The games industry is trying to save its business by strangling the second-hand games market. But if it doesn't start treating paying customers with more respect, in a year or two there won't be anything left worth saving.
Arkham City limits
Do you like Batman? I like Batman. That's why, like 4.6 million other chumps, I paid about 40 quid for Batman: Arkham City in the first week it came out, happy to part with my cash in exchange for the opportunity to smack someone in the chops with a Batarang.
But while the game turned out to be cracking fun, there was something that soured my enjoyment before I even donned Batman's pointy-eared cowl. To play the bits where you get to be Catwoman, I had to enter a 20-letter code printed on a bit of paper inside the box, and initiate a 250MB download.
That's about 500 per cent more hassle than anyone who's just thrown down forty sheets should ever have to endure. Being a naive soul, I asked Twitter why it was proving so hard to play the game I'd just paid for, and was promptly informed that making the Catwoman bits a code-reliant download are a measure taken by the game's publisher to prevent second-hand sales.
For, you see, that code only works once. So anyone thinking of buying the game second-hand would have to pay extra to download the Catwoman missions, which take up what I (having completed the game) would judge to comprise a significant portion of the story.
In essence, any copy of the game that isn't brand-new is a lame duck, only fit to be foisted upon unsuspecting nieces and nephews who won't notice half the game is missing. And if you haven't connected your console to the Internet, those Catwoman missions will forever lie beyond your grasp.
Thank you for buying our game. Now prove it
This isn't an isolated situation, neither is it a new one. Battlefield 3 requires you to input a one-use code that comes with the game in order to play it online (ludicrous when the game is so online-focused in the first place), as does Uncharted 3.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations has a similar setup, in which your code is tied to a single Uplay account, a separate service run by publisher Ubisoft you'll need to sign up for in order to play online. And if you're anything like me, seeing the words 'account', 'sign up' and 'Uplay' used in conjunction will have your enthusiasm levels gargling down the drain.
So to recap, having paid full price for a game, not only do you have to sit there like a loser, painstakingly entering codes to make your new game work, you're then left with a physical lump of matter you legally own, but will struggle to sell.
If you're the kind of person who likes to wait a bit and then buy a game pre-owned, you'll have to go through the hassle of buying separate codes to make your games work properly. And that's saying nothing of the fact that many blockbuster titles launch with expensive DLC ready to go live that really could have been squeezed on to the disc. Thanks guys. Thanks a bunch. Here, have another forty quid.
With these measures games publishers are out to kill the second-hand trade. Should you care that it's now much harder to lend a game to a friend, or sell it on once you're finished? Yes you should, because despite introducing these restrictive measures, games are still very expensive to buy. Expensive to buy, hard to sell. A winning combination for them, but not for you.
When I download a movie from iTunes or play a song on Spotify, I know I can't sell those things on or loan them to a buddy, but I don't mind because the fact that they're digital products, devoid of expensive physical materials and shipping costs, means they're a darn sight cheaper than buying a DVD or a CD. But here is a situation where you're paying full physical-media prices for something that basically exists in half-digital form.
Okay, having to buy a game new, enter a code and sign up for some stuff you don't want isn't the end of the world. But it's a degree of annoyance you shouldn't have to put up with, and it smacks of easy arrogance and a level of complacency that the games industry can ill afford.
Because I can play games on my iPhone, and I can play them on the iPad, and if I don't have the cash to splash on those devices I can play them on an iPod touch. Games for iOS and Android are good. They're really good. And there are thousands of them. You can download them in seconds, and usually for less than a quid.
In the time that 250MB worth of Catwoman took to squeeze itself down the intertubes into my Xbox 360, I could have paid for and be playing Tiny Wings, Whale Trail, Jetpack Joyride or any of the other brilliant timewasters that populate Apple's App Store.
Hardcore gamers will scoff, but they shouldn't. Mobile games have come on leaps and bounds in the last few years, and with processing power in smart phones and tablets increasing at an alarming rate, it won't be long before the only thing that separates console games from mobile games is the fact that you have to walk to HMV to buy the bloody thing.
Angry Birds, which debuted in 2009, has been downloaded 500 million times across its various editions. If you combine the sales of all the core Super Mario games ever made, they total about 262 million. As former Escapist editor-in-chief Russ Pitts writes for GameSpot, "Think about that while you're spending your Q4 reading and writing about AAA 'blockbusters'."
Kings of convenience
People will tell you games publishers are only protecting themselves with these measures, that when you buy a game second-hand none of that cash goes to the game-maker, and that these tools are a valuable weapon in the fight against piracy.
But try this one: I don't care. And neither will the hordes of gamers out there who are increasingly used to having their entertainment delivered conveniently, fast and affordably. Because those are the factors that matter to people, not a publisher's bottom line.
Apple's gadgets are awfully convenient. And here's something else -- Apple takes a 30 per cent cut of all sales through the App Store, a cost that I suspect many games publishers would struggle to cope with, should Apple become the dominant force in gaming. So unless publishers want the future of videogames to be fruit-shaped, I would suggest it's time to treat gamers a little better.
Downloads and digital technology offer consumers convenience, choice and affordability. But while so many companies are embracing this (Amazon, Apple, BBC, Google, Netflix, Spotify, Valve, to name just a few in alphabetical order), it feels like many games publishers see the digital revolution as an opportunity to restrict gamers, and find inventive new ways to bleed them for every last penny.
And that's the behaviour of a jerk. Games industry, don't be a jerk.