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.”