Next-Gen Blocking Second-Hand Games? 4 Reasons It Won't Happen

Ryan King


PS4 and Xbox 720 have both been said to block second-hand games. Here are four reasons you shouldn't believe the idle internet chatter.

Published on Feb 6, 2013

You'll know by now that it's almost time for Sony to take the covers off PlayStation 4 and perhaps for Microsoft to follow suit with an announcement of its Xbox 360 follow-up.

You'll also know, if you've been paying close attention to gaming news, that there have been alarming moves from both companies in the hardware department on what we can expect. Sony has filed patents to block use of second-hand games (source: Eurogamer) while Edge reports that the next Xbox will also block second-hand games (source: Edge Online).

This is obvious cause for concern but realistically, will either Sony or Microsoft go ahead and do this?

Here are four reasons why we believe it won't happen:

Reason #1: Microsoft & Sony’s Competition Will Benefit

The nightmare scenario for Microsoft and Sony is that one of them pushes ahead with the second-hand blocking technology while the other doesn’t, granting the one who holds fire a massive, massive advantage.

It’s likely with a move this big and this significant that there will be some communication between both parties – whether official behind-the-scenes or just insiders at both companies sharing information – to establish whether the rival will launch with second-hand software blocking technology. The most likely scenario (or the one that makes most sense to Microsoft and Sony) is they will only go ahead with the move if their rival does too.

But that’s entirely conjecture and it’s still a risk. What if information is correct? What if Sony or Microsoft changes its plans at the last second?

It's perhaps a risk too big for either party to seriously consider. Sony and Microsoft will want to ‘get along’ in the sense that neither wants to grant Nintendo Wii U an additional USP of allowing second-hand games but the concern goes further than that. There will be enough direct competition from the growing dominance of Steam and mobile gaming for time that Sony and Microsoft will be too nervous about alienating a huge chunk of their audience by blocking our second-hand sales.

Reason #2: Same Rumours For PS3 Never Happened

Those with long memories may recall similar rumours happened way back in 2005 for PlayStation 3 but never came to pass.

The 2005 rumours sprung from a patent lodged by Sony in Japan that would lock discs to a certain machine. The machine would read the disc, store the security code and then physically erasing security code from the disc itself, rendering it unplayable on any other machine bar its original host.

As we now know, PlayStation 3 didn’t have such technology in place when it launched and second-hand games were perfectly playable. Although looking at that patent and follow-up rumours represent an isolated incident, this alone tells us patents are just as likely to be the company patent-hoarding as they are that an indicator of future plans for that business.

Futhermore, the fact that Sony never went ahead with the move for PlayStation 3 despite having the patent means Sony ultimately found a reason for doing so. Gaming in 2013 is vastly different to what it was in 2005 so it’s a pointless exercise guessing at what that reason might have been – too much has changed since then – but again, Sony flirting with the idea of technology doesn’t necessarily guarantee that’s the direction the company will go in.

2005, at the very least, tells us that much.

Reason #3: The Law Is Not On Their Side

In July 3 last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that software developers may not block the resale of online licensed software (UsedSoft GmbH v. Oracle International Corp).

That’s a little different to what is being expressed in these specific console rumours, which is to do with prohibiting second-hand software from working rather than blocking the resale. And perhaps that’s how Sony and Microsoft plan to tackle the problem, by discouraging second-hand sales from a practical point of view if they can’t do it legally (our next and final point touches on the problems posed by that stance).

After all, you can legally resell your Xbox Live Arcade and PSN games right now. The Court of Justice of the European Union says that’s okay. The problem, obviously, is that there is currently no actual way of reselling your downloaded games. The infrastructure doesn’t support it.

But regardless, from a legal point of view, the courts are leaning towards the consumer over the publisher. That’s a powerful ally for second-hand gamers to have.

Reason #4: It’s Bad PR All Round

An obvious point but perhaps not for the reason you may think.

Check the comments section for any news story reporting on rumours that Sony or Microsoft’s next console might block second-hand games and the responses are overwhelmingly negative. Gamers don’t even want to entertain the thought of it happening, let alone actually see the move go ahead.

Historically, gamer anger tends to flare up and die down. Backwards compatibility was a flashpoint when Sony removed PlayStation 2 compatibility from slim PS3 models while not all Xbox games worked on Xbox 360. Eventually, that anger subsided and today, the lack of true backwards compatibility is rarely mentioned in the context of HD re-releases such as Devil May Cry, Metal Gear, Splinter Cell, etc.

Blocking the sale of second-hand games is obviously of far more significance than backwards compatibility, even if they are both based around the same central issue of hardware design devaluing software you own, so we’re not too sure how gamer anger will play out in that scenario.

But it’s not really those hardcore, vocal gamers that we suspect will be the biggest problem here. The problem will be those who aren’t as informed.

If Microsoft and Sony want to block second-hand software working on their consoles, they’ve also got to deal with the monstrous headache of uninformed gamers buying second-hand games and demanding to know why they aren’t working on the console.

It’s not necessarily the retailers who are a problem – for obvious reasons, they are unlikely to second-hand games if they don’t work on the intended hardware. But gamers using online marketplaces such as eBay, Amazon Marketplace or any internet forum (or hell, even social media) to sell their games are a problem, as they can’t be regulated and those buying games – say a mum buying Call Of Duty (age rating be damned!) for their kids – isn’t likely to know about the second-hand restrictions in place.

This means either a massive campaign from Sony or Microsoft should second-hand games not work to educate as many people as possible, which costs needless time and money, or risking the backlash of those buying games from fellow gamers and not understanding why they’re not working.

The potential here is a long-term image problem like the one the red ring of death posed Microsoft in the early years of Xbox 360’s life.

Counter-Point: Why It WILL Happen

On the other side of the coin, there are still reasons why blocking second-games will happen.

There will be huge pressure from publishers to influence Sony or Microsoft to go down the second-hand route, as publishers have attempted to starve the second-hand market with Online Passes and Season Passes. Both moves (and to a lesser extent, the onslaught of DLC) have been attempts to keep the disc in your tray and off the second-hand shelves. If gamers can’t buy a game they want second-hand because there’s no supply, they’re either forced to wait or – cha-ching! – buy new.

Interesting and entirely speculative point to consider – if Sony or Microsoft do shut out second-hand games, can they snag console exclusives based on the idea that there will be more profit for the publisher?

The move towards digital distribution on console is also a clear indication of the direction of the industry, where we buy games digitally and yet lack the infrastructure to sell them on. This shows what the endgoal is for publishers and Sony and Microsoft.

The moves in this area have, by and large, been those of publishers fumbling around in an area they're not too familiar with, as they try to find out what works and what doesn’t – games have been launched on Games On Demand PSN Store with higher prices than they were at retail and over on PC, Ubisoft’s clumsy and awkward DRM caused more harm than good.

But the PS+ initiative has been a huge step forward in resetting the mindset of any cynics convinced digital downloads would never replace the retail model. The obvious point here – those games are free. Still, the popularity of the scheme suggests price will be key to a digital download-only model if we can’t then sell those games on. Perhaps Sony and Microsoft are already considering this.

Conclusion: It's Impossible To Predict What Will Happen (Sorry)

This is an awkward time for the games industry and a particularly difficult time to launch a futureproof console because we’re at the crossroads of so many emerging trends – digital distribution, dying high-street, streaming games, thriving indie scene, mobile and social gaming growth. It’s impossible to predict what will happen or what Sony and Microsoft is thinking.

If blocking second-hand sales do go ahead, it will be fascinating to see what the consequences are. Will this drive hardcore consumers towards piracy channels? Will the lack of second-hand options drive consumers towards cheaper games such as Xbox Live Arcade and PSN titles? Will it drive them towards the open-ended nature of PC gaming?

This article is our statement that it's not going to happen and it could come back to bite us in the backside, when Sony and Microsoft reveal their consoles and technology that blocks second-hand games. We're thinking out loud as much as anyone else on the issue. It could, in all honesty, go either way.

So what will happen then? We can only wait and see.



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