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Console technology has changed beyond recognition in little over 20 years. In the early '80s we loaded games from cassettes. By the mid '80s we were putting cartridges into consoles. A decade later and consoles had become CD players, and by the start of the 21st century they were DVD players. Alhough the physical media was different, there always was physical media - but that's changing. Rapidly.
Yes, big triple-A games still come on high-capacity discs. But the increase in both the quality and availability of digital software is quickly becoming the driving force behind modern gaming. What began as bite-sized 50MB downloads with the advent of Xbox Live has now grown into a true competitor to physical games. After all, who would have thought that one of the greatest and most ambitious shooters ever made - Crysis - would get a digital-only release on console?
There's a simple reason for platform holders to prefer this route: money. A new game costs about £40 on release. After retail, distribution and logistics take their cut, £10-£15 of that will go to the platform holder. However, if you can be convinced to buy that same game digitally, then all those middle-men are cut out, and all the cash heads back to the publisher and developer. Selling games digitally also cuts out another perceived problem - the preowned market. Publishers, despite what they say in public, hate trade-ins. And the chance to do away with them would be enthusiastically embraced.
"The way preowned games are currently sold damages the games industry," says Frontier founder and Elite creator David Braben, who considers secondhand games to be more of a threat to the games industry than piracy. "Certain types of games are hit by it worse than others - particularly my personal favourite type of game, the single-player story game. Far fewer of these games are being made. The argument that the trade-in value of games helps fund the purchase of new games is utter rot to justify a practice that may not even be legal."
On the face of it, ending the trade-in market would boost publishers' profits by forcing everyone who wants a game to buy it new at full price. But some see Braben's view as simplistic. Chris Ratcliff runs Complete EPoS Solutions, a company specialising in sales software for the games market. "Like many things, the preowned trade is a symbiotic relationship and the games industry has grown rich on the back of the preowned trade," he says.
"Most bricks and mortar retailers wouldn't exist without secondhand games and before the digital age, publishers wouldn't have been successful without the retailers. I remember the '90s when indies were and wined and dined by the publishing sector for helping to build a large and healthy independent retail base and earning lots of money for the publishers."
Those days of happy coexistence are emphatically over: some reports this year have even suggested that the next generation of consoles could incorporate technology that prevents secondhand games working altogether. That would undoubtedly kill the preowned market off, but according to Ratcliff, there could be a cost for publishers: