How Do Video Game Publishers Continue To Get Away With Mistreating Their Customers?

Image courtesy of (Alan Rappa)

It’s E3 time: the annual video game conference — still, barely nominally, a trade show — is taking place this week in Los Angeles, drawing developers, publishers, and media from around the world to gawk at titles large and small. From Facebook games to Fallout, everything is on display… including the long history of the contentious, adversarial relationship between the companies that make the games and the consumers who play them.

It’s no accident that EA became the first ever company to take our Worst Company In America title for two years running. Although a large faction of consumers were disappointed with narrative and artistic choices made inside a couple of of games, a larger contingent were fed up with being treated like low-intelligence ATMs. EA shipped broken products, nickel-and-dimed consumers in the extreme and, when called on it, got even worse.

EA has, since then, made a few minor steps in the right direction and claimed that the negative feedback spurred them to change.

But EA is far from alone in adopting a wide array of customer-unfriendly practices. And despite the surge of popular opinion against certain game companies in recent years, the truth is they’re not doing anything new. For as long as consumers have had home consoles, video game companies have been able to treat those consumers like crap.

And yet the industry continues to grow by leaps and bounds. So why do they do it, and how do they get away with it?

It all boils down to three big, highly related buckets: distance, fear, and money.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Image courtesy of Byron Chin

There is a gulf between the large-scale makers and sellers of video games, and the consumers who buy and play them. And it is growing.

The distance is both figurative and literal. Retail transactions are, increasingly, remote and virtual. If you buy a physical game with a scratched or broken disc in the box, you can go back to your local retail outlet and plant yourself in the store until someone helps you. It’s hard to ignore a customer who is literally in your face. Online chats with script-reading CSRs 7000 miles and 10 time zones away don’t have quite the same impact.

For most of the biggest-budget, blockbuster (AAA) games, you can still buy a box with a disc in it. But odds are good the store you buy it from is going to have a name ending in .com. And if the physical disc inside is defective, a store might exchange it… but they’ll probably look at you funny for even making the request. Because at that level of game, what you’re really buying is a code that allows certain content to be activated on a certain online account. As long as the code is good, you’ve got the game.

Of course, it’s not just the games. There are also add-ons, large and small. Perhaps there are microtransactions — a dollar here, a dollar there — for extra turns or lives or in-game currency or beneficial character items. Or perhaps there are expansions — medium or large bursts of additional content. New maps? New stories? New quests? New characters? New money.

All of that distribution is not only increasingly digital, but also increasingly moving through proprietary or vertically integrated storefronts.

They may be platform-limited, as in the PlayStation Network, Xbox Live, or Steam, or they may be vertically-integrated and publisher-managed, as in Ubisoft’s Uplay, EA’s Origin, Blizzard’s, or Bethesda’s newly announced Depending what you’re buying, you might basically be moving through stores nested within stores, digital databases talking to other databases and trying to connect your credit card number with the pixels you asked for.

All of those levels of automation and remove are perfectly convenient when things are working right… and a recipe for disaster when they’re not. Add in the fact that your support — in the form of knowledge bases, forums, chat rooms, and e-mail — is also at a digital remove, and it’s easy to see why it’s hard to get help.

Of course, video game companies could prioritize live human customer service. They choose not to. And that’s because they’ve spent thirty years thinking of the consumer not just as a source of revenue, but as a liability.

Fear and Loathing in New Vegas

Image courtesy of frankieleon

Video game publishers are, basically, afraid of consumers. Or, specifically, they are afraid of a small subset of consumers: the ones who don’t care for copyright law and who don’t care to pay. And they are so afraid of pirates that they will happily scorch the earth in their fight against them.

Most of what game publishers do with their games is in some way related to copyright, DRM, copy-protection, and trying to prevent piracy. And that has huge negative effects on the legitimate consumers who just want to play.

A few decades ago, when computer games shipped on multiple floppy disks, copy protection for PC games came in physical form: there would be some special widget, or some pages in the game’s manual, that you had to enter a code from in order to launch or proceed in the game. “What’s the third word on the fifth line of page 27 of the manual?” kinds of questions would appear, as gatekeepers, with the reasoning being that you (or someone) had to have purchased a legitimate copy of the game in order to have the manual. And as for console games, it was definitely possible to clone and fake a Nintendo cartridge — fakes abound, in the world — but it’s not something most folks are going to do at home.

And then we all hit the era of optical media. CD and DVD tech became the method of delivery not just for PC games, but for entire new generations of PlayStations and Xboxes. And with any home computer, a CD is easy to clone. So then came along more punitive, disc-based DRM systems like SecuROM and Starforce.

When copy-protection software on game discs worked as it was supposed to, things generally went well. But the software often didn’t (and doesn’t). A legally purchased copy of a game could be handicapped by its own DRM into never working on your machine. And thanks to retail policies banning refunds for opened software (because you might have opened the box, copied the contents, and then try to return the box while using and sharing your now-pirated copy), consumers whose legitimate games were broken by the DRM shipped with them had no real recourse.

Except, of course, turning to brand-new high-speed broadband connections and downloading pirated copies instead. Thus making publishers panic about piracy, and crack down even harder on copy protection schemes.

Broadband, however, has proven to be publishers solution to that problem as well. Now, games are primarily account-based — going right back to all of that digital distribution. A series of codes unlocks a series of content on your account — and only on your account. It doesn’t matter if you make 3 or 30 or 3000 copies of a disc if everyone who goes to install and play the content needs an active server connection and valid account credentials in order to make it run.

Piracy, of course, has not gone away. Cracked codes and hacked account credentials and other ways of accessing content you didn’t buy abound, and plenty of people still use and access them. But the advent of the connected-account era has so far worked out really well for the publishers in a bunch of ways:

  • It limits the value of used games, making people spend the money on new and putting profit in their pocket, not GameStop’s
  • It allows them to keep very careful track of who has what, who plays with what for how long, and who buys what when
  • It allows them to tout their walled-garden marketplaces as a consumer benefit, by creating a single unified social account presence where you can access all your stuff at once

Big-budget gaming does now mostly orient itself around one of the platform-central social marketplaces: Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, and Steam. All three are social content hubs, and do provide matchmaking, account management, and other useful tools to customers. All three act exactly as universal DRM systems. And none of the three are considered particularly responsive to consumer complaints.

So what does DRM have to do with crappy customer service? Everything.

By designing an entire marketplace and industry around DRM, the publisher is inherently viewing the consumer with problems as a problem consumer. If you are having trouble with a title, they are primed to view you as the trouble. Rather than trying to run a thing you bought on a system you own and having trouble with their software, you might be trying to get one over on them with a fake copy or a modded console or a cracked code.

In short, distrust is then the baseline, and players who need help can easily be viewed as enemies, not customers. The law is a weapon, and consumers are your enemy.

It’s become such a strong baseline, in fact, that breaking away from it at all has proven a wildly successful path for competition.

In PC gaming a new digital platform has emerged over the past couple of years: GOG (originally Good Old Games). GOG has expanded away from only selling working re-releases of old titles and into being a full-service digital storefront for indie and blockbuster titles alike, and they have differentiated themselves from main competitor Steam in two key ways. One is that they sell only DRM-free games. And the other is that they make a point of it being much easier to reach a human being for help.

And competition, as always, is good for consumers. Steam this month announced an actual refund policy, and the two between them compete hard to offer good prices to consumers.

But that’s only for PC gamers. Tens of millions of console owners are stuck: one of the touted benefits of owning an Xbox or a PlayStation is access to, respectively, XBL and PSN.

Money Makes the World Go ‘Round

Image courtesy of Jeffrey

Enthusiastic fans of a game will occasionally lament a change to the game by complaining bitterly that the developer is only in it for the money. But of course, that’s true: video games are a business, and while honest developers and publishers want to make their money by making good art, profit is still the real name of the game. And that’s fair!

But when companies shape their products and policies to benefit shareholders at the expense of customers, then it starts to be a problem.

Microsoft, Sony, EA, Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, Square Enix, and Nintendo — the largest publishers — are all publicly traded companies. They have quarterly reports and earnings calls, and in each of those calls they are expected to show growth over the past quarter and over the past year. Not showing growth has a way of really irking stockholders.

So when a company promises its most recent $50 or $100 million game will be ready for a holiday release, well, it will be ready for a holiday release. Even if it’s horribly broken and buggy as hell.

Companies keep adopting a policy: release it now, no matter what shape it’s in. Sell those pre-orders, get that money this quarter, and then fix it later. Because hey: that’s what day one patches are for.

Increasingly, success is measured in pre-orders and day one shipments. Pre-orders, of course, are placed before a game — which will rely on a working server connection for activation — is released. And if that server connection is an integral part of the game, reviewers cannot review the product, to let you know if it is broken, before it is released.

That’s how badly broken games, with bugs rendering them unplayable, keep hitting the market.

The push to keep stockholders comfortable also encourages an environment of focusing hard on the bigger, faster, newer, shinier, next best thing all the time, at the expense of anything that already exists. And all of those always-on servers and activation connections — which go back to the desire for DRM — create another whole layer of trouble.

The absence of an offline mode does not exactly endear a game to its players, to be sure. But also: how long do servers stay alive? They’re expensive to maintain. Can you play an old single-player game, that you bought and paid for, when its publisher decides the expense of the activation connection is no longer worth the cost?

Or, when the technology changes, can you play your old single-player game at all? Usually not… which then gives publishers an opportunity to update the old one and sell it to you all over again, either as an HD remaster or a straight-up re-release for new systems.

Newer games, meanwhile, also rely heavily on DLC and microtransactions. Since people people will pay another $0.99 here and $4.99 there for bits and bobs of content, there’s a strong incentive to leave some content set aside, when you launch a game. Charging players $60 is a one-time cost, but adding $15 per quarter for new DLC doubles that in the course of a year.

Consumers do have their limits. On-disc DLC — content ready to ship with the game, but locked off until a future date and the application of extra money — created such a furor that its absence has become a selling point for new games.

Why It Gets to Stay This Way

Image courtesy of David Blackwell

So after thirty years of disgruntlement, why are things so slow to change?

The reality is, we the consumers kind of suck too. And in a way, we’re part of the problem.

The math is easy on this one: the number of people who don’t know or don’t care about these issues and are willing to continue buying and playing by game publishers’ rules continues to be larger than the number of those who object to anti-consumer practices and want to see change.

In other words, the status quo sells a ton of games and makes a ton of money, and that means businesses have no incentive to spend any resources (time or money) doing things differently.

Everyone who likes Assassin’s Creed probably hates Ubisoft’s Uplay, but this hasn’t stopped Assassin’s Creed games from being bestsellers.

Everyone hates dealing with Steam’s customer service, but so many Steam users fall all over themselves for the sales.

Everyone knows that new releases are buggy, but we still pre-order games.

“Everyone” sure seems to hate a lot of things that game companies do, but these companies don’t see any quantifiable financial penalty for doing them.

Consumers, overall, have adapted to incremental nickel-and-diming, having their old toys taken away, and DRM-related hand-tying. Players are so used to it, in fact, that even a basic feature like backwards compatibility — just this week finally announced for the Xbox One — is applauded and lauded as a huge step forward.

Additionally, a small but loud percentage of nominal fans who don’t get their way can be… hostile. Really, really hostile. Not just your ordinary level of angry rants on game forums or reddit, but to the point of hacking networks or calling in bomb threats on company executives they don’t like. Say something the mob doesn’t like, and your actual life might be in danger. And basically, they ruin it for everyone: after a point, the signal to noise ratio gets so far off, or the internet cries wolf so many times, that it can be easy to tune out even legitimate critical feedback as hyperbole and nonsense — to the detriment of all.

That’s the bad news. Now here’s the good.

If there is one theme that has emerged in video games through 2015 to date, it is that consumers have finally put up enough of a collective stink over past bad behavior that businesses are actually listening, and are taking baby steps toward a more pro-consumer (or at least a less anti-consumer) future. Positive change is incremental, but abounds.

Steam’s refund policy marks a reversal of their previous policy, which was basically “never.” Microsoft had to walk back its early plans for the Xbox One to be online and connected to the internet 100% of the time, in the face of consumer pushback, and delivered an offline mode. While the transition away from discs makes all sharing harder, account family sharing tools have come to Steam (and to iOS, which is also an enormous gaming platform). EA got badly burned by its SimCity debacle, and seems to have learned its lesson about rushing products to market before they’re ready, instead allowing for launch delays as needed.

When “everybody” thought only teenage boys cared about games, crappy customer relations could slip by unnoticed. But the flip side of rightfully crowing that everyone plays is that everyone notices. For games to keep moving into the future, they’re going to have to start trusting that the customers who give them money are the core of the business, not their nemeses.

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