Point Of No Return

When it launched last month, Demigod's multiplayer matchmaking was labeled as a temporary annoyance, a small hurdle to clear on your way to enjoying a brilliant take on strategy games. The common opinion was that the game was worth the short-term troubles everyone was experiencing. It’s not new for games, PC or console, to experience nagging issues in the early part of its post-release lifecycle. Bugs are just something an early-adopter learns to live with. Things will get better.

But that was a month ago. Things didn't get better. The matchmaking is as frustrating as it was at release, even after multiple beta patches, community-developed workarounds and a large amount of computer nerd voodoo. Demigod could be a great game if it ever worked right, but it doesn't. I'm finished with fussing over forwarded ports. I'm tired of arguing on Ventrilo about whether I should be using my WiFi or plugging in like it's 1993. I'm done rebooting my damn router. Enough is enough. I want my money back.

The problem is that I bought Demigod from Impulse, Stardock’s content delivery system, not some big-box store. I can’t just put everything back in the box as neatly as possible and take it to a customer service department. You can’t return bits and bytes, can you?

Before we go any further, I should mention that I hate returning anything. I blame years of retail customer-service experience, haggling with customers over the finer points of a big-box retail return policy before a supervisor would overrule me. That smug smirk the customer would throw my way instilled a primal fear of becoming the kind of person who reads The Consumerist and thinks businesses owe me something because my mood changed. If I had bought Demigod and hated it, shame on me. In fact, I loved Demigod. It just doesn't work, and I can't take it anymore.

What happens when a digital purchase is broken? If we go by the return policies for the big content delivery platforms, not much. Steam, the biggest distribution hub for PC games, has a return policy in name only. It simply states:

As with most software products, we will not offer refunds for purchases made online as outlined in the software license - please review Section 4 of the Steam Subscriber Agreement for more information.
We can make an exception for pre-ordered games if the request is received prior to the release date.

Microsoft’s policy for Xbox Live Marketplace is even simpler, a one-line answer in a FAQ: "All items purchased or rented from Xbox LIVE Marketplace, using the Web or your Xbox 360 console, are non-refundable." Of course, there are probably instances where customer service reps can bend these rules, but the message is clear: Next time you’re looking for some At-Home, No-Pants shopping, make sure it’s what you really want, because there’s no take-backs.

Stardock’s policy is more than one sentence, and it’s a policy that’s based on common sense. It states that any refund request must first pass through Stardock’s technical support department, who will try to diagnose and help fix any issues you’re having with their products. If the problem can’t be solved by their techs, then the request can move to their billing team for consideration. On first read, that sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through, but if a tech support rep can get me connected to Demigod matches, why would I want to return the game?

So I took a deep breath and sent a request.

Hi there.

I purchased Demigod on Impulse on April 25th and have experienced
near-constant issues with the multiplayer experience. Even after applying
multiple beta patches, forwarding ports on my router and other
troubleshooting procedures, I've only succeeded in connecting in one online game. My recent attempts to play with friends and others online have been extremely frustrating, to the point where I would now like to request a refund for the game and cancellation of my access to the product.

Stardock's return/refund policy states that I need to speak with Technical
Support before moving forward with a refund. Please let me know what steps we have to take to proceed with this process.

Thanks for your help.

-Cory Banks

In the meantime, I did what everyone else was doing. I scoured the Demigod forums, desperate to find some magical combination of forwarded ports that would solve my problems. I installed beta patches. I read every word of Stardock CEO Brad Wardell's lengthy missives, updates on the progress his team had been making with new patches and assurances that they would make the game the kind of experience we'd want to pay for. I checked my inbox over and over, expecting the first incredulous email to arrive and ask me if I’d rebooted my computer recently.

That email never came. Instead, 36 hours later, I got my money back. I was dumbstruck. How can it be that easy?

"It's because you had a known issue," Wardell tells me the next day. He's not at all surprised that I didn't get the runaround. And yet, even though the process is relatively painless, the people like me who want their money back are in the minority. "We haven't had a lot [of requests]. It's in the 100s, but not in the 1,000s."

As Wardell points out every chance he gets, technical issues with software are nothing new, but Stardock’s willingness to own up to the mistakes is unorthodox. They do it because Wardell wants to honestly build a relationship with their customers. "In an age where you can’t return most games, even in a store, you have to be able to have faith that the developer and publisher are going to come through and take care of you. You want your customer to like your company and trust your company." Wardell has gotten ribbed for how much he's written in apology and explanation over the past month, but that communication is the unspoken reason for the lack of return requests.

Of course, they’re still working day and night to fix the matchmaking issues. "Hopefully we’ll have something for today," Wardell says. And once they’ve rolled out the fixes, Stardock plans to reward the customers still weathering the Demigod storm. "Because Demigod is so multiplayer-centric, we can tell which of those accounts are being used to play multiplayer, so we can actually send those people an ongoing stream of coupons for other games on Impulse." It’s clear they want to make this right for the people who enjoy Demigod, even through the frustrations.

And now that I’ve got my money back? I’m not cursing at my router or spending evenings waiting in Vent, but I am still waiting for the fixes to come. Because of the way Stardock is handling not only the issues for the community, but my own refund request, I’ve already decided that they’re getting my $40 again. I’m just not jumping back in until the water's safe.

Comments

They did have hundreds of requests. I imagine once this post makes its way through the intarwebz, that number will go up quite significantly.

I think people have faith that the bugs will eventually get fixed, and they're willing to just sit on their copies until the fun can begin again. The reward of coupons for doing so would be enough for me to hang on.

It's amazing how nice it is when a company does right by their customers. I was already interested in Demigod. The rumor that they might add 2 new Demigods once they fix the game makes me more interested. Standing by their product makes me want to give them my money. I'm just going to wait for them to kill all the sharks in the water first, too.

What did my morning need? Apparently the answer is Kansas' greatest hits.

"Because Demigod is so multiplayer-centric, we can tell which of those accounts are being used to play multiplayer, so we can actually send those people an ongoing stream of coupons for other games on Impulse."

Wait a damned minute. Coupons are only for those actually screwing with the broken multiplayer? What about those of us who faithfully bought the game, but have been patiently waiting for multi to get fixed before we contribute to the server load? You've had my money from the beginning, but I've been sitting here with broken code. I'm incredibly busy, and don't have the luxury of sitting around with my thumb up my arse while trying last decade's router jockeying.

Yeah, I think my goodwill just ran out.

I don't like playing online all that much. I was a Xbox Live junkie for 5 years and then one day I just decided that I had enough of it. I hated getting invites forcing me to quit the game I'm playing then finding that the game I was invited to is full. I hated being in a game and having it run for hours and hours and feeling obligated to keep playing because they "need" me to keep playing . I prefer to get in a game, play for 10 minutes or 10 hours and then just quit if I want. This is why I love DemiGod. It's a great game just to pick a battle ground, have the computer auto-fill the slots and start playing. I can set it to easy or hard depending on how long I want to play. I can't wait till they add some more arenas or demigods. It's a keeper in my book...

This is just one of the many things which makes Stardock so unique in the digital distribution business: they are actually willing and able to deal with their customers as human beings. They set themselves up with this by putting the Gamer's Bill of Rights out there, and now are putting their money were their mouth was: dissatisfied customers are getting refunds without fuss.

Over the past year or so I've become more and more leery of Steam and its lack of options as far as reselling your games and refunds in general, and I'm moving more and more towards the gog.com and Impulse end of the spectrum. One of the things that really cemented my faith in Stardock happened recently:
A couple of months back, Space Rangers 2 was on sale on Impulse - normally it's 40 but now it was down to $5. I couldn't resist and grabbed it at that price, but somehow a copy of the order remained in my Impulse shopping cart. So the next time I purchased something from them, I think it was the Titan Quest expansion, this undiscounted copy of Space Rangers hitch-hiked along, and only after I'd finished clicking "accept" in PayPal did I notice that the total was a teeny bit higher than I expected (to the tune of $40).

On Steam, I'd have been screwed. With Stardock I simply sent their sales department a mail explaining how inattentive I'd been, and within a week I had my money back.

This is the kind of customer service that creates fans. I have every faith that the Demigod problems will be sorted, and I'm familiar enough with software engineering not to expect that to happen any time soon - but I'm perfectly willing to wait it out, because Stardock has earned that patience from me with their excellent history.

@Coldstream: I wouldn't overreact to that phrase before there's any official word on exactly how things will be handled. I know Brad Wardell said earlier that anyone who purchased the game will definitely get a coupon for half-off on a new copy of Demigod. Whatever else they've got in the pipeline, I'm sure it will be ok.

Coldstream wrote:
"Because Demigod is so multiplayer-centric, we can tell which of those accounts are being used to play multiplayer, so we can actually send those people an ongoing stream of coupons for other games on Impulse."

Wait a damned minute. Coupons are only for those actually screwing with the broken multiplayer? What about those of us who faithfully bought the game, but have been patiently waiting for multi to get fixed before we contribute to the server load? You've had my money from the beginning, but I've been sitting here with broken code. I'm incredibly busy, and don't have the luxury of sitting around with my thumb up my arse while trying last decade's router jockeying.

Yeah, I think my goodwill just ran out.

I don't think you have to play with the broken multiplayer to be eligible for discounts, Coldstream. Brad's point was that they can see who's playing and coming back and contributing to Demigod's multiplayer community. They want to add incentives for people to stick around AND come back. This isn't a reward for the diehards as much as a reason for people to jump back in. The example I heard was that someone's playing Demigod with his friends at the end of May, then in June, BOOM, there's a half-off coupon for Supreme Commander in their inbox.

It's also just one of the options on the table. I think once you see a final patch roll out that resolves the matchmaking inconsistencies you're going to see Stardock and Gas Powered Games make some huge strides toward making Demigod a must-play game.

Sorry for the confusion.

I do feel bad for those guys because they're one of the only developers actively trying to work with their customers instead of against them. It sucks that their game isn't working right now, but their return policy is far more sane than any other policy for online purchases I've ever seen. I still support these guys 100%.

Bravo Brad.

I salute you with classic rock.

Coldstream wrote:

Wait a damned minute. Coupons are only for those actually screwing with the broken multiplayer? What about those of us who faithfully bought the game, but have been patiently waiting for multi to get fixed before we contribute to the server load? You've had my money from the beginning, but I've been sitting here with broken code. I'm incredibly busy, and don't have the luxury of sitting around with my thumb up my arse while trying last decade's router jockeying.

I have to admit, that did seem a bit weird. He might not have meant it as it sounds but it does sound like he means only those trying to play will get something. I haven't tried playing Demigod online even once because I've heard about these issues but I've been meaning to try it anyway because perhaps my router is one of the magic ones that works. If trying to get online with it once a day is all it takes, that I can manage. Knowing how Brad Wardell operates, I think something's going to be given to everyone who bought Demigod. Rewarding those who have only been actively trying to play online doesn't sound like the way he works.

Coldstream wrote:
"Because Demigod is so multiplayer-centric, we can tell which of those accounts are being used to play multiplayer, so we can actually send those people an ongoing stream of coupons for other games on Impulse."

Wait a damned minute. Coupons are only for those actually screwing with the broken multiplayer? What about those of us who faithfully bought the game, but have been patiently waiting for multi to get fixed before we contribute to the server load? You've had my money from the beginning, but I've been sitting here with broken code. I'm incredibly busy, and don't have the luxury of sitting around with my thumb up my arse while trying last decade's router jockeying.

Yeah, I think my goodwill just ran out.

...Your goodwill just ran out? The entire point of this article is that unlike almost every other digital distributor in the world, Stardock is freely and easily giving refunds to customers who are unhappy with the product they bought and want their money back. Literally all you have to do is ask.

Now it breaks your goodwill that they aren't ALSO necessarily blanketing the entire set of purchasers with freebies, regardless of whether those purchasers are playing the game (and thus in the set of people helping them figure out and fix the problems, as well as more likely to buy more games from them in the future) or not?

...Whatever raises your hackles, I guess.

I appreciate your taking the middle ground on this, I think it's actually a spectrum most of us with the game occupy. Barring those people waiting the issues out, most of us who play regularly seem to have made a certain peace with the issues involved. Depending on current patience levels and how much fun we're having just enjoying the vent chat, people will regularly drop in and out and we're perfectly willing to accept that, no questions asked. I was in a game a few days ago where we dealt with connection issues for about 15 minutes, and just as it seemed we were about to arrive at a solution, two people spontaneously said they were done. That was fine. We played anyway.

Also, Nimcosi is a Demigod patience hero.

Harkening back to the journalism classes of my youth, you kind of buried your lead there, Demiurge. By the tone of the article I was expecting a tirade on how Stardock did NOT refund your money.

It's too bad about Demi-god, though. Sounds like it could have been grand.

I will say that it's nice to see at least one distributor actually refunding the price of broken software. I thought that had gone the way of the dino.

I think it's a lot easier to tell if someone bought the game legitimately if they're trying to play on the servers. Coldstream, before you condemn them for not coming to you, have you tried asking them for a coupon?

Stardock is refreshing. The article didn't end the way I was expecting. Count me as another one who will purchase Demigod once it is working as intended.

This article is actually keeping me from asking for a refund. I had been contemplating it these past few days because I've been able to connect to ZERO mp games. And I'm not a total slouch when it comes to these things. But since Stardock is being adult about everything, I'll just keep waiting. I hope I won't completely forget about the game by the time it gets fixed.

I only purchased this one yesterday, getting ready to step onto those epic and planar chess boards with a cautious optimism, thanks to you guys.

And thanks for the twist ending on this article. Good read, as usual.

So did anyone who purchased this trainwreck ever get one of those coupons? I didn't

I think this article does a great point of showing the customer service peaks that that Stardock aspires too. You've hit the point of no return in respect to being an even bigger fan of what they represent. I read this and more so than the product issues, your message comes across loud-n-clear on the applause of their focus to keep a customer, and keep that customer satisfied longer term than one product release.

I wonder from Stardock's perspective, does this applause and acknowledgement do more long term good or more short term harm.

I think in applauding their customer service, you've also advertised your roadmap for folks to get back money on a game they may or may not have bought for the multiplayer experience, but have decided they are done with. Maybe another fair question should also be, when a consumer benefits from such consumer friendly policies, should they advertise it to the world, or is there some reverse respect/discretion that should be given to the process to not document it in such detail? Is there a difference if the person is just an everyday consumer, or one who was a widely read following?

Dropping all the themes of the article, another title might be "Stardock Refund Roadmap" That is to say, sure the refund policy is there for those consumers that take the time to read, but you've done that for them. Sure someone can write a letter to eloquently express their disatisfaction, and that template is now in the article too. Maybe someone might feel a twinge of guilt or hesitation over requesting the refund, but now, straight out of Wardell's mouth they might not feel so bad to hear, "Well, I'm only 1 of mere 100's of refunds' They'll do alright. Maybe I'll buy it again too someday... after a few of these upcoming releases." Best thing of all, I read that article on GWJ and it sounds so easy, wow.

Maybe it will have little to no negative impact as I think Stardock attracts the type of customers who want to support them and see their policies flourish.

Like anyone, I appreciate customer service policies that go the extra mile toward consumer satisfaction or even just uphold some basic levels of buyers rights to protection. At the sametime, there is a mischievous side to the consumer, and any sense of generousity or loophole in a policy usually gets abused out of existence, leaving us with the hardline policies most stores have today.

The (download-only, productivity) software company I work for basically has Stardock's return policy - the tech guys will try to help fix the problem, if they can't fix it they offer a full refund or a free upgrade if the bug is fixed in a more recent release. I guess that's a bit different from the game industry, though.

I think to do anything else is probably illegal in most jurisdictions, isn't it? A product has to be "fit for purpose", after all.

garion333 wrote:

This article is actually keeping me from asking for a refund. I had been contemplating it these past few days because I've been able to connect to ZERO mp games. And I'm not a total slouch when it comes to these things. But since Stardock is being adult about everything, I'll just keep waiting. I hope I won't completely forget about the game by the time it gets fixed.

Same here. I'm tired of Demigod's bloated response while online, and play a lot of Single player to keep reminding myself that both lobby and game are responsive. I want this game to succeed. After reading this and seconding garion's post, I'm convinced I want Demigod to get fixed because I want Stardock to succeed more that I want a good MP experience.

Stardock has done nothing but win me over, day after day. DG is a good game, Stardock is a great company.

osmosisch wrote:

This is just one of the many things which makes Stardock so unique in the digital distribution business: they are actually willing and able to deal with their customers as human beings.

@Osmosisch: Almost, they behave like they're human beings. That's the difference. Most companies hide behind the droid mentality that "refunds" has not been hardcoded into their programming.

Demigod: I went for the game, stayed for the company's customer philosophy.

I've had a great time playing demigod with few problems - in 2 player co-op mode.
Sticking to more, smaller games is a good way to pass the demigod time until it gets fixed. It's amazingly fun even with just one other person, and I highly reccomend it as a temporary stopgap to the broken multiplayer, rather than trying to magically get everyone into one lobby for hours on end. It's just not worth it.

Demiurge wrote:

Sorry for the confusion.

Thanks for the clarification. I read the statement as a renegement of the previous intent to show appreciation for those of us who haven't requested a refund before now because we wanted to support them. It struck me as a "screw you, if you aren't active dicking around with our broken code" and it really rubbed me the wrong way. To be honest, I don't give a damn about coupons at all, but that just seemed rude. However, if they're offering a little extra sweetener for the folks with sufficient free time to wait around for multi games, then that's fair enough. I guess I've just had so much time wasted by the broken multi in Sins that my patience is beginning to wear thin.

I find it fascinating that so many people are so defensive over the game though. I, along with many others, gave these guys a completely free pass over the launch fiasco, because I understood that they just didn't anticipate a launch of that magnitude, and their architecture was based on a faulty assumption. Now that they've eliminated the pirate connections issue, their code is still jacked up, which speaks to a much more fundamental problem: they released a multiplayer game with blatantly broken multiplayer code. That so many people are sitting around saying "yeah, the game is broken, but hey, they have an awesome return policy!" is like some sort of insane gamer version of beaten-spouse syndrome. Because every other company in the industry has a completely unethical return policy, the company that has a rational return policy is suddenly beyond criticism?

But all that said, I'm not angry about this. I could probably return the game if I really wanted to make the effort, and I have enough faith in the Stardock folks that they'll eventually fix it. Their rational return policy means that I'll be open to buying their next game (a no-return policy would have meant that I avoided their products). It's just a disappointing effort from folks in whom I'd had higher hopes.

Awesome that it was so easy and also so honest! Thumbs up. This way I will choose Impulse over Steam, if it ever happens that they offer the same game.
As for DemiGod, I haven't played it myself yet, although I would love (too many damn games!!), it's also a fact that there is no copy protection. You could 'try it out' for free, or even pirate it if you don't pay up when you do like it and yet keep playing. Better to refund with a good policy and make gamers want to buy your game that way as well.

Coldstream wrote:

That so many people are sitting around saying "yeah, the game is broken, but hey, they have an awesome return policy!" is like some sort of insane gamer version of beaten-spouse syndrome. Because every other company in the industry has a completely unethical return policy, the company that has a rational return policy is suddenly beyond criticism?

I don't think they're beyond criticism, but I do think they're beyond getting more than marginally upset about.

I'd love to try Demigod, but yeah, I'll wait until I get the all clear from GWJ or someone, first.

Wow! So this makes online distribution better than buying in-store! You could never return a game in store. At least not in the last 10 years or so.

Reading this makes me want to buy their game. Right now, Stardock seems like the sole games company that is actively trying to deal fairly with their customers, and that is something I want to support. It's a cliche, but you vote with your wallet, I want to see more of this from other companies.

Dibbler wrote:

I don't like playing online all that much. I was a Xbox Live junkie for 5 years and then one day I just decided that I had enough of it. I hated getting invites forcing me to quit the game I'm playing then finding that the game I was invited to is full. I hated being in a game and having it run for hours and hours and feeling obligated to keep playing because they "need" me to keep playing .

I was confused until I realized that you're remembering what XBL was for the original Xbox. We've come a long way, baby!

wordsmythe wrote:

What did my morning need? Apparently the answer is Kansas' greatest hits.

rabbit wrote:

Bravo Brad.

I salute you with classic rock.

Thanks, it had just gotten out of my head.