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Pre-Owned Mercenary • Page 2

Capcom takes aim at the second-hand market - or so the Internet wants to believe.

Rather, what happened was a classic example of the kind of problem that's come to define the games media in recent years. A few blogs picked up on the story, and ran it questioningly and hesitantly. Then dozens more picked up on those original stories, and ran them more stridently. A few rounds of thinly veiled copy and pasting later, and all nuance has been lost; now you have blogs, some of which are plenty big enough to know better, posting innuendo as fact. The original posters of the theory, seeing the popular blogs post their theories as fact, post again to say "look, told you it was true!", and the cycle begins anew.

That's a well-understood news cycle, and it's a poison that afflicts the media outside games as well - as a phenomenon, it often gets labelled as "churnalism", and it's an inevitable consequence of the insistence of publications to try to be first with the news, and to obfuscate the sources of their reportage, rather than striving to be accurate or insightful (which wins a modicum respect, but not a whole lot of traffic from Google). In this instance, the net result is simple - for every article saying "hang on, there's no evidence of a conspiracy here", there are a dozen accepting the now-widespread "conventional wisdom" that Capcom are plotting against the second-hand market.

The second interesting reaction is from, as it happens, the second-hand market. In the UK, retailer GAME has barely batted an eyelid at the controversy, saying that it'll continue accepting trade-ins of RE: Mercenaries 3D in spite of the problem. HMV, on the other hand, has announced that it's going to bar all second-hand trade-ins.

In a way, it would be interesting if GAME had followed suit - it would be a good experiment to check and see what the actual impact of second-hand sales is on new-product sales, although it's not exactly a new experiment. Most retailers stopped accepting trade-ins of PC games many years ago, after all, and look what happened there - far from a huge upsurge in first-hand sales, the retail market just imploded upon itself (there were, in fairness, other factors at work here as well).

HMV's response, though, is interesting in another way - in that it's an oddly reactionary knee-jerk from a huge retail chain, and it illustrates, I believe, just how nervous stores like HMV are about the prospect of losing second-hand sales. As online retailers, supermarkets and digital distribution have steadily eaten their way into the hegemony of the specialist stores, second-hand has been the lifeline that has kept them afloat, for the most part. Even a whisper suggesting that a publisher might have done something to damage that market provokes a strong response - a protective instinct that speaks volumes about where retailers are really making their money, or where they hope to make their money in the lean years to come.

The reality is that publishing has an uneasy but not entirely negative relationship with second-hand. Publishers don't like seeing their wares sold second-hand for five quid less than the brand new copy in the next shelf along

Yet in this instance, the whisper is really just that - a whisper - and the evidence for that is simple. I referred to second-hand as the "bete noire" of the publishing industry earlier in this column, and although that's certainly true, it doesn't tell the whole story. The reality is that publishing has an uneasy but not entirely negative relationship with second-hand. Publishers don't like seeing their wares sold second-hand for five quid less than the brand new copy in the next shelf along, a week after launch - certainly, that's true. But I've yet to speak to a senior publishing exec who says outright that he wants the second-hand trade dead.

There's a good reason for that - economically, everyone knows that trade-ins are propping up the first-hand market, and are helping to expand and sustain the industry's reach in younger, lower-income and less committed segments of the market. Publishers want second-hand to change, certainly. They want to see a cut of the revenues, absolutely - that's what things like EA's Project Ten Dollar are all about. But do they want to kill the second-hand market off? No, they don't.

That's why the Capcom conspiracy theory makes no sense to me; it implies a hidden objective which I simply don't think any publisher holds. Like every other publisher, Capcom would like the second hand market to serve it better - that's a given. But let's also not forget that like every other publisher, Capcom also sometimes makes mistakes - and unless solid proof to the contrary emerges, it's only sensible to treat the sin of omission in Mercenaries 3D as precisely that.

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