How are video games like e-books? At least a couple of ways, as it turns out, as two gamestop-sells-used-digital-games-625x329unrelated but interesting stories popped up on the matter within just a few hours of each other. Reports suggest that on-line video game sales may finally be starting to kill off video game stores—and at the same time, a consumer group in France is filing suit against Valve to enable digital resale of video games bought via Steam.

The Death of GameStop?

Record stores died under an onslaught of piracy and digital music sales. Blockbuster went belly-up thanks to Netflix and Redbox. Borders went under, and Barnes & Noble is teetering, due at least in part to competition from Amazon. Is it time to add video game stores like GameStop  to the list?

Video game downloads are coming to be serious business. I mentioned this all the way back in 2009, when nearly half of all computer games were sold as downloads, but the New York Times now reports that the holiday season of 2015 might be remembered as the big turning point as disc-in-box sales finally give way to downloads as the primary means of game purchases—for consoles, too, not just computers.

Effectively, GameStop’s earnings are faltering, right when video game companies are reporting extremely good sales of consoles and games, including a number of sales-record-setting big titles. The Times credits faster download speeds and bigger hard drives, while discussion of the article on The Passive Voice points out that the advantages from buying boxed have been disappearing.

Many games-on-disc require installation to the console’s hard drive and require you to have the disc in while you’re playing—so why not just download it and not have to keep track of the disc? Also, many disc-bought games require multi-gigabyte patch downloads soon after installing, so you might as well just download the whole thing anyway. And pre-ordered games can download in the background so they’ll be unlocked at the stroke of midnight on release day.

At any rate, game stores are definitely beleaguered, and the rhetoric emerging as they try to insist that they’re still relevant reminds me an awful lot of the things you hear said about the advantage of buying real books from bookstores instead of e-books or print books from Amazon:

Joey Mooring, a spokesman for GameStop, said the company’s in-store staff members provide guidance for customers. And through its trade-in program for used games, customers can get credits toward the purchase of new games.

“Customers cannot access that expertise downloading a game, nor can they trade in a digital game for currency that can be applied to the purchase of their next game,” Mr. Mooring said in an email.

Funny how that same old cliché of the friendly local staff who can make personal recommendations keeps popping up no matter what kind of store is threatened by digital, isn’t it?

It remains to be seen what the future holds for GameStop, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if liquidation sales like the one for Borders were not too far ahead.

French consumer group sues Valve over Steam game resale

Meanwhile, in France, Ars Technica reports that consumer group UFC-Que Choisir (“Federal Union of Consumers, What to Choose”) is suing Valve over the video games it sells digitally via Steam. The consumer group points to recent European jurisprudence establishing that customers who buy software should have the legal right to resell it, regardless of whether it was purchased on disc or via download. Steam games are not currently set up to work that way—once you buy it, it’s yours forever.

UFC-Que Choisir may have an uphill battle. A similar suit in Germany in 2014 failed. Meanwhile, American jurisprudence on the matter is completely different. American courts treat software (and, for that matter, e-books) as being licensed, not actually “sold.” And reselling even physical software that was purchased in violation of the terms of its license is against the law here, as decided in Vernor v. Autodesk.

The resale of digital goods has been a notably controversial issue over the last few years, both in the US and in Europe. Europe’s jurisprudence seems noticeably kindlier disposed toward the idea, though it hasn’t exactly offered it a free pass. Dutch site Tom Kabinet tried go into the e-book resale business in June 2014, was forced to close this sideline in January 2015, and launched it again in June 2015 as a members-only resale site. And earlier this month, sellers of used e-books in the Netherlands received an email, ostensibly from a Dutch anti-piracy agency, warning that their activities were illegal—except the head of the agency denies having anything to do with sending them.

It seems only natural that, as digital media sales become more prevalent, the focus on whether people have the right to resell them once purchased becomes more contentious. The ability to resell the goods we buy is one of the most basic rights we have, whether we’re American or European, and if we allow digital purchase to erode those rights, it could have a profound impact on the economy, and society as a whole.

Ironically, the same digital rights management that makes it such a pain to make proper use of goods you buy could also be responsible for allowing you to sell them. A number of companies have invested in DRM-enabled resale schemes—most notably ReDigi, but even Amazon has taken out a patent on the idea.

But on the other hand, game companies have long been against the resale of even used physical copies of games (with one developer claiming it was “destroying the industry”), and it seems clear they’d go ballistic if resale of “used” digital games was permitted.

As with so many things, all we can really do is wait and see how it turns out. I have a sneaking suspicion that the people hoping to resell used video games are still in for disappointment, at least in the short run. But as more and more goods go digital, who knows?


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