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Jake T. Forbes LeapTrade and the Irrational Pursuit of an Entropy-Free Gaming Utopia
Sat, Jan 31, 2015 5:28pm EST
By Jake T. Forbes
Young Jake's parents wouldn't let him get a Nintendo even though he wanted it more than anything else in the world. He spent a lifetime of self-imposed therapy healing this trauma: playing and owning every console that followed, designing 8 bit games on graph paper, and eventually working in games and the equally deviant comics industry. If only they had let him have that NES, maybe Jake would have a real job by now. You can learn more about Jake on Twitter @JakeTForbes.

Last September you went to Target to find something to play. You narrowed your choices down to Destiny, Shadow of Mordor, or Bayonetta 2. They were all new releases priced at $60, all equal in value. You decided to go with Destiny. After a few weeks, you got bored with shooting Vex on Venus and decided to trade it in at Gamestop for one of the other two games. They offered you a $20 credit, not even half of what you needed to get the game you wanted. The equal values you saw when you first made your purchase are gone. The game is rigged and you lose.

I would wager most console gamers have felt the sting of a bad trade-in offer. Whether you took the deal or walked out with your dignity (and a game you don’t really want), you’ve no doubt thought to yourself, “There has to be a better way.”

LeapTrade is an online game exchange broker that promises just that. They promise “full-value” for trades. “If a game is worth $50, and you trade it in, you get $50.”

It’s a lie, but a beautiful lie. One that promises to disrupt the injustices of a trip to Gamestop. One that evokes those halcyon days when you could swap a cartridge of Rush’n Attack for Legend of Kage with your BFF and not worry too much about about getting joshed. One that promises the ability to play what you want, without having to lose value or add cash in the process.

Here’s how LeapTrade works. You make an account, search for a game you want to trade, click Trade-In, then your offer enters the queue. When a buyer is found, you get a notification to ship your game to the other party. They confirm that the goods were received and within a few days after shipping, your account is credited with currency to apply towards trades of your own. LeapTrade also sells credit for cash if you want to start receiving trades before anything of your own goes through. Once your reputation is established, you can bypass credit and negotiate trades directly with another user, bypassing credit if you wish.

In theory, what LeapTrade offers is a great value to consumers, and for some participants, the system can and does work. Let’s go back to the hypothetical shopper who wants to trade in Destiny for Bayonetta 2. No doubt there are people out there who have Bayonetta 2 and not Destiny and would love to make this trade. If you were one of the first people to put your copy of Destiny on the marketplace, you might have been in luck.

But that isn't the reality of the market. Over 5 million people purchased Destiny in its release window compared to a meager 100k buyers of Bayonetta 2. Destiny also saw huge attrition of users as it left many critics and players cold, whereas Bayonetta 2 had incredible word of mouth with its target audience. For a few short weeks when both titles were on the new release rack at retail, their “true value” was the same, but very quickly the market said otherwise. Which is why Gamestop is now offering just $13 for Destiny and $27 for Bayonetta 2.

LeapTrade puts the “true value” of both games at $60. Users don’t set prices. After all, this isn't about making a profit. It’s about trading with your peers. This makes a 1:1 swap easy. If you’re gaming with your gut, among friends, it makes sense. But gamers know better. Anyone who has ever made a purchase online (which would presumably include the users of a service like LeapTrade) can find out in seconds that a NEW copy of Destiny can be had for under $40 while Bayonetta 2 still hovers near $60. To suggest that it’s an even trade is a fantasy that both parties must buy into.

The result of real market economics on LeapTrade’s offerings mean that if you want to offload a copy of Destiny for PS4, you’re 11th in line to find a buyer, whereas attempting to buy Bayonetta 2 puts you 4th in line to receive an available copy. Even with the seemingly tiny userbase that LeapTrade has at present, you can see the TRUE “true values” at work underneath the arbitrary price that LeapTrade assigns. Need a copy of Madden, Infamous, Killzone, or Watch Dogs? It’s a buyers market with plenty of copies up for trade. But if you want a copy of Dragon Age: Inquisition, Captain Toad or Walking Dead: Season 2, be prepared to stand in line.

LeapTrade’s cardinal sin is in trying to look like a store when in fact they are anything but. At first blush, the site looks quite similar to Gamestop or other retail sites, with the ability to filter by new releases and top-rated games. Everything has a price ranging from $5 to $60 in increments of $2.50. In addition to new releases, you can browse games on everything from the Dreamcast to the SNES. So many games to choose from! But instead of a “Buy” button, you have “Request.” Which leads us to…

When you look like a store, you can’t blame your customer for expecting to be able to buy the things you list, and in this regard LeapTrade as it exists right now is a joke on customers. It is a service designed for a critical mass of participants that seem unlikely to opt into its closed economy once you factor in the true supply and demand of used games. What good is that “true value” trade-in credit when you can’t spend it on the things you want when you want them? Gamestop or Amazon might not offer you the same dollar value on your trade-ins, but once you get that credit, you have options on how to spend it and you know with confidence that you’ll get your new game in a few days. It is ironic that underneath all their also-ran storefront aesthetic, the best way to get things done on LeapTrade is on their good old-fashioned forums.

And yet, there is something irresistible about the dream of getting the best value for your used games. For those gamers who insist on physical discs and would rather deal with shipping than going to a store, a solution already exists. It’s called eBay, and it achieves the same ends as LeapTrade with far greater transparency and flexibility. When you sell your games on eBay, you can generally get more cash than you would at Gamestop, and as a buyer on eBay, you can expect to pay a more honest “true value” than LeapTrade’s fantasy value or Gamestop’s just-a-shave-under-new pricing.

Ultimately, LeapTrade is a well-intentioned but misguided attempt to get around the perfectly reasonable complaint that many gamers have that console gaming is too expensive. (And of course the consumer is always right). While mobile gaming raced to the bottom and streaming services revolutionized music and video on the cheap, console gaming remains a relatively expensive hobby. PC gamers have Steam, but what about couch gamers? Will a solution arise to allow console fans to play more of the new games they want with less cash out of pocket? Probably. But my money says it won’t involve swapping discs with strangers through the mail. Entropy always wins.