It has been over a year since the phenomenon of "online passes" has been introduced, and yet the phenomenon has only affected me recently. Having recently bought a secondhand copy of Dead Space 2 online, there was no indication from the online title description that I had to pay for an online pass to access multiplayer. It was only once I booted up the game and witnessed the online pass entry screen that I found out that I had been shafted, and the money I had spent was for only half the game.
Naturally, I have not given EA the satisfaction of more or my cash for its reportedly lackluster multiplayer offering. I am somewhat content that the single player campaign, the reason I bought the game, has remained intact.
What has irked me, however, has been the laissez-faire method by which EA has decided to make money from preowned games. Have they not considered any alternatives in their pursuit of the trade-in dollar?
It seems to me that syphoning the money off the consumer by forcing preowned purchasers to pay again for multiplayer was the only plan they had drafted. The whole affair is entirely covert; retailers are not required to educate the consumer before they sell a traded product, so let the poor buggers find out once they try to take their game online. Meanwhile, retailers are permitted to continue to make money hand over already-spectacularly-rich fist.
I've had another idea, where all publishers can make money from preowned games and it's not just left to consumers to pick up the tab. However, before I tell you about my idea I need to speak a little about the music industry.
For many years people have been able to turn on a radio or television and listen to music for free. Even more recently people can go into a number of different music and video websites and listen to music and watch music videos, all for no charge whatsoever.
Naturally, if musicians were making no money from this use of their intellectual property, they would be pretty upset. Fortunately for them, there are other organizations that have identified these problems years ago that have stepped in to help.
Around the world there are copyright collection societies such as BMI, ASCARP and SoundExchange. They represent the copyright interests of musicians if their music is performed or broadcasted. Whether you hold gigs, play DJ sets or even just play a radio in your establishment, you require a license to do so from the relevant agency. These agencies distribute the earnings from collecting licenses back to the artists, composers and record labels, ensuring that the music industry gets payment from businesses that profit from its property.
The sale of a game, traded-in or otherwise, is not entirely different from the situation that musicians faced before copyright collection societies came along. Retailers are profiting from the sale of copyrighted product, but because it is preowned then they are not beholden to treat the publishers to any of this money.
If a collection society were founded that looked out for the interest of games industry publishers and the sale of their preowned titles, a system could be established whereby all retailers of secondhand games must sign up for a license. This would all be nice and legally binding, so any refusal to comply could result in nasty litigation and fines.
With a licensing system in place, publishers can finally start making money from preowned sales. The debate reverts to trivia and publishers such as EA can be fairly called out for any tactics they might employ to garnish their already respectable profit margin through online pass systems.
Of course, a problem could arise if retailers push the cost of the license back to the consumer. They could attempt to duck the license by removing preowned titles from shelves or they could raise store prices to compensate the license fee. This is unlikely to happen though, because these retailers are still in competition in a healthy market. They canít let a little thing like a license fee get in the way of consumer footfall.
The licensing system won't make consumer demand for traded in titles go away overnight; any retailers attempting to dodge the license by removing preowned titles will quickly see their customers switch to those retailers happy to bear the licensing costs to earn the extra custom.
The only negatively affected party, it seems, would be the retailer. They could moan and bitch initially, but when presented with the cold, hard fact that they were profiting from IP without rewarding the IP holder they'll have to swallow their pride and get on with selling games like they are supposed to.
Of course, two things would need to happen for preowned retail licensing to work: Someone would need to get up off their arse to set up such a society, and publishers would need to get up off their arses and back it up. A fairly ambitious undertaking, I know, but a task that would dramatically improve the industry wouldn't be without merit.
Online passes are a lazy alternative to giving a damn about the preowned games problem at the source. Garnishing the elephant in the room with a bedsheet just gives you an elephant with a bedsheet on its head.
Whether or not the licensing concept is feasible, Iíd nevertheless like to give a little advice to any publishers out there who are scared of preowned sales: Take a look around at how other industries, who have faced exactly the same problem in the past, have dealt with it. Also, donít automatically presume the best plan is to give the crappy end of the stick to the consumer.