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Will games always have buggy releases?

Brad Wardell, CEO of US publisher Stardock, has heard it all. Every few weeks he receives an irate email from a gamer, ranging from “I hope you get cancer and die” to “Of all the nipples I have ever met, you take the cake.”

“I don’t know what that one means, but it sounds pretty nasty,” Wardell sniffs. “We’re always getting flamed online. It’s part of the experience, it’s not that big a deal.”

Stardock, who’ve developed titles like Galactic Civilizations, also receives lots of praiseworthy mail, but Wardell tends to remember the angry stuff. And he faced the game community’s wrath when Demigod was released earlier this year. The game’s multiplayer, he admits, was a complete shambles: the network connectivity had been tested by a small group and when thousands of people across the globe joined in, it collapsed.

“People were really angry about it,” he says. “The question then was, ‘Who is to blame?’ Stardock is just the publisher, we didn’t make Demigod. Gas Powered Games developed the game, but they didn’t make the connectivity code. Obviously we’re not going to throw some small third-party development shop under the bus. My personal position is, when in doubt, it is always my fault. It was Stardock’s fault because we should have a much longer stress test.”


Above: Brad Wardell from Stardock

Demigod’s problems were sorted and the game was eventually greeted with applause, but its launch had a whiff of deja vu. While console games don’t often have major faults, their PC brethren frequently come loaded with bugs, glitches, and full-on crashes. Empire: Total War, for example, appeared to be held together with lollypop sticks and bubblegum. Gothic 3, Pathologic, and Boiling Point were riddled with alleged problems, and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines, infamously, had more bugs than a tramp’s knickers on its release.

If you shell out cash on something that doesn’t work, you’ll get your money back, right? But most PC developers and publishers backtrack by way of patches, covering their asses with EULAs. Valve, for example, has a strict no-refund policy when it comes to buying from Steam - although it did back down when the crap-bucket port of GTA IV annoyed everyone from Sheffield to Shanghai.

For all his mistakes with Demigod, Wardell knows all too well that a customer who buys a broken product deserves a refund. Stardock, which operates digital distribution service Impulse, put their money where their mouth is. “We don’t just refund people who buy off Impulse,” says Wardell. “We refund even if they bought it at retail. We take a loss on it. We have found, through our research, that our users tend to be repeat buyers. They buy a lot of games. If they have a good experience buying from us, they’re likely to buy again. It’s in our best interests to do everything we can to make sure the customer is happy.”

He continues: “We don’t give refunds just because someone didn’t like the game. It’s not shareware or anything, but if someone has a legitimate problem with the game – say it runs too slow on a computer, or it’s not compatible with a video card – we refund.” Stardock’s policy has been out of step with the rest of the industry, though. “A lot of companies think Stardock is naive, or we’re hippies. That’s really not the case: it’s just business.”

As angry as you may be about getting a buggy title, would you want the law to get involved? Meglena Kuneva, EU Consumer Affairs Commissioner, is putting forward legislation that would legally oblige digital game distributors to give refunds for games, putting games in the same category in consumer law as household appliances.

“Commissioner Kuneva is committed to ensuring that consumers of digital content services have the same protection as that offered to consumers in the traditional (offline) marketplace,” her spokesperson Emer Traynor told us. “She is perfectly aware that the specific characteristics of digital products will have to be taken into account in any future regulatory initiative.”

This call to arms has been praised by tech expert Andy Tanenbaum, author of books like Operating Systems: Design and Implementation. “I think the idea that commercial software be judged by the same standards as other commercial products is not so crazy,” he says. “Cars, TVs, and telephones are all expected to work, and they are full of software. Why not standalone software? I think such legislation would put software makers under pressure to first make sure their software works, then worry about more bells and whistles.”

39 comments

  • 911Donkey - December 24, 2009 3:48 a.m.

    I'm surprised that Castle Crashers wasn't yet mentioned. The online co-op was damn-near unplayable for the first few months after launch. Even when the problem was fixed, the community on the game had all but died, anyway.
  • saintthedogg - December 18, 2009 12:50 a.m.

    I have had my share of problems with PC gaming. enough issues to make your head explode... but strangely enough i had none whatsoever with GTA iv , E:TW , or FC2 now, I know tons of people did have problems. But I pre-ordered all 3 and played on release date with no problems at all. I just I should stick up for 2 great games I thoroughly enjoyed, as well as FC2. again im not saying there weren't problems, I know there were -just not for me. they were thoroughly enjoyable.
  • rtechie - December 16, 2009 9:44 a.m.

    Yes, you should be able to get refunds for games (not just for bugs, but for any reason). No, it will not damage the industry in any way. The latter statement is a FACT, not an opinion. You can demand refunds for games in many countries and it's had no significant impact on games there whatsoever. What is the possible scam we're talking about anyway? Someone buys the game, plays it for 28 days, and then returns it? Aren't these games supposed to have a lot of gameplay? And don't many rental services allow people to do the same thing for a dollar or two? Are game rentals destroying the industry? If a game is a buggy mess, it will get a bad reputation and poor sales with or without returns. If the game is good with only a few bugs, relatively few customers will return it. The reality is tht obviously no industry wants to be subject to consumer protection laws, hence the whining at the end of the article.
  • RanGo - December 16, 2009 6:36 a.m.

    It is something that is deeply troubling, and it affects both new and established developers. Hell, the latest patch for the Sims 3 makes it to where your sims cannot interact with other sims in the game, a primary element of the game. And no patch has been released. It does make me wonder how much many companies care about customer service.
  • Icehearted - December 15, 2009 7:22 a.m.

    This is a current gen plague. If we weren't online, they'd have to actually bug test their crapola before releasing it to be fixed later. I don't know about you guuys, but I hate paying $60 and tax to be a bug tester. Fable 2, Mercs 2, GTA4, oh the list is large, and largely only for my Xbox 360. My PS2 may have had a few bugs here or there, but never like they do now. Pathetic.
  • Craza - December 15, 2009 4:48 a.m.

    Amnesiac - Oh, that's right. I completely forgot about that. I kept thinking it was something while in the Animus, controlling Ezio. Virtualgod - I bought GoW for the PC as well. I haven't tried it lately, since I've been busy with GoW2 and Modern Warfare 2. I'm.....glad to know that they fixed it. When I first played GoW on my desktop (Which had no internet), it worked great. But as soon as I tried it on my laptop, with internet, it stopped working. I thought that was rather odd....
  • virtualgod - December 14, 2009 7:42 p.m.

    Any wonder why Gears Of War 2 never made it to PC? If you were a PC gamer a few years ago you must remember the catastrophic launch of Gears Of War PC. On day one forums were flooding with people wanting to kill everyone at Epic. The reason : the game could not play, you logged in (about 10 times before it actually worked) and the game would close for no reason after 30 second to a minute. In the end I had to hack my own retail copy in order to play it. Oh and when Epic finally patch the game we then learned that after a year you could no longer install the game on your PC. Again Epic had to release a patch that went agaisnt it's own code to allow you to play a game that YOU bought. Now that was a lot of fun!
  • hardcore_gamer1990 - December 13, 2009 9:56 p.m.

    Completely agree with Montag
  • ComradeKhani - December 13, 2009 6:52 a.m.

    The Matrix: Path of Neo had a crap load of glitches. They even have a video in the game of a few different glitches
  • guiarherodrummer1998 - December 12, 2009 4:04 p.m.

    Yes. Some Wii games are not the greatest because they are s'posed to be family friendly. They have gone overboard with that, and i think it's time Microsoft buys rights to Wii. Then we could play Halo 3 and look like it as well.
  • Xplosive59 - December 12, 2009 11 a.m.

    sometimes can be a good thing though and create hillarity such as the spider glitch in fallout 3 and there can be good glitches which let you skip the majority i-of a quest such as getting umbra in oblivion before starting the quest, there are however glitches i cant stand which ussually revolve around online glitches such as getting under the map on COD WW and randomly falling through landscaoe etc
  • mentalityljs - December 12, 2009 1:08 a.m.

    As long as it's not a major bug and a patch is released in a timely manner I don't give a crap! Otherwise, yes, I want my goddamn $ back for the broke piece of shit!
  • Amnesiac - December 11, 2009 2:56 a.m.

    @Craza: Apparently, under certain circumstances, there is a glitch in ACII that can completely ruin your save data after sequence 11.
  • noobeater - December 10, 2009 11:25 p.m.

    lol just some nostalgia but oblivion springs to mind, im sure 100% know of which i mean. And yet one of my favourite ever games.
  • noobeater - December 10, 2009 11:21 p.m.

    i take a game as the same of any of my statutory rights and i will return to the shop and demand a refund, reffering to my rights, eg (but not the same) with my 360: it broke after 3 months i went to em the fobbed me around and told me to see microsoft, but i proved the fault and got a new 360 from the store. my gta4 was tougher by i got that sorted and i have with some other games, i feel it should be like any other product, however there are many more grey areas with this which is why, as you have pointed out why this is a complicated topic another great article (from the brits of course)
  • TheWebSwinger13 - December 10, 2009 5:43 p.m.

    @TheWebSwinger- So you're the tosser that took my account name, putaine
  • Bloodstorm - December 10, 2009 2:44 p.m.

    Games have gotten so big that there is no way for a perfectly released game anymore. I'm a computer science major, and just from the simple code I handle it can take a long time to figure something out that has gone wrong. Imagining that times 100, its a big job. If the developer actively fixes the glitches then that's great. This is why consoles are so far ahead of PC. Sure PC can look great and all that but consoles puts everyone on the same hard ware, and the developer only has to focus on one set of hardware, where there are limitless combination of hardware for computers.
  • rxb - December 10, 2009 1:33 p.m.

    In my PC day it was compatibility problems were the bain of my life. Game breaking bugs should never be forgiven though.
  • crumbdunky - December 10, 2009 12:54 p.m.

    I think devs who serial avuse the patch system by cutting back on QA rwsting and making us pay for the privelege instead SHOULD get punished. Sure, any dev can end up with a nightmare dev cycle once but Bethesda do iot EVERY time. Was FO3 any less vuggy than ES4? No, it was even worse-and on every platform as well. THEN the DLC was glitchy and buggy to boot!?!! Seriously, when you buy a new cellphone, which are full of software, you would take it straight back if it performed as poorly as some of the games we've suffered over the years-and more since consoles have online capabilities making a patch easy for lazy or cheap devs. We wouldn't put up with a CD where you could only listen to the first two songs before getting a mixed up version of the rest of the album causing you to start it again every other time would we? Or a film that skipped about all the time or wouldn't progress past a certain point? course we wouldn't. Gamers are SO forgiving towards devs that we always get taken advantage of. It's cool that we're so passionate about just getting the newest games but, really, we have to start standing up yogether a little more or we'll always be getting shafted by the industry. They end up with buggy releases by cutting corners, cuttiong out betas and cutting down on QA testing-it saves them money when they know they won't get much more than a load of miffed emails-we have to stop buying buggy games-make devs release the patch before we put ou hands in our wallets and then, next time they'd make sure the ga,me worked at release. Stop making excuses for developers who, often, have just tried to cut costs and damaged the quality of the product we have to buy in the name of squeezing more cash from us for less work than ever. It's the thin end of a stinking great wedge that they bend us over these days because they know we're a divided community(in-fighting between gamers on different platforms allows them to get away with all sorts-even dodgy hardware)and that we're a soft touch as a bunch of consumers. No dedicated servers for the market leading FPS and biggest entertainment release of the year in MW2? A game most people buy for it's MP? Really? Is that acceptable on PS360 OR PC in 2009? When a game with the budget of Warhawk managed two years ago? Unilateral price hikes during a recession that sees every other luxury item go down in price? Honestly, we'll always get treated like we do as long as we both fight over nothing with each other and keep failing to understand that a united gaming community would control everything in the industry like consumers do everywhere e;se. It's our money they run on and our power to stiop the shoddy practises but we're just nopt a grown up enough community to do it yet. And sionce IW/Acti took bending us over to new heights with MW2 and all the crapp around it lord knows just how badly we'll get it from here on in.
  • MassSaber - December 10, 2009 12:12 p.m.

    Mercenaries 2 is the only console game i've bought which forced me to get rid of it simply because of the amount of bugs it had, at the time I didn't have LIVE so wasn't willing but with cars falling thru roads the minute I booted the game on the PC yeah no prob just get a patch but on a console and from a publisher like EA to boot I expect better

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