One of my favourite weekly video series is Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition, where he dives into game industry and culture topics in the kind of straight-up, no nonsense way I try to practice here. He’s a lot more profane but I dig that too. I like and respect Jim Sterling a lot and I think the industry of games coverage needs more people that take the style he does. I find myself almost universally agreeing with him too, probably because he actually provides a fair amount of researched arguments to back up his claims, rather than the common press thinking of “This is what I think and if you don’t agree with me, you’re obviously just too dumb to understand.” When I do disagree with him however, it’s usually quite strongly and this week’s latest episode entitled Steam Needs Quality Control is most certainly one of those times.
You should watch the video for yourselves before continuing as it’s worth hearing everything Jim has to say and I’d rather not recap it.
The core problem I have with Jim’s argument is that game retailers (and that’s really what he means as pretty much everyone sells the same stuff Steam does) need to implement some hard line rules on quality control and flat out refuse to sell products to the public that don’t meet those standards. He cites a number of titles as examples, some that are broken messes like the Kevin Dent-backed Rekoil, Takedown: Red Sabre and others that are simply terrible like Revelations 2012 and Guise of the Wolf. He says that the retailers have a duty to their customers to ensure quality and that what they’re doing now is getting over saturated with content just for the sake of it, something he believes will lead to another industry crash. Disregarding the fact that the 1980s console crash (it was not an industry crash) was a result of far more factors than just market saturation, I think he’s right in that the retailers do have a duty but it’s not to provide quality control, it’s to provide quality service.
In this era of dedicated games press, message boards, YouTubers and social media, it has never been easier to find more perspectives on any game than you could ever possibly consume. From formal reviews to let’s plays, it’s all out there and 99% of it is free. Most online retailers even have their own user review systems. There’s simply no excuse for buying a terrible game any more unless you did so purely on impulse and if that’s the case, it’s your own dumb fault.
Determining what is a quality game from a design and enjoyment perspective is completely subjective. I thought Gone Home was a pretentious, dressed up teenage soap opera episode but most people didn’t. I have a ton of games in my collection I think are great that have MetaCritic scores in the 50s. Jim Sterling is no stranger to thinking outside the collective opinion himself. He gave Deadly Premonition a 10 out of 10 and loves the Dynasty Warriors series, games that are frequently dumped on by other critics.
Even in a strictly technical sense, games that are broken for some aren’t broken for everyone, especially on PC. Nearly every Battlefield game from 1942 on has been a broken, largely unplayable mess at launch for me. For my friend Dan, they’ve all been nearly flawless. You know how everyone complains what a pile of headaches Games for Windows Live is? I’ve never had a problem with it. When gamers and reviews alike were ripping apart Fallout: New Vegas, a game that was as broken on consoles where it has to pass manufacturer certification (i.e. quality control) as it was on PC, I knew people who finished the shipping version without serious issues.
Let’s make an analogy to another industry because why not. I think Acer computers are cheap garbage. They’ve been garbage since the 90s, always have been since and probably always will be. Acer is a junk peddler and I have tons of anecdotal experience to back up this claim. However, never once has it crossed my mind to hold Best Buy and Wal-Mart responsible as part of the problem because they dare to stock Acer products. They’re not the ones who make the computers and limiting selection is not a path to better quality, it’s how monopolies are created. If someone goes and buys an Acer because it’s the cheapest thing on the shelf and doesn’t do research before hand, they’re an idiot who deserves what they get. However, if someone makes the choice to buy an Acer and it breaks within the warranty period, they return it and either get it repaired or get a refund, things that cost the retailer money. The retailer is ultimately paying the price for selling a shoddy product and if they have to do that too often, they’ll tell Acer to sort themselves out or they’ll cut ties.
That last paragraph illustrates the one massive difference between the games industry and almost any other: Customer service and customer empowerment. When you buy a computer, a TV, a piece of furniture, a hair care product, a grocery item or just about any other kind of product and it’s not fit for purpose, you can return it. The burden then becomes the retailer’s and most likely is passed back to the manufacturer who made the shoddy product. I bought a car late last year that had a bum transmission but was still under warranty. I didn’t go to Hyundai to fix it, I went back to the dealer, who ultimately replaced the transmission and passed the labour costs back to Hyundai for their screw up. There are some other small things I don’t like about the way the car’s designed but if any of those were bad enough to make me want to stop driving it, it’s not the dealer’s responsibility to give me a refund because I don’t like it, I should have researched those problems first to make sure they weren’t deal breakers.
This is not how it works in video games. In this industry, you buy a product and whether you simply don’t like it or it’s unplayably broken, you’re stuck with it. Steam is no exception. For all the good elements of that service, their return policies are a joke and their customer service is abhorrent. If you’re lucky, they’ll offer you a refund once, assuming they respond to your support ticket at all.
This is what needs to change. Clear and easy refund policies need to be created and made the standard in the industry. This isn’t the early age of PC gaming where people used to buy games in a box, copy them and return them. If you want to steal games, you haven’t needed to go to a store to do it for over a decade and piracy can no longer be used as a crutch to keep consumer unfriendly practices in place. This is a multi-billion dollar industry, they can hire enough lawyers to draft a return policy that allows customers to return broken products with limitations in place to ensure the policy isn’t abused. If you end up buying a Rekoil or a Takedown: Red Sabre or even something like a launch-era SimCity (which I might add, got great pre-launch reviews despite its broken DRM), then you have an easy recourse to get your money back and the retailer has the means to charge that back to the publisher.
In the digital space, the big retailers have a lot of power and make no mistake, they could do this if they banded together. Hell, Steam could probably just do it unilaterally and everyone else would fall in line. When big publishers start being held financially responsible for releasing games that don’t work, watch how quickly they start to take quality assurance seriously. Once this starts to happen in the PC space, watch how quickly the console makers who are desperately trying to remain relevant do the same. The same thing can be done in the mobile space too.
When it comes to subjective metrics of quality (outside of basic functionality), the retailers are the last people who should have that power of determination. I don’t want some unaccountable panel of judges at Valve or anywhere else determining what is or is not a “good game” for me. I’m capable of doing that myself and since my tastes often vary from common group think, I insist on having that freedom, thank you. Shortly after posting that Jimquisition, Jim said on Twitter that mobile app stores are an example of a “user curated market” and as a result, they’re crammed with stuff like the disgusting Dungeon Keeper Mobile. The thing is, that’s the kind of game the majority of mobile gamers like right now. That the majority of the general public are idiots who like garbage (remember, Duck Dynasty and Transformers movies are super popular too) doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be allowed to exist and that some self-appointed gatekeepers should be locking it away.
It’s not retail’s job to determine quality for us. Consumers are half of the equation and they have a responsibility to know what they’re buying. However, if you are taking my money, you also have a responsibility to provide a product that works and if it doesn’t (whether because of game breaking bugs or even hardware incompatibility that wasn’t listed in the requirements), you should be obligated to return my money and ultimately, pass that back to the game’s developer if it was their fault. I don’t care if you’re the biggest AAA publisher or the tiniest indie, if you want to sell games in the big boy stores, this is what you take on.
The methodology that Sterling proposed in his video came across to me as Steam and other retailers having a responsibility to ensure that games not only function but are of good overall quality and I don’t think we can trust corporations (who in the case of Valve, also make games of their own) to judge what is good and what isn’t. It’s unrealistic for these companies to be doing the job of quality assurance for developers. The console manufacturers are already supposed to do that and as we know, fail miserably. However, the point of sale is ultimately where the buck starts and it should be where it also should stop. If you’re the one taking my money, you have a responsibility to ensure you’re providing something fit for purpose and if it isn’t, it should be your burden to refund my money and take it up with whoever made the faulty product. That’s how it is in virtually every other consumer category, games shouldn’t be any different just because “copying that floppy” was once the common way scumbags stole games.
Look, I get what it’s like to get burned by shoddy products and scummy developers. I backed the Takedown: Red Sabre Kickstarter. I’ve bought most of the Battlefield games at launch as well as most recent Bethesda RPGs. I’ve been as angry as anyone that those products were either broken or in Takedown’s case, fraudulent and it’s wrong I had to stick with them in the hope they’d one day be made decent. I think Steam Greenlight is a broken debacle that should have been shut down long ago. That said, I’ve also played a lot of games I loved that people largely thought were crap and the idea that I never would have had the chance had some committee been in charge of determining how good they were chills me to my core. GOG and oddly enough, Origin are making some major strides to provide the kind of service gamers deserve and which should be the standard practice in this industry and if we scream loud enough, others will too.
I get Jim Sterling’s point and I agree with the spirit of it but ultimately, quality service and not quality control is what’s needed in video games right now. Either way, this is ultimately a service issue at its core. If you give burned consumers a means of recourse, a lot of the problem will sort itself out. But putting more control in the hands of big companies is never the answer. Your heart’s in the right place Jim, I think the solution just need to be a bit different.