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Pre-owned pre-orders... a step too far?

GAME has started a trial on its website, offering games not yet released as pre-owned pre-orders. It's by no means a step to something more permanent, and it's perfectly within the retailer's right to experiment with business models - but is it a step too far?

The relationship between publisher and retailer has, in recent years, become somewhat strained as the former increasingly seeks to cut out the 'middleman' with more and more investment into digital distribution and cloud gaming, among other things.

Meanwhile, as the market for specialist retailers in the UK sets itself against a tough economy, an increasing emphasis on franchises and the onward march of supermarkets, the practice of offering pre-owned games for sale - where the profit is pure, other than the cost of shelf space, wages, and so on - has provided a needed (and over time, more important) financial contribution to the bottom line.

It's fair to say that neither party is entirely happy with the others' practices, but a kind of equilibrium has come into play that would suggest both sides can live with the situation - at least for the time being.

Of the primary arguments on the side of the retailer, it's clear that there is consumer demand for a trade-in service - after all, the committed gamers will probably buy a title on day one, particularly if they know they can get what they want from it, move on once it's complete and recoup something in the process.

"Until now the emphasis has remained largely on new product; you can't help but feel a pre-owned pre-order system alters that somewhat."

As an extension of that line of thought, most pre-owned schemes offer more benefit for trading-in to buy other games, rather than just providing cash alone and thereby - in theory - stimulating sales of new games once more, and indirectly adding revenue to the publishers.

Both of those arguments are credible. However, GAME's move to offer pre-owned options on games not yet released seems a little aggressive, and is unlikely to be received well by the game-creating community.

While the practical nature of the pre-owned business means that the games in question won't be available until a week after official release - and will be dependent on trade-ins becoming available - it's a move that de-emphasises the status of new games.

Clearly, a significant number of new games will need to be purchased and returned - nobody would argue that won't happen, no matter the release - and economically the value to a gamer of trading in a game will obviously decrease with time. This much isn't news.

But - this trial does change the emphasis of the retailer's view on its business models. Until now the emphasis has remained largely on new product; you can't help but feel a pre-owned pre-order system alters that somewhat.

Naturally, there's an argument to say that a gamer who pre-orders a pre-owned game through this service would have only waited to pick it up in their local store at the reduced rate anyway. But it's also fair to say that, with only a week's delay and potential savings of up to £21 (off the RRP, not necessarily the in-store price), people who might have jumped for a new box on day one (or two, or three) will consider a new option - perhaps for the first time.

So far the publishers with games involved in the trial are yet to comment, and it's possible they'll choose to observe for a time before committing - but if anything, it will only seek to strengthen resolve to move away from a reliance on the retail business model, and try ever harder to connect with consumers directly.

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Phil Elliott