Quite a few words have been written criticising GameStop's business strategies, and the damage that they may be doing to the ability of game developers to make money. And while I think at least some of those criticisms are fair, that's not what I want to talk about today. What I want to discuss are some ways to combat the used games market.
I don't think that the kinds of things that I've heard suggested to tackle this issue are really the best course of action. Most of the suggestions that I've seen so far are punitive - ways to punish people for buying games used. I don't think that's a very good business strategy though. So what might work a bit better?
The Root of the Problem
To understand what might work in the future, we need to understand what isn't working today. Maybe we're starting from the wrong place. Instead of asking how we can stop used game sales, maybe we should start by asking "Why do so many of the people who buy video games feel the need to sell them back?" I think this is a very important point. For the used games market to be viable, there needs to be a large volume of people buying games new who are willing to sell them back shortly after purchasing them.
There are probably a variety of reasons, but I think the biggest one is that so many of the games released today are made to be consumed. They are essentially single-play experiences that lose their appeal once they have been finished. So people buy them and get that experience, and what do we expect that they'll do afterward? Of course they're going to sell them.
Other forms of art do not really have that issue. There are plenty of reasons for that (price, consumer expectations, etc.), but I think the main reason is that other forms of art are made to be lasting experiences. A good rock album isn't made to be listened to once or twice, it's made to stand up to repeat listens over a long span of time.
Novels may not be read as frequently as records are listened to, but they're still written to be relevant or interesting to people years, even decades after they're first purchased. Great novels remain relevant for centuries. But most of the games I've played over the past 5-10 years don't seem to be made to last; they seem to be made to make a big initial impression.
But enough criticism. What I'd like to do is look at some examples of ways to make players want to keep games over the long term. Some of these strategies are compatible, others may not be, but they're all things that I think could be done to make consumers value games as a long-term proposition rather than as a short-term consumable.
Make The Player Invested In The Game
There are some games that seem to rarely show up on the shelves of game stores in used form. Two games that seemed to do well on that front recently are Fallout 3 and Fable 2. And while they're very different games in a lot of regards, I think they're similar in one important regard - players become heavily invested in their characters over the course of a game.
By the time you hit level 20 in Fallout 3, you've spent a large amount of time with your character, and you've probably put a significant amount of thought and effort into customising them. By that point they are your character. If you were to sell the game at that point, you'd be abandoning all the time, but more importantly, all the emotional investment that you've put into that character and that world. That's not something a lot of players are likely to do.
There is a wrong way to do this, though, which is to implement a grind. Players should be invested in a their character because of their emotional attachment, not because it's become a time-sink.
Tell A Great Story
Games often don't age well. Many games are quickly forgotten once something that looks or controls better comes out. There is one thing that generally resistant to the passage of time, though, and that is a great story. An interesting mechanic may not be so interesting once you've used it for 10 or 20 hours. An interesting story, though, will probably always be interesting, and it will certainly be interesting for a lot longer.
The enduring popularity of the PS1 era Final Fantasy games is great proof of this - neither FF7 or FF8 is particularly interesting from a mechanical standpoint, but they both continue to draw players into their worlds and characters more than a decade after they were first released. An interesting story is something that players will return to a game for over a long period of time.
I don't think it's a coincidence that RPGs, especially JRPGs, seem to show up on used game shelves far less frequently than action games. Players who are into JRPGs tend to play largely for the stories and characters, and those are something you're going to stick with for a longer period of time.
Design For Repeat Playthroughs
Perhaps the most obvious way to do this is to simply create a video game that is more in the style of a board game; that is to say, a game that is a contest between multiple sides (including AI, if needed). The Civilization series may be the best example of this. It's been primarily a PC series, but if the core games were released as console games (and played well on a controller), I doubt they'd show up on used game shelves very often.
The reason for that is simple - it's not a game you play once to get the full experience. It's a game you play repeatedly to develop better strategies and learn its nuances. Strategy games, for whatever reason, tend to fit this model best.
Other types of games can benefit from being intended to repeat playthroughs too, though. Now, I don't mean a NewGame+ mode or a few Achievements - those are probably only going to appeal to people who were going to play through the game again anyway. But if a game can actually be played in different ways, with a fundamentally different experience each time, then players will probably go back to it.
Fallout 3 is a good example of this as well: missions can be played differently depending on your "moral" alignment, but there are also a pretty wide variety of ways to play depending on what skills you focus on.
This is running a bit long, so I'll cut out the last couple of suggestions I had. Creating multiplayer games seems to be the strategy that a lot of companies are going for now, but that issue has already been discussed quite frequently, so I'll omit it here. I'd be interested to hear what approaches others think could make games have more long-lasting appeal to players, so if you've got an idea that you think could work, please add it in the comments below.