Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is the "Food Court Gangster" a THQ Customer?

I'm doing something a little unusual with this post. I still plan to write about The God Delusion this week, but today I want to write about a recent Penny Arcade strip and the controversy it generated.

Recently, the video-game developer THQ decided to include some extra features that would only be available to first time buyers. They announced that they don't care about upsetting people who buy used games. The webcomic Penny Arcade made a hilarious comic and wrote a news-post commenting on the situation. (For those who don't follow the comic The "Food Court Gangster" is the name of the character in the comic who buys his games used).

In both the comic and the news-post, the author makes the point that THQ has no problem upsetting people who buy used games because those people aren't their customers. They are customers of Gamestop, a retail outlet that, in addition to selling new games, buys and sells a large volume of used games.

Now there's a lot of truth to this. Game publishers and developers don't make any money from the sale of used games. If that was all that they had said, I probably wouldn't have felt the need to comment, but in the news-post Tycho goes further than that. He writes that buying used games is equivalent to piracy. "From the the perspective of a developer," he writes, "They are almost certainly synonymous."

That statement is problematic for two reasons. One, because it equates the legal act of buying a used game with the illegal act of downloading that game from a file sharing network. Two, because it ignores the economic impact of buying and selling used games.

While it is true that the "Food Court Gangster" isn't a THQ customer, Gamestop is. In fact, if I had to guess, I would say that Gamestop is probably one of THQ's biggest customers. If Gamestop makes money buying and selling used games, that's money they can use to stay in business and buy more games. Remember, without the sale of new games, there is no used game market for them to make money on.

Additionally, the sale of used games has an indirect effect of selling more games. Let's say Bob is thinking about buying a game, but isn't sure that it's worth the $60 price tag. If Bob knows that he can resell the game later for five or ten bucks, he's more likely to go ahead and spend the money. Plus, the money Bob makes selling used games can be used to buy more new games.

Let's put it this way, suppose video game companies could stop Gamestop from selling used games altogether. How many Gamestops would be able to stay in business after one of their primary revenue streams is cut off? Let's say that half of the Gamestops are able to stay in business. Would this be a good thing for the game industry?

I know that game developers and game publishers would like to make money on the sale of used games. The recording industry would like to make money on the sale of used CDs, and the publishing industry would like to make money on the sale of used books, but that's not the way copyright works.

If you own the copyright on a particular work you get to control who gets to make copies of that work. You don't get to control what a person does with their copy after it's been made. We might feel bad that Gamestop makes a lot of money on the sale of used games, but that doesn't make it wrong or illegal.

Going back to the original event that sparked the discussion, I don't think THQ's decision to make some content available only to first time buyers is so bad. However, I think game companies need to be careful. If they punish people who buy their games used too much, they might find out that those people are their customers after all.

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