For the original generation of console gamers, here's a name that might ring fondly: Blockbuster Video.
Remember Blockbuster? It was a brick-and-mortar retailer that specialized in renting VHS cassettes and, later, DVD movies. But to gamers, it was also the easiest place to find the latest video game releases. Find a game on a shelf, pick it up, pay $4.99 for five days, and bring it home for your console of choice. It was a much simpler time, one in which entire weekends were dedicated to a single game rental, either to run through a single-player game from start to finish or mess around with friends in local multiplayer for entire nights at a time.
GameStop wants to bring this idea back, announcing on Monday that it would kick off a new program for GameStop Power-Up Rewards members called GameStop PowerPass. The idea is that users can pick up any physical used game from a store shelf, check it out, and return it at any time. It runs for $60 for six months, making it a blend of Netflix, Blockbuster, Redbox, and a public library. It certainly brings back memories of the Blockbuster days, but to say that the gaming landscape has changed since those days would be an understatement.
Let's go over the immediate benefit of such a program. The cost of living for the average person has skyrocketed in the past few decades. Blowing hundreds of dollars every month for new video games is not feasible for many people. Let's look at the last week alone. How many people were honestly willing to plunk down nearly $200 to pick up Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Super Mario Odyssey, and Assassin's Creed Origins?
Granted, the PowerPass almost ensures that nobody will be able to pick up top games on day one. It's uncommon to see AAA games traded into GameStop within the first week, unless it's either short or an absolute bomb. But the program does ensure that it's entirely possible to play through a full-blown catalog of games in a full calendar year for the price of two AAA retail games. It also helps ensure that players will at least get to try out certain games that they wouldn't otherwise touch. I'm talking about sports games, like Madden or WWE. There are diehard fans out there that live by these annual releases, but just as many players don't see the need to purchase these slightly changed iterations from year to year.
What about an older game that's getting a weekend event or special free update? Something like Ghost Recon Wildlands, which recently added a PvP mode? PowerPass makes it worth going out and picking a game up for a short period, while the iron is hot, and taking it back to the store. It allows those players to get all the fun out of the event without shelling out full price for the game.
All of that sounds cool, doesn't it? Now let's bring the enthusiasm down a tad, because for all of PowerPass' pros, there's a serious con. Allowing users to pick up any game and run through it in a week is only going to exacerbate the problem with single-player games. Look at Electronic Arts' closure of Visceral Games, in which they cited a desire to move away from self-contained single-player stories due to unprofitability. A move like PowerPass is only going to embolden those publisher arguments. Used game sales are already a tough pill for the publisher to swallow, but this makes used game accessibility significantly easier for the consumer. Why are publishers going to invest massive amounts of money to develop a single-player game if any GameStop PowerPass user can simply grab it used, cutting the publisher out of the deal even more than they were able to before?
It's the same kind of argument that publishers have been using against the very idea of GameStop and used games for years, but now it's one that could hit a fever pitch. But the publisher response isn't going to be to try to stop a program like this. The response is going to be to just stop making single-player experiences, period, and move towards online games, multiplayer experiences, loads of DLC, and loot boxes! So many loot boxes!
As consumer-friendly as a move like PowerPass is, it's only going to further endanger the single-player game. It further threatens the Wolfensteins, the Preys, and the Dead Spaces of the world. So what's the solution? First-party publishers like Sony and Nintendo are doing their best to make their single-player games worth paying the $60 to experience on day one. Make it so that games like Super Mario Odyssey and Uncharted 4 are so outstanding that players will be willing to part with that $60 on day one. But can third-party publishers really be trusted to pull this off? Between EA's closure of Visceral, Activision increasingly moving towards the Destiny model, and Ubisoft inserting more and more microtransactions into their games, the outlook feels grim.
That's why GameStop PowerPass both brings both a sense of joy and a sense of dread. As someone with a lower income, it's going to be a relief to my budget to be able to check out used games at any time. I want to be able to try Madden. I want to be able to grab Prey and run through the story. I even want to go back and try out older games that I missed. But as I grab a used copy of Wolfenstein II from the shelf, I can only wonder how long publishers are going to grit their teeth over their diminishing bottom line and how they're going to respond. And if the 21st century in the gaming industry has taught me anything, that response is more than likely going to come at the expense of the consumer.