Refunds For Buggy Games: Good Idea/Bad Idea?

By Alec Meer on May 15th, 2009 at 4:37 pm.

There’s an almighty debate going on between the creators and consumers of videogameland today – whether a proposed European law that allows refunds for buggy games is good or bad for the industry.

For the defence: the right to get your cash back if there’s some showstopper bug in there. Or if it fails to meet “fair commercial conditions”, to use the legalese. Potentially – less games released in a hurried or unfinished state.

For the prosecution: developer/publisher fear of this becoming commonplace preventing them from taking risks. Additionally, the potential for consumers to abuse the system and claim there’s an error once they’ve finished playing (or copying) the game.

Who will you fight for?

The proposed law isn’t singling about the videogame industry as such, but rather aiming to putt it on equal footing with other commercial products. Which seems fair enough, really – the problem is that, unlike a kettle or an iPod, there’s a whole lot of ground between “works” and “doesn’t work” with a videogame – and especially a PC videogame, which has to cater for a vast range of different hardware configurations.

What constitutes justifiable grounds for a refund? Would Demigod’s initially broken multiplayer count? What about Boiling Point’s raft of hilarious screw-ups? That crash-to-desktop from the boat in Vampire: Bloodlines? What about a game that runs fine on your mate’s PC, but freezes on yours? What about a patch that introduces new problems, or indeed a patch that fixes the initial problem but the refunder hasn’t yet tried?

There’s a lot of ground to be covered to make this a watertight system – if it’s based solely on the judgement of shopkeepers, based upon the word of customers, all hell could break loose.

What I’m a little less convinced about is the argument that it could force the industry to play it safe. Creative risks are not technical risks, after all – crazy-concept games aren’t inherently any more or less buggy than Shooting Grey Men With A Submachine Gun VII. But then again, perhaps this law would convince publishers to lean even more on guaranteed money-spinners than they already do if they’re braced to lose a certain percentage of all profits to refunds.

The Business Software Alliance has its own somewhat sinister take on things: “”Digital content is not a tangible good and should not be subject to the same liability rules as toasters. It is contractually licensed to consumers and not sold.” In other words “the consumer’s just borrowing it and so has no right to complaint.” Bloody copyright.

An incredibly thorny issue, then – conceptually, the right to return something that doesn’t work properly is bang-on. In practice, there’s so many vagaries involved in software performance that coming up with hard and fast rules seems almost impossible.

Seeing as we’re all here, let’s be all Text The Nation about it with an insta-poll:

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{democracy:26}

(Excuse that floating ‘n’ – a bug in our polling plugin)

Original story, with quotes from both sides, on the Beeb.

Original photo by liewcf, used under a Creative Commons license

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191 Comments »

  1. boatorious says:

    Two months ago I had three broken games. Then I upgraded to XP SP3 and downloaded a program to fix a bug in my dual core processor, and now all three games work.

    I like the idea of returning buggy games, but on whose authority? A gamer saying “it doesn’t work” doesn’t mean the game is actually buggy — it could be the gamer’s hardware or software causing the issue.

  2. qrter says:

    The “you’re just licensing it” argument makes little sense. When I license something, I still expect it to be in working order, weirdly enough! If it doesn’t work, I bring/send it back, expecting a functioning replacement at the least, or otherwise a refund.

    I don’t see how licensing would put all the liability in the consumer’s court.

  3. JonFitt says:

    I’ve had several games over the years which plain didn’t work. Deus Ex was one. It would CTD constantly within minutes. It did this through 2 different PCs (with Ati Radeon cards). I tired everything, reinstalls, different drivers. It wasn’t until I bought an Nvidia card on a third PC years later that I could get it to work.
    Glad I didn’t take it back, but it was essentially useless to me.

  4. panik says:

    Imagine the returns on E:TW! 90%+ i bet.
    I don’t even want to sell my copy on ebay as i feel i would be ripping off the buyer.
    One good thing did come out of it though…it narrowed down the list of game reviewers i can trust to 1!

  5. Sisyfos says:

    I have actually returned games because of bugs and got my money back without a problem. I just think it’s common sense. But i can see the problem with people abusing it.

  6. chewy says:

    I disagree on how creativity does not equal technical issues. As new ideas require new engines or code or basically it requires the game to be made from scratch. This allows for more mistakes then if your building on previous ideas since preexisting works exist already for you to borrow from.

  7. sfury says:

    Oh boy, Eastern-European developers will be in trouble… :D

    (Good thing GSC licensed that CryEngine 3 – let’s hope that means they’ll focus on polishing that gameplay thingie more)

  8. psyk says:

    what are these “90%” of people doing to there copy of E:TW to break it so badly.

  9. RARGPHLAM says:

    I’m probably an odd man out, but I really, honestly don’t mind bugs in my games. Yes, if the game is an unplayable mess (and I mean really an unplayable mess) I might be a little peeved. But I purchase games with the inherent knowledge that these are extremely complex programs developed by people, and that flaws are not only to be expected, they should be almost considered the norm.

    And honestly, I’m more angry when the game I bought is boring rather than buggy.

  10. yutt says:

    I’m not sure how laws allowing consumers to return a defective product prevents developers from taking risks. Some of the most derivative and uninspired games, using existing licensed engines, are the most buggy.

    I see absolutely no correlation between unique, “risky” games and buggy games.

    I also think the clear potential problems of people returning a game that isn’t buggy is being over-exaggerated in scope. It is being implied a lot of people will do this for no particular reason. That’s silly. I can return any product (except software) to any store I shop at with a receipt, and no explanation beyond I didn’t need it or it doesn’t work.

    Does that mean I rush weekly to return all of my personal belongings? Umm, no. I bought them for a reason.

  11. Gap Gen says:

    Yeah, this could kill a bunch of studios if it happens, although it might encourage publishers to be a bit less happy to throw something out of the door to make a quick buck.

    As people have said, it often depends on your system – some people have very few bugs, other people have games crashing all the time. It then depends on the culpability of the various people who made the PC bits, the OS and the game publishers. It’s not like buying a faulty toaster, where the problem is clearly with one thing alone.

  12. pignoli says:

    @qrter: Agreed absolutely. But the problem (for the BSA) would then be that releasing any software that wasn’t up to scratch by these rules would mean free licenses for everyone for the price of a bug or two. You can’t exactly send back data… So I think we’ll see them sticking to the ‘licensing doesn’t count’ line for a while yet.

  13. teo says:

    Stardock apparently give refunds:

    http://www.gamerswithjobs.com/node/45038

  14. yutt says:

    @RARGPHLAM

    Do you have the same mentality when you purchase a car? Extremely complex piece of engineering, made by people. Sorry, but that is an absurd defense of bugs.

    Nearly all modern products, from pharmaceuticals to airplanes to processed foods, are the result of extremely complex processes. That doesn’t mean consumers shouldn’t be protected when they don’t work as intended.

  15. Torgen says:

    Would having to supply a DxDiag file with your complaint help to catch substandard systems/outdated drivers/etc, thereby reducing the number of returns?

  16. Lorc says:

    I’m in favour of this in theory – if I pay for something it had better bloody well work. And don’t you try and pass your “license” nonsense off on me – if I rent a car and the wheels fall off a hundred meters down the road I’d be gunning for a refund there too.

    But in practice… oh dear. The practical considerations of how this would work are nightmarish to contemplate. Still, it’s be nice to see a some effort taken to bring consumer rights up to date with the modern world.

  17. Dracko says:

    s.t.a.l.k.e.r. banned forever :(

  18. Sporknight says:

    I personally think that introducing this extra bit of legalese has a very strong potential for abuse. Smart videogame buyers will do a bit of research before purchasing (thanks to chaps like the ones here at RPS), and should know what they’re getting. I think the real burden should be on video game developers to continue working after a game has been released on patching any errors. That is an expectation I have as a buyer, at least.

  19. Bhazor says:

    I agree with the people saying that it’s too tricky to say whether a game is buggy or not. It might be you have a software clash, incompatible hardware, you twunted the install files somehow or you have some sort of virus.

    Also who would be paying the refund? Would the retailer have to foot the whole bill or would the publisher refund them as well? What if that money has already been invested back into the developers? I’d rather put up with some texture pop for a couple of months than have a whole developing studio dissolve as the publisher takes back all their money.

  20. M.P. says:

    Technically, as you point out, this already IS law – there isn’t some sort of special exemption saying software shouldn’t conform to reasonable expectations that other products do. The problem is that it’s completely unenforceable because of all the problems you pointed out with the complexity of PC configurations. Publishers and retailers have unscrupulously used this to their advantage, refusing to refund even games that ARE broken by claiming that it must be the fault of the consumer’s PC.

    A new law reinforcing this right will, unfortunately, be equally unenforceable, unless a special industry-wide government agency is forced which consumers can complain to and which will be able to force publishers to issue refunds if necessary. Seeing as most games are (eventually) patched to semi-playability, the slow grind which government institutions work at would make such an agency redundant, as the most serious problems would probably get fixed before the cogs turned.

  21. Dracko says:

    In any case, the EU shouldn’t be touching anything anyway, let alone the gaming industry, so this debate is rendered moot by the fact that we’re talking about a corrupt organisation who doesn’t have much anyone’s best interests at heart.

  22. jalf says:

    The “publishers won’t dare take risks” argument is BS. Risk doesn’t have anything to do with releasing buggy software (if anything, that is one of the risks we should try to prevent them from taking)

    But apart from that, it seems like the biggest problem is defining what “fair commercial condition” is. If a game won’t run on my PC, does it automatically warrant a refund? What if the problem was with my PC? Maybe I have a virus messing up my system, or maybe I’ve just messed so much with my Windows installation that the game fails to install. What if the problem is a buggy driver from NVidia? Or an inadequate PSU? Maybe my optical drive is just too old and dirty and can’t properly read the DVD?

    And what if the game works, but is simply buggy? How buggy should it be before it warrants a refund then? What if it doesn’t crash, but performance is worse than expected? Or exploits exist in the game. Or it is badly balanced?

    And of course, as already mentioned, the fact that it is “licensed” has nothing to do with it. I still paid for a license for a working product. If they can’t deliver that, they have a problem.

  23. Matt Kemp says:

    While I agree that people should be able to return their purchases, the problem lies in that you can’t guarantee they still don’t have a copy unless it’s completely sealed. Even with console games you can say with some certainty that it’s unlikely a person doesn’t have a copy.

    Speaking of which, don’t most stores offer a refund? I know Gamestation offer an unconditional 10-day refund (even if you’ve finished it) and I think Game/HMV have similar policies. My guess is they have no obligation to do this.

    Does this issue extend to stores returning goods to publishers? I know this happens with books – places like Waterstones can return large numbers of unsold or misprinted books to a publisher for a refund. Does anyone know if a similar practice happens with games?

  24. graham says:

    If I can return my museli because I don’t like the taste or it was not at a standard I was expecting then why the hell can I not return a buggy game.
    As consumers we should expect the highest quality when purchasing products, but as PC gamers we have come to expect problems on release day.
    There are people (namely younger people) that only get 1-2 games per year, the idea of a game being broken and having to wait x amount of time is just not cricket. If the experience is inherantly broken on day one you should have the right to return it.
    This ruling will not affect that many PC gamers as we have lived with this for years but there is a new trend to patch in console gaming and just maybe you have to assume that not every console gaming is linked to the internet.
    Our ‘ah bless them, they’ll get it right’ attitude is what allows developers to not be held to the highest standard.

  25. Dan Lawrence says:

    Do people get to return any car they like if it breaks down? Sounds like an amazing deal!

    The devil is in the details here, if consumers are granted carte blanche to return any game with a minor glitch or a ‘I say it has a minor glitch right near the end but it’ll take you thirty hours to get there’ and the publishers are required to refund based on these claims then it would be madness. If its based on what we would call 100% ‘class 1s’ where the game crashes to desktop 100% on every console then it would be justified.

    On a user’s PC, likely festooned with outdated drivers and malware? Not so much.

  26. Bullwinkle says:

    Of all the ideas being tossed about that just might kill the PC gaming industry, this really is the one that could do it. Congratulations, EU bureaucrats! You’re fucking things up for everybody once again.

    I’m not arguing in support of buggy products. But seriously, when a significant number of bugs are hardware-related and/or user-specific, how stupid would a company have to be to not just say ‘screw it, let’s just make it for consoles’.

  27. Colthor says:

    I’m with the EU on this one. Absolving yourself of all responsibility for a product because “it’s complicated” or “it’s not a physical thing” is daft; lots of things are complicated (if it wasn’t there wouldn’t need to be “engineering” after “software”), and physical or no people have still paid you for it. If it doesn’t work you shouldn’t just be able to shrug your shoulders and say “tough shit, it was only licenced”.

    Especially when the licence terms tend towards “If The Software decides to go to The Kitchen and take a crap in The User’s dinner, The Developer and The Publisher bear no responsibility and blame shall lie wholly with The User”.

  28. pignoli says:

    “(Excuse that floating ‘n’ – a bug in our polling plugin)”

    I demand that you demand a refund for your polling plugin!

  29. Theory says:

    I could get behind a national/pan-national stability rating system, if such a thing could ever prove viable. It would provide an accreditation system rather than be a BBFC-style censor.

    (Regardless of the merits of that system, leaving deciding whether the game works to the purchaser is a ridiculous idea wide open to abuse.)

  30. Jeremy says:

    I would say just up front that I am opposed to a law that allows consumers to have the legal right to return a buggy game. In theory, I agree, it would be a great law if everyone were a moral, upright and truth telling individual (on both sides of the issue even). However, I’m positive that in practice all this would end up doing is bogging down the justice system even more than it already is. All it would take is a consumer returning a game for a supposed bug, the retail saying “Not going to happen Mr. G. Amer” and then a lawsuit would be leveled against some sort of entity, either the retail or the developer, etc.

    What about companies that create a game, and are having a great time of it (KotoR 2) and then the pub says, hey, by the way, you’ve got 2 months to release this thing. That’s hardly the developer’s fault, where can we draw the line? Or a company that provides active support and releases updates to correct the bugs. If they’re making an active effort, should they be punished?

    I’m still convinced the “n” in that code is a failed link break or new line in JavaScript.

  31. Panzeh says:

    I don’t mind getting a buggy release, after all, the solution would be to release later and i’d rather go ahead and play the game earlier if i can, shelve it and have it already if i can’t.

  32. SteveHatesYou says:

    “Creative risks are not technical risks”

    Speaking as a programmer who works for a game development studio: yes, they often are. There are good reasons studios stick to rehashing the genres they know, and one of them is that they build up a safe and stable engine and toolset that they can reuse.

    Creating gameplay that you haven’t done before requires creating technology for it, and that means incurring risk (and bugs). Even worse if it’s gameplay that NOBODY has done before.

    Also, if a law like this were to pass, then be prepared to pay more for your games. That extra QA doesn’t come free.

  33. Rich_P says:

    How would this apply to games with online activations (Steamworks)? Would the game be removed from your account? After all, it’s supposedly broken and buggy; no need for you to have access to it. No one would ever abuse that system, right?

  34. Gorgeras says:

    I don’t think anyone is proposing making a loophole so child-eating curs can take back games for whatever reason they like, citing technical excuses. That isn’t how laws work or should work in general. Unless you’re my mum, you can’t take a broken 5-year old kettle back to Morrisons and get them to give you £5 for it out of warranty, just by loudly declaring the problems with it while it was in warranty.

    The point is that there is no official mechanism that consumers can use to force a more reciprocal relationship in regards to software licenses. Stardock gives refunds only because they consent to, but they are unusual.

    This legislation is only being proposed because publishers repeatedly demonstrate their lack of any good faith in their dealings with consumers. They have themselves to blame for putting the bottom line first even though their customers give them more money than their shareholders.

  35. Naurgul says:

    This would be viable if it also meant the introduction of some kind of independent authority to enforce it. This organisation would test software that they received lots of complaints about (or before giving them permission to be released) and if they have serious problems, force the publisher to issue refunds at the customers’ will. I can’t see any other way of this working right, personally.

  36. FunkyLlama says:

    Yes. Because I want a refund on Plants vs Zombies because it keeps deleting all my saves ><

  37. Matt Kemp says:

    Congratulations, EU bureaucrats! You’re fucking things up for everybody once again.

    I don’t see how people trying to introduce fairness into a system is somehow devilish.

    I think the problem is that tangible goods such as, say, crisps, can’t be updated after the fact. If you find a problem with your crisps you can seal up the packet and send it off for a refund. Walkers cannot update your crisps as you eat them.

    To me, the issue then depends on whether or not the developer is then responsible for updating their product – I would argue yes. If I rent a car and it breaks down through no fault of my own, I would expect a replacement or for it to be fixed. Publishers are quick to point out that games are licensed to us, so I feel our licenses should have a quality of service (which this policy is attempting, but going the wrong way about it).

    This would be viable if it also meant the introduction of some kind of independent authority to enforce it. This organisation would test software that they received lots of complaints about (or before giving them permission to be released) and if they have serious problems, force the publisher to issue refunds at the customers’ will. I can’t see any other way of this working right, personally.

    Unfortunately that would cost a large amount of money and would open up even more complaints about bureaucracy.

  38. Premium User Badge

    Vandelay says:

    Risky games not being buggy? Wow, what risky games have you guys been playing?

    Pathologic, Stalker (both of them), Bloodlines, Boiling Point and even games with huge budgets behind them, like GTA IV. All of them get released with loads of bugs and it makes perfect sense that they would be released in such states, the developer is trying something unique and testing out new ways of doing things.

    I love the idea that we can return games because of show stopping bugs, but it is impossible to implement.

  39. graham says:

    @Gorgeras
    couldn’t agree more.

    Sycophantic support of developers and publishers will only lead bigger problems.

  40. James O'Hare says:

    A good amount of my favourite games are riddled with bugs and glitches. I just take it as part and parcel of being a game – especially PC games (if my console game crashes and breaks left right and centre, I’ll get a bit more annoyed).

    But I’m not a fan of allowing refungs for buggy games (although games that you can’t get to run on your system? that’s fine). Especially when games developed by smaller or more inexperienced teams – and therefore, most often the ones that try new things or explore interesting concepts – are the ones that are both the most prone to bugs and the ones most deserving of and reliant upon financial support.

  41. Dracko says:

    Matt Kemp: Because they’ve proven time and time again they can’t be trusted. Not just in general, but also in designing laws properly.

  42. Rich_P says:

    I can’t see any other way of this working right, personally.

    The minute you involve central authorities and certifications, you have a console-like system, only without the conveniences of a standard hardware config. The cost of compliance would be disastrous for small studios.

    I think the responsibility should be on the retailers, digital or otherwise. Retailers with favorable return policies have an enormous competitive advantage. (I buy most of my electronics from Costco because they have an excellent return policy.) Based on return rates, retailers can decide how to deal with publishers who sell them buggy-ass games.

  43. JonFitt says:

    Well how about this since software is immutable barring physical error in a disc: the EU must provide a free validation service where they try all applicable software on however many PCs they require to declare it a good product. Done and done.

    Also, you young ‘uns don’t know you’re born with your occasional crashes and release day glitches. When I were a lad games came on cassette tapes, where the chance of the media itself being borked were incredibly high, and returning it often meant a week or two’s wait while they ordered another copy from the supplier. Then once it loaded there was no such thing as patches. If it always crashed when you jumped on the last boss’ head, tough tits.

    Even later on the early PC it was expected that you would whip your system into a perfectly honed vessel through the use of arcane boot configs or many games would just refuse to run and inform you that you were inadequate.

  44. Mike Arthur says:

    I’m a software engineer who loves games who decided I never want to work in gaming software. One of the reasons for this is the sheer number of companies that are happy to just release a complete piece of crap that needs lots of patches before it’s actually enjoyable.

    The quality of software outside the gaming world is poor enough but inside is just depressing. Of course you have people like Valve that try and get it right first time and are prepared to delay but situations like Demigod or any of the other bugs mentioned just show a lack of professionalism in the industry.

    It’s a depressing state of affairs that the open-source software done by volunteers and many mods seem to worry more about trying to not mislead people in regards to deadlines and release day bugs.

  45. Jeremy says:

    I don’t think anyone ever proposes to make a loophole, but the human mind is ever capable of finding them. Words are fairly arbitrary when it comes to the concepts of law and law-making. That’s why simple laws about restricting even one action have page after page explicitly describing in great detail exactly why said consumer cannot perform said action, in what circumstances and at what time of day and within range of which streets, buildings and geographic formations.

  46. Some Guy says:

    I don’t care, but look! A clicky button!
    , sorry couldn’t help pressing, love stupid pole options.

    i wouold have voted no, for this there will always be bugs, its unavodable on PC with the background aps like msn or anti virus. this would kill gaming as ive had bugs on every game ive brought. not all major like the not joining game on Empire, or 2 crashes in DOW2. you just live with it.

    However they should have to have some post relese suport for games to fix the bugs (looking at you EA). This should perhapss be a legal necesity but a refund for bug would be to hard to enforce.

    only time i have reterned a game was for a difective disk, otherwise you put up with bugs or read the tech support forum for fixes and workarounds

  47. Matt Kemp says:

    Dracko: I’d also argue the EU has had some pretty good successes, and misinformation is quite common. All quite irrelevant to the issue, though – if the UK government had proposed it, it wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) change any opinion of it.

  48. Meh says:

    Define “bug.”

  49. psyk says:

    When was the last time a buggy game killed you in no way can you compare a buggy game with broken medicine or cars.

  50. Taill4f4r says:

    It shouldn’t have any effect. Because, in theory, they should already be ensuring the best consumer experience, right? Ahem.

    I wouldn’t be returning STALKER, Pathologic, Bloodlines, because I enjoyed them anyway. And most people aren’t going to bother practising their rights.

    Also, demos.

    Edit: That said, does this make developers liable for the software? If the same thing applies to applications; bugs there actually /do/ cost people money, can cause buildings to collapse and damage the real world/people.