Digital Delivery Allows Companies To Ship Broken Products Without Refunds Or Returns

Oh, the fun of playing Battlefield 4...

Oh, the fun of playing Battlefield 4…

Not so long ago, if you bought a book with missing pages — or a DVD that skipped, or a CD or video game that wouldn’t play — you took it back to the store and got an exchange or a refund because obviously the manufacturer did not intend to provide you with an incomplete or broken product. The relatively new era of digital media delivery has improved upon this by allowing content providers to patch files and fix errors, but it’s also allowing companies to knowingly release inferior and/or broken products, often without giving the consumer any way to seek redress.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in video games, where many consumers are now used to getting a brand new game — whether on a disc or downloaded — and being told that it won’t work without some patch that needs to be downloaded and applied.

In some cases, these patches are honest oversights or glitches that weren’t caught until after the title was cleared for release. After all, video games now contain a huge quantity of information, often assembled by different studios and third-party contractors from around the world. On some titles, it seems inevitable that there will be errors that need to be fixed along the way.

In this regard, the video game industry has become like the automotive business, in that they both now have systems in place whereby consumers can get their faulty item fixed for free, usually without having to get an entirely new one.

But it’s one thing to use post-sale patches and fixes to correct issues missed in the production process. It’s another to know that you’re shipping a broken product and hoping that you will have the patch ready early enough so that only a small number of customers are affected.

That is what two-time Worst Company In America Champ Electronic Arts is accused of doing with the PlayStation 4 version of its game Battlefield 4. A game-crippling error was encountered by journalists on pre-release versions of the game back in October, a number of weeks before the game hit shelves with the release of the PS4 console.

Now it’s possible that EA had no idea of the problem, but given the frequency with which the error occurred, it gives credence to allegations that the company was aware of the possibility and released the game anyway in order to meet the Nov. 15 on-sale date.

This highlights one of the biggest growing pains with the current transition to digital delivery — the persistence of discs. Almost all disc-based games are manufactured overseas and require a lengthy lead time in order to produce, ship, and distribute. When a manufacturer has to make a decision between shipping a fractured product that makes the delivery date (but will require one or more patches to be fully operational) and possibly missing that delivery date in order to fully test its product, you can rest assured that many companies will opt for the former.

It’s easier to weather some negative publicity — especially in the video game world, which is largely ignored or looked down upon by the mainstream press — than it is to tick off buyers at Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy and all the people at Sony who have been promoting your game as a launch-day title.

Had Sony and Microsoft decided to ditch discs for these consoles, the publisher would have had a lot more time to clean up the finished product (though that’s still no guarantee that it would have been ready in time). In the Battlefield 4 case, EA has apparently not patched the problem yet, meaning that it did have enough time between making the discs and launch date to solve this glitch.

Over on this Reddit thread, a reader uses the example of the Battlefield 4 botch to make the case for stronger consumer protections.

“We should not be expected to buy broken software and wait for weeks to see if the developer can fix it,” writes the Redditor. “At some point you have to wonder when a publisher is being fraudulent by releasing games they know do not properly work.”

The post calls for people to push for state-level consumer protection laws specifically for digital media products, or at least to extend the current protections for physical goods to the digital world.

“There is no difference between a game sold on a disc and one sold through an online store, except the delivery method,” reads the post.

Given that thousands of people have spent $60 on a new game that has yet to work properly, it seems reasonable to us that consumers should have a right to a refund, even if EA eventually patches the problem.