03 January 2013

Can we Really Expect Sony to Block Used Games?

Sony has made a number of controversial patents applications in recent years, including for one that would allow for gameplay to be interrupted by interactive advertisements, the latest of these applications to come to light has led to speculation that the PlayStation 4 (or Orbis) will have a block on used-games, even offline.

Neither sound particularly in tune with what gamers might want from the Japanese company's next console yet there are two initial points to be considered here. The first is that, at present, they are simply patents and not all patents are implemented. The second is to note that as Sony has control over the usage of these features in gaming devices nobody else can use them, obviously in terms of direct competition that means Microsoft.

Yet Redmond itself holds the patent for rewarding certain actions during gameplay, i.e. achievements, either meaning Microsoft have never pursued Sony, Steam et al for illegitimate use of their patent or they have reached an agreement with their competitors for trophies and so on to be a feature in games. Furthermore, there are persistent rumours that the Xbox 720 (Durango) will come with a Blu-ray drive as standard, Blu-ray of course being a Sony propriety technology.

Therefore there is clearly some degree of either cooperation and common usage of patents across the industry or a benign neglect to pursue their misuse, which seems odd given the highly competitive nature of the market. This is important to note as I suspect Sony would not be naive enough to pursue and put into use these patents if they alone did so but whether or not Sony and Microsoft are Machiavellian enough to implement these features together is quite another matter (there have also been reports that the next Xbox will block used titles).

Should one of these companies disable the long held practice of playing second hand titles on their systems they are potentially, if not almost certainly, driving customers into the arms of their competitors. If they both do it there's really only Nintendo left, PC of course having had its own mechanisms to prevent used games being played for quite some time.

This is why it seems unlikely Sony, or Microsoft, would take the risk independently. If both deny gamers the option to play used games, on the other hand, they will have destroyed the replay market in a single stroke.

Analyst Michael Pachter agrees: "This reminds me of SOPA and if Sony puts the technology into the next PlayStation and any publisher attempts to limit the playing of used games I expect the backlash to be similar."

Pachter goes on to note that first party titles make up only 10% of sales for Sony so the company would ultimately benefit little from the move also commenting on the potential damage done by the migration of gamers to Microsoft's next machine as a result of the use of the technology.

The analyst also commented that neither "Sony or any publishers are currently foolhardy enough to take the risk."

But just how easy would that be to do?

While they might have the ability to implement an anti-used game feature they would face opposition most obviously from gamers - especially not exclusively those who predominately buy second hand - but also from retailers who would be directly hit (used games sales have been estimated to make up 40% of GameStop's market value). And finally from the law.

Currently of course there's nothing to actually prevent the sale of used games yet last year the European Court of Justice, Europe's highest judicial body, ruled that consumers cannot be prevented from selling used digital content, including games.

The implementation of the ruling will be a complicated and lengthy process and while the ECJ does not have jurisdiction over the US or other parts of the world the likelihood of digital resell option being rolled out in other region but not another is slim, there would no doubt, be uproar coming from those in the unaffected regions.

If you can't be blocked from selling digital content then can console makers really stop you from reselling and reusing retail games? I wouldn't imagine so, there's no law to prevent people driving second hand cars after all.

Still the day when we'll be able to sell digital content easily is a long way off but even so for either Sony or Microsoft to block the usage of retail games seems a equally distant. We'll know for sure when E3 kicks off in 158 days (yes, people are already counting) and at least one, but probably both, companies show the world their new consoles.

Until then even the very prospect of a feature that can block used games is going to have a big impact on gamer discussion and retailer share-price, as can be evidenced to the tanking of GameStop's shares after Sony's patent was revealed:

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