On Refunds, Quality Control and Supply Chain Accountability
For quite some time I’ve wanted to write a thing about publishers deciding to ship games that don’t function as advertised, are full of bugs, or simply a technical mess. But aside from simply criticising those responsible, and advising people to exercise caution when committing to buying a game before the media and wider public have gotten their hands on it, I haven’t been sure what else to contribute. But then there’s the Arkham Knight PC catastrophe, which has played out a little differently to all the other similar instances of major publishers shitting the bed. There’s been plenty of speculation that Valve’s decision to offer Steam customers robust protection in the form of refunds for (practically) all games sold on Steam had a direct impact on WB’s decision to pull the game from sale, and to actually fix the broken game they shipped. I think this speculation has some credence to it, and I hope it is a sign of things to come.
For far too long now, basically every single retailer operating in the games space has opted not to offer customers a standard refund policy. Amazon tend to have decent customer service, Origin has a refund policy (specifically for EA’s games, rather than for everything sold on Origin), but outside of these you’ll probably be appealing to management’s discretion if you want any kind of refund on a game that doesn’t meet your standards for any reason.
This wouldn’t be such a problem if retailers took it upon themselves to actually ensure that they were only selling products who’s quality would hold up to rudimentary scrutiny, but they don’t. How many retailers refused to stock Colonial Marines? How many retailers played Watch Dogs and told everyone how awful it was instead of just uncritically regurgitating Ubisoft’s marketing materials? How many retailers allowed Halo Master Chief Collection and Drive Club to be sold on the promise that they would have functional multiplayer?
I’m not suggesting that the retailers should be testing everything they stock prior to selling it, but when after release it turns out that they have missold a product, or sold a defective product, they are responsible for cleaning up the mess they have profited from.
At the moment, it’s a free for all. In addition to all these recent games that have shipped with massive problems, I’ve seen online only games who’s server’s have been taken offline months ago for sale on the shelves of highstreet retailers, I’ve seen games that require a DRM service which is no longer offering activations up for sale, and I’ve seen games sold with inaccurate minimum specs. The attitude from many retailers has been “Your money is now our money”, and customers who have been lied to or otherwise mislead have little to no choice for recourse outside of legal action. The UK sale of goods act is pretty solid in principal, but unless you’re actually willing to take legal action to enforce your consumer rights, it’s fairly toothless.
If retailers are going to continue with a strategy of not really having any meaningful form of quality control, it would be prudent for them to also offer consumer protection in the form of a decent refund policy. Valve’s decision to give all their customers reasonable and robust protection from publishers and developers prioritizing their bottom line over customer service is a bit of a game changer, and I think other retailers should be following suit. It’s not going to magically ensure all games sold on Steam are entirely free of technical problems, but it will give consumers a solution in cases where the technical problems are unacceptable.
The console platform holders do require games to go through a certification process, but this process is not quality assurance, checking all aspects of the game for bug and other technical shortcomings, it’s simply checking that the game is consistent with their technical requirements for games on their consoles. Things like using the correct iconography for on screen button prompts, using the correct language to tell people not to turn their console off during saves, and ensuring that the game won’t cause damage to the hardware or expose any security vulnerabilities (although this isn’t always successful).
Realistically Sony and Microsoft couldn’t provide rigorous QA for all the games that ship on their platform. Even if they could, highlighting the existence of a problem is very different from actually fixing these problems. Sony and Microsoft also don’t have any direct control over the statements made in marketing games from other publishers, the onus on keeping a promise is entirely on the party making the promise.
But Sony and Microsoft aren’t just platform holders, they are also retailers. Games sold on PSN or Xbox Live are being bought from Sony and Microsoft, and thus I am of the opinion that they too should be offering customer protection along the lines of what Valve is offering Steam users. Simply selling products without taking into consideration the end users’ actual experience of consuming that product is not a business model which inspires confidence.
Yes such policies need to be designed in such a way that they don’t leave scope for abuse, and yes there needs to be limits in place to prevent customers from playing a game to completion then requesting a refund, but broadly speaking I can’t see any credible argument against the notion of some kind of refund policy that doesn’t come from a place of publishers wanting to keep customers money no matter how much the customer regrets spending money in the first place.
I can’t see any other clear path for enforcing accountability from publishers. I think directly hitting them in their wallets is the best way to ensure they avoid the kind of catastrophes that seem to be so commonplace these days. I’d hope that market forces, long term reputation damage, and the human emotion of shame would encourage publishers to clean their act up, but if these factors are having any impact it is taking a very long time.
I’ve already seen customers react to Steam refunds by saying that in future they will be more likely to buy directly from Steam rather than competitors (both authorised and unauthorised retailers) that offer Steam keys for the exact same product at a lower price, because they want the safety net of Steam’s refund policy. Clearly it is something customers want, and only liars, charlatans and heartless corporations stand to lose out from.
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