But all that said, we know absolutely nothing about Sony’s next PlayStation, so whatever you do, don’t hold Sony accountable for any of this until you’ve heard it from the horse’s mouth.

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