Microsoft has begun sniffing around the possibility of allowing people who purchase their games digitally to "trade them in," a move that could dramatically expand the already fast-growing market and could set off a new industry debate.
Digital game sales are typically a one-way affair. Players buy the game (or, more technically, lease a long-term license), then are stuck with them. Owner of physical copies of the same game, though, have long been able to trade them in at retailers including GameStop, Wal-Mart and Best Buy for either cash or credit towards the sale of another title.
Microsoft over the weekend reportedly began surveying players on their interest in the option to "sell back" their digital games for 10% of their original purchase price in store credit. (The first images appeared on Reddit.)
That would work out to a $6 refund on most major titles.
Microsoft, for its part, says it's not actively planning the program. Instead, said Aaron Greenberg, head of Xbox Games marketing, the company is just getting a feel for user demand.
Still, while this was nothing more than an inquiry (and Microsoft regularly floats test balloons on things it opts against doing), it's the first indication that game console companies are considering the practice. The larger question—and one that will certainly go unanswered for some time—is how their publisher partners feel about it, should it become reality.
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GameStop's pre-owned software sales have long been a contentious point for game makers, who see no financial share of the resale of their titles. Should Microsoft begin accepting digital trades, it's unclear if it would then resell the 'used' digital game at a lower price—and if so, if it would share a percentage of that price with publishers.
As for the threat to GameStop, analysts say it appears to be minimal at present.
"This theoretical offer would be inferior to GameStop’s pre-owned buyback program, which not only provides a higher trade-in amount (closer to $20/30% range for newer releases vs. $6 implied Xbox offer), but also allows purchase of any platform products," said Colin Sebastian of R.W. Baird in a note to investors. "While disclosure of the Xbox survey might create some noise near term, we believe that perceived threats to GameStop’s business would likely be overstated."
Gamers who discussed the survey on Reddit seemed to be of two minds. While many grumbled about the low trade value of the game, others say having any option is better than the current offerings.
"$6 in return is little, but it is better than nothing at all. Round that up to $10 and I won't complain (for a $60 game)," posted user Iimitz.
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Should Microsoft go through with the plan, it would be the latest in a series of bold initiatives by the company to win over customers. Last week, it opened up cross-network play on the Xbox One, giving owners the potential opportunity to play against people on PCs and the PlayStation 4.
Sony hasn't addressed whether it would work with Microsoft directly, but has said it "would be happy to have the conversation" with publishers and developers who are interested in cross-platform play.