An answer to game theft and secondhand games

On my recent visits to video game stores I was unsurprised to see that the secondhand game section is now just as big as the new game section. This must make the blood of every game developer and publisher boil because they are getting no income from these sales, despite having done all the work to create the games. Add to this the massive bit torrent stealing of games, which can reach over 90% of all users on some platforms and you can see that there has to be another way.

Eight or nine years ago at Codemasters I came up with the Registered Player Service, an idea to tie each copy of a game down to an individual user and then to provide downloadable content (DLC) as an incentive for participation. So only if we, the publisher, had received a person’s money, did they get the full experience. If they had a pirated or secondhand copy then they only got a basic game. Because of politics at Codemasters this idea was never implemented.

So you can imagine how pleased I am that at long last this idea is being implemented. By BioWare, and they are calling it the Cerberus network. They have added the refinement that someone with a pirated or secondhand copy can still get the content, by paying a fee, currently $15. This is probably pretty close to the incremental nett profit BioWare would make from selling a legitimate copy of the game, so it cancels out the financial effects of both secondhand sales and game theft.

The first game this is being done with is Mass Effect 2, out tomorrow. Legitimate game owners and players must be very pleased, here is an anti piracy measure that doesn’t punish them and which forces everyone to contribute to the cost of making the game if they want the full experience.

From a marketing point of view this requires the philosophy shift to treat owners of the game as a community, not just as a number of consumers, the benefits for everyone are enormous. It is certainly something that needs to be brought to the Apple AppStore (and the many similar such models) if developers want to be adequately paid for their work.


  1. Where exactly do YOU draw the line, Bruce?

    1. What if I throw my brother the second controller and we play at the same time, yet only I have bought the game?

    2. Can he play it without me while I’m at work?

    3. What about if I charge him $5 to play it because I had to save up the $120 to buy it in the first place?

    4. What about if he lives next door, and I lend the game to him because I’m going on holiday?

    5. What about if I just give him the game because I’m done with it?

    6. What about if I sell it to him?

    We know you’re against #6 already, but where exactly from 1-5 do you think I am stealing from the game company?

  2. @Bruce

    While your stance on current and new games and platforms is clear, I’m curious how you feel about ‘dead’ platforms and software for which the manufacturers and publishers no longer make any money because these devices and titles only exist in the realm of secondhand and downloads or for which the manufactures or publishers no longer exist. For example, if a c64 or 3DO craps out, I have no apparent option to purchase new and benefit the manufacturer. The same goes for, say, a Cool Spot cartridge, a game which I cannot imagine ever being licensed again into production. Should I benefit the secondhand store or private seller, who often wants exorbitant amounts for rare titles, look to ROMs and emulators on download sites, or simply go without the continued enjoyment of such products (good twenty years ago is still good today)?

    I’m quite pleased to see a good bit of older gaming return in the form of Wii and XBox online stores (Bionic Commando, Monkey Island, etc.) plus various forms of iTunes apps (Broken Sword, Mega Man II, etc.), but what will the future hold for any game featuring Pepsi-man or past games that many modern players will not accept the graphics and game-play difficulty. Tiger Heli is fine the way it is and should be appreciated as such. 3D graphics and multiple save-points and lives will make it another game and therefore not the original (I’m not against tasteful updates, but there’s magic in the originals too).

    Also, what is your opinion when the manufacturer or publisher simply does not make the title or product available to you? For example, cider ports for Mac of Windows only games (for arguments sake let’s also ask what if the user owns a PC desktop and already owns the fully legal, store-bought game but also has a MacBook). Also, games like Shenmue II and the Yakuza series often had (have) uncertain and indefinite delays in reaching other markets outside Japan and of course this is true whenever various regional concerns come into play. Such games are also often edited from their original removing/adding content and options not at the consumer’s choice. Entire side-missions can be removed for cultural reasons and even original language tracks are often not offered if big(ish)-name actors have been hired to dub over. Other games are just simply not released beyond their market, driving potential consumers to look for overpriced imports, secondhands and downloads. If you understand multiple languages and cultures, what should be your recourse to obtain such products in their original form so as to best benefit the main production (mind you on consoles this has required various mods and/or boot discs that manufacturers also condemn)? As you well know and understand, the days of only a few knowing what was available overseas and beyond the borders are over thanks to the internet. Unfortunately, that means my knowledge as a consumer does not always match up with the availability in whatever country (demographic) in which I may be residing. Shipping issues aside (there are still places companies will not ship), online purchasing is not always an option internationally with region stores and various other payment difficulties (foreigners are not always allowed local credit cards and many banks understandably won’t issue cards and bills to foreign addresses). I realize these predicaments may seem bizarre to some, but they are legitimate concerns to an enduser who feels dropping a couple rupees or won on a copy of Fallout 2 with photocopied cover-art is just as dodgy and risky as bit-torrenting it.

    Another concern is what happens when companies discontinue support for server-based games. I’ve bought my non-transferable right to play the game and then some years later am no longer allowed to execute that right by no decision of my own. Am I entitled to some form of refund or recompense in their next title? Should there be some mechanism/guarantee in place to allow true diehards to continue legitimately on private servers? Otherwise, I’ve essentially leased my right at far more their discretion than having purchased a traditional hard-copy game outright. That having been said, where do you see the future of offline gaming? If games and platforms require online verification and other services at each play, they will be rendered useless to those of us that find ourselves in various places without internet and yet still have that old gamer’s itch to scratch. Portables, including laptops, would become drastically less portable.

    What are your feelings toward a ‘planned obsolescence’ attitude in the gaming market? If in the name of combatting piracy or pushing new technology companies can decide when, where and how I execute my right to play their game, what is their obligation to me as a consumer? At what point are my rights infringed because they’ve decided I must buy the newest game and should not (or can not) enjoy the past titles. Granted, I don’t foresee companies shutting off servers after every six months and pulling everything old off the shelves on launch day, but removing backwards-compatibility from within a product line when it was once there and various porting and out-of-print issues rub long-time gamers the wrong way. I suppose this argument can be held over any product and is perhaps too broad a sweep for a comment, but do consider such things as medication and car parts, both of which go generic after a certain time period and, as in the case of car parts, allow consumers to continue using and/or enjoying their autos with the benefit of third-parties long after the original manufacturer discontinues support (I can’t help but think about ScummVM here). Considering availability, I’m also reminded of the spiderweb of licensing and distribution rights which keep original film and television products from being offered (TV shows missing theme songs, entire episodes excised, etc.). The African Queen is just now coming to R1 DVD this month, having been out in R2 for some time with commentary and of course the sketchy All Region copies that float about. On a side question to Bruce, what is your stance on making personal digital copies of out-of-print vinyls and VHS when again no publisher is giving me the option to buy new in a new format? The same might be asked about telemovies, miniseries and specials that were personally recorded on VCRs and never offered for purchase in any format (but some can be found on YouTube, like the Star Wars Christmas Special). I fear this topic is too murky for a blanketed black and white answer which surely makes hypocrites of us all.

    Bear in mind this all comes from a place of concern for industries I enjoy and wish to support (even the single code cruncher or key grip has his/her own mouth to feed no matter how you feel about the ‘corporate machine’ and, yes, the corporations exist to make a lot of money from you with whatever product they can convince you to buy, it’s a very grey symbiotic world), but I do so out of a love and want for these types of entertainment. However, I know I don’t need them and the new ones are often not made available to me, but I would like to continue using what I do have and following favorite characters/storylines when I can, and so am interested in the future of the marketplace.

    I’m not advocating or denouncing anything here, nor am I wishing to contribute to a semantic argument over ‘stealing’. I’m merely interested in Bruce’s opinion on abandoned or unsupported products and region issues for international users. Other commenters have also brought up rentals and loaning, obviously not an issue with downloaded content unless users are lending entire systems to friends. What exactly are your thoughts on the traditional rental process, and do you also feel hard-copy console games and peripherals should be tied to individual consoles (another heated topic)? If you’ve addressed these questions in past posts, simply direct me to the appropriate date or URL.


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