Caveat Emptor: What Rights Do You Have as a Gamer?

simcity-2013-connection-errorIn the last couple of months, we’ve had some very bad experiences as a gaming community. There was the abysmal Aliens: Colonial Marines that left gamers and fans of the Aliens franchise dissatisfied at best and angry at worst. The SimCity launch was a disaster of the highest proportion. It was probably worse than the Diablo III launch since EA and Maxis couldn’t be bothered to plan for a worst case scenario that we all saw coming. While, not a major issue, Tomb Raider had some serious issues on certain NVIDIA graphics cards.

The problem is that, unlike customers of most products, you have virtually no rights as a customer of the video games industry. Have you ever read the terms of service that you agreed to for digital distributors like Steam and Origin? If you have, you should ask yourself why you would ever buy a game from these people.

You would think that the nature of digital distribution would make it very easy to get a refund for a product. The major online distributors like Steam and Origin track which games you’ve purchased, which games you’ve installed and how long you’ve played them. If I’ve purchased a game but not installed or played it, shouldn’t I be entitled to a refund? After all, if you haven’t cracked open a new copy of a physical copy of a game, you can bring it back to the store and get your money back.

However, digital distribution agreements for the likes of Steam and Origin actually say that once they have your money, it’s theirs and you’re not getting back. I’ve heard to old wives’ tale of Steam permitting only one refund and asking for a second results in your banishment from Steam and your account getting cancelled.

ea-origin-broken-logoIn reality, the various purchase agreements, that little tickbox that you have to check off before completing any purchase, says that there are no refunds for any products or services that you purchase. Ironically, Origin does claim to allow a no questions asked refund of physical products that you purchase through Origin. While these refund policies does protect these services from people trying to defraud them by buying a game, completing it and getting a refund, it virtually eliminates any rights that you have to a functional or quality product.

Just look at the SimCity launch, the game was largely unplayable until the weekend after launch. EA and Origin refused to give out any refunds to dissatisfied customers who couldn’t play the game because a situation caused by the publishers themselves. It was no fault of the consumer that they couldn’t play a game they paid at least $60 for.

If you were to get a defective product, any type of product, from any other retailer, you would get a refund or exchange for said product. It’s not your fault that the product isn’t working as advertised so the manufacturer (through the retailer) owns up to their obligation. You didn’t buy SimCity to take up 10+ GB of space on your hard drive. You bought it to play SimCity. From a legal-ish standpoint, listing SimCity for sale is an offer made by EA to the consumer for this product and buying it is the customer accepting the product offered at the price offered. However, EA and Maxis failed to meet their obligation with the product they gave you (i.e. one working/playable copy of SimCity at the listed release date of March 5, 2013).

A far bigger problems often arises from the fact that the arguments of whether a game is playable or not is often much more subjective than the case with SimCity. Usually, playability and quality is in the eye of the user. There in lies why games sellers have such draconian policies over refunds that treat gamers as second class citizens.

A prime example of that is Aliens: Colonial Marines. This was a game that sold itself on a good-looking demo that didn’t come close to representing the final product and its tie-in to the Aliens franchise as the game was considered canon (official lore) in the Aliens universe. The result was a terrible looking, terribly written and terribly glitchy disaster of a game.

aliens-colonial-marines-screenshot-01If you got a vacuum cleaner that only occasionally sucked dirt out of the carpet and blew it straight into your face when it did work, you would bring that back to the store and demand your money back. That’s what Aliens: CM was. The demo shown to the press in December 2012 was something that got the gaming press excited. Less than two months later, they sang a very different tune. The implied promise of the demo was very, very different from the actual result.

Lost in the blame game between Gearbox and TimeGate was that there were no reparations made to the gamers who bought a game that wasn’t worth the disc that it was printed on. Because of review embargos (a prohibition on publishing reviews under penalty of being, at best, backballed by studios and publishers), pre-orders couldn’t be cancelled. Gamers who pre-ordered or who didn’t read reviews before buying were given a faulty product. These people are out $60 because there’s nothing that they can do to get money back for a terribly dissatisfying product.

It’s all well and good for me to point out what we can’t do as gamers. However, there are some things we can do as gamers to make the most of our relatively limited buying power.

The first and most important thing is to stop pre-ordering games. Except in the rare circumstance that a review embargo is set days or a week in advance of release (such as the case of Tomb Raider), if you pre-order, you have no indication that you should cancel until the game comes out and you’re stuck with it. If you don’t want to be exploited, don’t let yourself be exploited by pre-orders.

So you’ve waited until release to buy a game and now have to decide whether to buy or not. First, keep in mind that there will be a copy for you to pick up. Maybe it’s because I live in a small town but I’ve never gone into a store on release day and never found them sold out. I’d admit that you’re taking a chance with the biggest selling franchises like CoD, Halo and Madden. However, if you’re playing those games, all the bad reviews in the world aren’t going to talk you out of buying or pre-ordering them.

angry-joe-show-corporate-commanderThe question really is how you know if you should buy a game or not. I’d say skip let’s plays or walkthroughs to avoid spoilers but they can be used as a last resort for those very much on the fence about a game. What I’d suggest is to find a couple of reviewers whose opinions you trust and use them to gauge whether a game is worth buying. Personally, I go with Paul Tassi, the team at Joystiq, Angry Joe, Total Biscuit (especially his WTF series) and Yahtzee but you’ll eventually find people whose tastes are close to yours. And me. Of course I’d endorse me.

This has nothing to do with “entitlement.” There is nothing “entitled” about wanting the same consumer rights as people buying every other type of product. Just because we buy video games doesn’t mean that we’re some sort of second class citizen with marginalized rights. Yet that’s how we’re often treated.

If it’s entitled to want to play only quality games or to not want to be lied to by developers or to actually get what’s promised by publishers, then I guess I’m entitled. The problem is that by calling me entitled, you’re just playing the game that the publisher’s want you to. They’re trying to divide and conquer to make money. I’m not entitled. I’m a consumer. I’m a gamer. I’m a damn person. It’s about time that retailers and publishers treated us like people.

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4 thoughts on “Caveat Emptor: What Rights Do You Have as a Gamer?

    • That’s not the point and you know it. If you want to drop $60 for a terrible product and not want recourse, that’s fine. Don’t mock people who actually want gamers to be treated like buyers of damn near every other product.

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