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

Pharacon wrote:

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

Frogboy wrote:

Seventh, all people who have bought Demigod at retail or direct up May 10th (and didn't return the game obviously) will be getting a coupon that will let them purchase a second copy of Demigod for 50% off for a limited time as a way for us to show appreciation for this community that has put their faith and trust in us.

Link

It's only been a few days since May 10th, so maybe we'll see something soon.

I apologize if this is a stupid question, but ... What's the point of giving people a discount on a second copy of Demigod if they didn't return the first one? What use would that be to them?

adam.greenbrier wrote:

I apologize if this is a stupid question, but ... What's the point of giving people a discount on a second copy of Demigod if they didn't return the first one? What use would that be to them?

It's a gesture toward rebuilding the online community once the issues have been resolved. You like Demigod, but your friend isn't sure she wants to take the plunge. So you give her a half-off code, she buys the game, you tear her Demigod apart with a Level 20 Unclean Beast. Everyone is more or less happy.

And no, that wasn't a stupid question. I had to ask, too.

That's nice to hear, but I've never gotten Impulse to work in the first place. I always got some server error when I tried to install. When it happened the fifth time over the course of a weekend, I simply gave up. Stardock shouldn't make people jump through technical hoops just to install the application that let's me buy their software. Steam's easy to use and get's my business. Stardock isn't and, therefore, they don't get my duckets.

Hollowheel wrote:

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.

Yeah, I was getting all ready to read an angry rant too. Which leads me to reflect: how often do people write about a positive return experience? Not too often. Most of the time people will only hop on the internet to complain in some vain attempt to change their outcome by whipping up mass consumer outrage.

Nice work presenting an alternative perspective on customer dissatisfaction.

If you already own the game you should at least try to play it multiplayer with some goodjers, at least once. While some people (like Cory) have systemic issues, I have only had a problem once or twice. I play almost nightly and it almost always works. Buying the game a sitting out until you hear an "all-clear" even when you may not have any issues seems a bit silly to me.

Since the updates to DM are coming out daily now (another one today!) I know they are working their asses off to fix the netcode issues.
With that in mind - I'm hanging in there and - if nothing else - feel like i help to support a good company with innovation and commitment to the customer.
It's a good use of my $40.

Dysplastic wrote:
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.

Eesh, so conflicted on this. I think there is merit to the idea of the gamer / vendor relationship being abusive in many cases ( abusive both ways actually). My own scenario is that Demigod should have been MY GAME. Its right up my ally- I love this kind of RTS / RPGish thingy. I almost never buy a title the week (sometimes month) of release as I like to check for reliability in a title first- so the end result for me is I haven't purchased the product at all, leaving me disappointed while saving me from anger.

P.S.- Thanks for the provocative article Mr. Banks!

I heard there's a new update today. Can anyone report some impressions? Are the dark days of faulty matchmaking over?

well... it has gone downhill for me sadly.
Although I don't know if it was simply no one on as I was on pretty early in the day.

Hollowheel wrote:

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.

OK, I sat on my inner Wordsmythe all day.

In journalism/print business:

Lede (pronounced LEED) is the very beginning -- generally the first sentence -- of a news story.
Lead (pronounced LED) is the spacing between lines, so called because in movable type printing, printers actually used thin strips of the heavy metal to separate lines of type.

BUT, the issue of "burying the lede" isn't really appropriate here. Just because something takes a twist doesn't mean you buried the lede, it means you surprised the reader, which can be good or bad (I think good here). The classic newsies case of a burried lede is "The boy scout meeting was held in the second floor of the town hall. Town Hall is located at 12 main street. The murder at 14 main street went unnoticed until Thursday."

Had to rattle the grammar nazis' cage, didn't ya...

Demiurge wrote:

I heard there's a new update today. Can anyone report some impressions? Are the dark days of faulty matchmaking over?

They're actually in the middle of staging their second patch of the day, after which we should be able to report on our "testing."

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?

Agreed wholeheartedly. I'm going to be pissed if they don't offer the coupons to everyone. I'm not playing multiplayer because it's broken, not because I don't want to.

Great topic. As we move more and more towards online purchases and distribution (see: AMAZON getting into the XBLA game), we'll be facing some very interesting problems with refunds and customer satisfaction.

Demi's experiences reminded me of my own problems with Castle Crashers last summer. Like Demigod CC had a heavy online multiplayer slant. Like Demigod, CC had terrible problems with connectivity and messed up lobbies. Unlike Demigod, CC also had a rather hideous slate of bugs that would wipe character progression without warning.

That Lvl 20 Beast someone mentioned? Imagine all that work was lost just because you wanted to try and suffer through the broken multiplayer. CC's problems were eventually fixed, but I don't really think there's much left of the launch community. I'm very interested to see how DemiGod weathers this coding storm.

I mean, companies won't be able to stand many blunders like these if there's little to no recourse for the customer.

I'd like to contrast what Stardock are doing versus what Relic did with Company of Heroes (both games use P2P for internet game). Ever since Company of Heroes was released there have been flaky problems with it's network stack. With the release of Tales of Valor earlier this year Relic finally introduced a host-based routing system. Essentially if you can connect to the host of the game then traffic to other players will route through them. However, it will still try to direct connect to all the other players in the game for better performance. This took Relic ~2.5 years to implement. Stardock are doing the same thing in ~3 weeks.

Demigod is a great game. Soon you might even be able to play it.

Now I really regret getting an eee laptop.

I do hope Stardocks will prosper for a long time to come. We could use more developers like them.
I'm looking forward to their next product..hopefully I will have a computer that can play games decently by then.

I actually played a game with Brad last night in a 3v3. We got our butts kicked - man unlcean beast is a...uh...beast - but the new patched seemed to make things work just fine.

nihilo wrote:

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.

That's what I did. I've played ... 3? times, and I'm extremely happy with having bought it. It was my first pseudo-political purchase. It was neat.

Chumpy_McChump wrote:
nihilo wrote:

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.

That's what I did. I've played ... 3? times, and I'm extremely happy with having bought it. It was my first pseudo-political purchase. It was neat. :)

Haha, I've been doing this with Stardock's games since they put out GalCiv 1 with no DRM on it, and a Starforce representative linked to a torrent to try and prove that this was dumb of them.

I've been a satisfied customer ever since, with the added glow of knowing my money was also serving political ends.

You know, European Commission is actually making a directive requiring sellers to refund buggy software. I in no way support such nanny-stateism, but I'm certainly curious how will it work out.

Osmosisch, I would like to presuggest your tag as 'differenschally permeable'.

Oh, and DemiGod isn't my thing - but I can't wait for MOM clone Elemental, though! I have been a supporter of Stardock - on principle - since GalCiv2, although mostly because they were such an underdog trying to revive Space 4x.

Malor 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?

Agreed wholeheartedly. I'm going to be pissed if they don't offer the coupons to everyone. I'm not playing multiplayer because it's broken, not because I don't want to.

If you aren't happy with the game, just get a refund. Stardock will give you your money back if you want it, and it isn't like you're even trying to playing the game right now anyway.

- Alan

Itsatrap wrote:
Malor 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?

Agreed wholeheartedly. I'm going to be pissed if they don't offer the coupons to everyone. I'm not playing multiplayer because it's broken, not because I don't want to.

If you aren't happy with the game, just get a refund. Stardock will give you your money back if you want it, and it isn't like you're even trying to playing the game right now anyway.

- Alan

Right, this is basically saying you refuse to play the game, or get your money back, and for this you have the right to free stuff. And if you don't get it you'll be angry.

rabbit wrote:
Hollowheel wrote:

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.

OK, I sat on my inner Wordsmythe all day.

If you aren't happy with the game, just get a refund.

I'm playing local skirmish mode, which I like fine. The fact that I'm not using the multiplayer component because it's broken doesn't mean I want to return the game. I want to play multiplayer, I'm just waiting until it works. And I don't want to be gypped out of coupons because I have better things to do than suffer through their currently broken matchmaking system.

I still bought the game, I'm still waiting for a working system just like you guys are, I'm just not actively pounding my head on a f***king rock.

Malor wrote:

And I don't want to be gypped out of coupons because I have better things to do than suffer through their currently broken matchmaking system.

I still bought the game, I'm still waiting for a working system just like you guys are, I'm just not actively pounding my head on a f***king rock.

Sorry, I'm just disappointed by the sense of entitlement that's being displayed. Coupons were never part of the deal. You paid your $40 for a game that you enjoy playing. Or maybe you feel like Demigod didn't deliver on the multiplayer so you feel ripped off, in which case you're welcome to return the game.

I understand that you want a coupon to partially reimburse you for the part of the game that doesn't work. It's a neat idea, but consider that coupons are being used as reparations for those players who have been pounding their heads against rocks in good faith. That is, the developers know that those players are frustrated because they're actively trying to use the part of the game that isn't working. As far as you're concerned, they don't know whether you're perfectly content with the game as purchased or not. If you aren't happy and don't let the developer know, then I think it's a bit presumptuous to expect a reward.

I wish other companies sent me something when their games failed to work. At best, they thumb their noses at me and tell me to wait for a patch. At worst, they charge me money for it (a.k.a. "we fixed it in the expansion").

- Alan

I don't demand a coupon for the inconvenience. I DO demand a coupon if other people get one, because I'm just as inconvenienced as they are, even if I'm not actively beating my head on a rock.

What I'm responding to is the hint that they're only going to credit people who actively had trouble with multiplayer matches, because 'they can tell who's trying to play multiplayer'.

If they get something, I want it too. If they don't, I'm cool.

wanderingtaoist wrote:

You know, European Commission is actually making a directive requiring sellers to refund buggy software. I in no way support such nanny-stateism, but I'm certainly curious how will it work out.

I'm cool with it. All it will mean is the consumer can return software that doesn't work on his/her machine. It doesn't mean Stalker, ARMA or The Witcher would have been killed at birth but that people unsatisfied with the product can get their money back. I, for example, bought all above and was happy to either wait out a decent patch or follow workarounds. If others aren't then they are entitled to a refund. I don't see the issue here.

Actually, the more I think about it I want my money back for ARMA.

Malor wrote:

I don't demand a coupon for the inconvenience. I DO demand a coupon if other people get one, because I'm just as inconvenienced as they are, even if I'm not actively beating my head on a rock.

What I'm responding to is the hint that they're only going to credit people who actively had trouble with multiplayer matches, because 'they can tell who's trying to play multiplayer'.

The tell-tale is the blood on the rock. It makes Chris Taylor cry.