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.


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'.

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

It sounds like (see the section "What About the Future?") you'll be getting a coupon for 50% off another copy of Demigod to get your friends interested in the game regardless of whether you've been playing or not. It also says "In addition, next week we will begin sending coupons for other things on Impulse to active Demigod players to help ensure a vibrant multiplayer community."

No explanation given for what "active" is going to mean, or how long you need to have been "active" for to get these other coupons, though I'll assume they italicized "next week" to make it clear that they won't be sending these "bonus" coupons out until after the problems have been fixed for a bit.

There's a lot of other interesting news and background in that post about how this mess occurred and where they plan to go from here. It's a good read.

I was able to play a few games with friends, but random connections never seemed to work. So I followed GWJ's path and got my refund. Then turned around bought Plants vs. Zombies.

1/4 the cost.
4x the fun.