The Death of Used Games Is a Rumor That Won’t Die

Enjoy your right to buy and sell used video games now, because Microsoft's next Xbox may not allow it, according to yet another report.

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Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

Enjoy your right to buy and sell used video games now, because Microsoft’s next Xbox may not allow it, according to yet another report.

Edge, a well-respected gaming magazine and website, cites “sources with first-hand experience” of Microsoft’s next console, who say game discs will only work for the original purchaser. Microsoft may require users to enter an activation code, the sources say, which would presumably tie the game to a single user or system. The next Xbox may also have a persistent online connection.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that Microsoft might nix used games in its next Xbox. A year ago, Kotaku wrote that the console would have some sort of anti-used game system, citing “one reliable industry source.” VG247 floated the idea of an always-on Internet requirement last April.

Microsoft may not even be the only one planning such a system. Last March, Kotaku reported that Sony’s next PlayStation would have a way to cut off the used game business. People who tried to play a previously-owned game, sources said, would be limited in what they could do with the game. Sony has already applied for a patent on a type of RF tagging that would match a game disc with a single console.

At this point, I’ve seen enough reports to believe that something is happening beyond the “Online Pass” concept of existing consoles. Publishers have griped about the used game business for a long time; it looks like they’ll finally get some more tools to shut it down. How exactly it’ll work remains unclear, but here are a few hypothetical issues that come to mind:

  • If the used game trade goes away, a fairly-priced digital market must replace it. No one complains about how you can’t buy or sell used games on a PC, an Android phone or an iPad. That’s because people are still getting good deals. Sale prices or even giveaways are common for older games on phones and tablets, and prices are much lower in general. On PC distribution services such as Steam, players can save money buy purchasing bundles of games, or by pre-ordering a popular title. Weekly and seasonal deals entice shoppers to make impulse buys. An anti-used game system on consoles won’t work if it’s just a way to lock people into $60 price tags.
  • Any anti-used game mechanism needs to be nearly invisible to the average player. Vouchers don’t work. They place an extra burden on the best customers, and they increase the amount of time between buying a game and actually playing it. That prep time is already too high on current consoles and can’t afford to be longer.
  • I fear that the days of consoles as collectors’ items may come to an end, especially if online authentication is the rule. Servers don’t stay up and running forever, so if a steady Internet connection is required, we could be looking at a future where your old consoles just don’t work 10 or 20 years down the road. Most people won’t care by then, but as someone who occasionally dusts off the old NES and Genesis, I don’t like where this is going.

Microsoft’s next console is expected to launch later this year, and may be announced before or during the E3 trade show in June. Sony is holding a press conference on February 20 where it will likely announce its next console. We’ll soon see what the future holds for used games.