Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Great Idea

I've written many times that we, as gaming consumers, are getting screwed.

Publishers can ship games that are fatally buggy, and if not enough copies are sold to make it economically worthwhile to develop patches, those games are often abandoned in their disastrous state. Even games that sell well are often declared "finished" in a markedly unfinished state.

Do you know how many rights we have as gaming consumers? In the U.S., at least, it's an easy answer: none.

Zero. Zip. The only "right" we have is to not purchase the product.

Even worse, in addition to screwing us as consumers, it allows shoddy developers to stay in business--if their marketing department is good enough. If we could return games that get released in alpha condition, those games would stop being released. It would only need to happen with a few titles for publishers to understand that they couldn't ship out "the boat with a thousand holes."

The current environment actually punishes good developers who release quality products, because people have limited amounts of disposable income, and every time they buy an unfinished game (because of marketing hype, usually) and can't return it, that's less money they can spend with the developers who actually do finish their games.

So it's not just consumers who are getting screwed here.

Now, incredibly, the European Union is proposing changes that, at least for member nations, would confront this head-on.

The proposal is to expand Directive 1999/44/EC (known as the "EU Sales and Guarantee Directive") to include licensed software. That would give consumers a two-year period to claim that the software is "non-conforming," which could entitle them to a refund.

Here's the entire section dealing with consumer rights:
Rights of the consumer
1. The seller shall be liable to the consumer for any lack of conformity which exists at the time the goods were delivered.
2. In the case of a lack of conformity, the consumer shall be entitled to have the goods brought into conformity free of charge by repair or replacement, in accordance with paragraph 3, or to have an appropriate reduction made in the price or the contract rescinded with regard to those goods, in accordance with paragraphs 5 and 6.
3. In the first place, the consumer may require the seller to repair the goods or he may require the seller to replace them, in either case free of charge, unless this is impossible or disproportionate.
A remedy shall be deemed to be disproportionate if it imposes costs on the seller which, in comparison with the alternative remedy, are unreasonable, taking into account:
- the value the goods would have if there were no lack of conformity,
- the significance of the lack of conformity, and
- whether the alternative remedy could be completed without significant inconvenience to the consumer.
Any repair or replacement shall be completed within a reasonable time and without any significant inconvenience to the consumer, taking account of the nature of the goods and the purpose for which the consumer required the goods.
4. The terms "free of charge" in paragraphs 2 and 3 refer to the necessary costs incurred to bring the goods into conformity, particularly the cost of postage, labour and materials.
5. The consumer may require an appropriate reduction of the price or have the contract rescinded:
- if the consumer is entitled to neither repair nor replacement, or
- if the seller has not completed the remedy within a reasonable time, or
- if the seller has not completed the remedy without significant inconvenience to the consumer.
6. The consumer is not entitled to have the contract rescinded if the lack of conformity is minor.

Yes, the two-year period seems excessive and should be shortened. But do you guys see anything else unreasonable? I sure don't. If a publisher releases a seriously broken game, consumers should have rights that they can exercise. To argue otherwise is ludicrous.

Consumers having no rights of return is anti-competitive. It places the focus for financial success, in many cases, on marketing departments instead of the quality of the product.

I don't believe that quality companies would be hurt by this directive at all, because their development process, from a consumer standpoint, isn't broken. But we all know that their are publishers who essentially use the first month (or several months) after release of a PC game as the extended beta test. This is broken, and it wouldn't exist (or would only rarely exist) if we had any rights as consumers to reject software that wasn't finished.

The response to this proposal was, predictably, ridiculous:
Dr Richard Wilson, head of the video games developers' association Tiga, said a balance between consumers and developers was needed.

"They have to be careful not to stifle new ideas," he told the BBC.

"Consumers need good quality products - that is only reasonable - but if the legislation is too heavy-handed it could make publishers and developers very cautious.

A balance? Where exactly is that balance today? And this legislation would make publishers and developers "cautious" about what? About releasing barely-tested shit? Well, I have one word for that: hooray!

One of my long-standing complaints about publishers is that while they constantly complain about piracy and the used game market, very few accept responsibility for shipping finished product. So I'm not going to cry any tears when suddenly they have that responsibility forced upon them.

Then there's the Business Software Alliance, and they're even funnier:
In a written statement for the BBC, the BSA's director of public policy - Francisco Mingorance, said:

"Digital content is not a tangible good and should not be subject to the same liability rules as toasters. It is contractually licensed to consumers and not sold.

"These contracts are governed by civil law that provide consumers with multitude of remedies for breach of contract. We are not aware of any shortcomings of the legal frameworks with respect to digital content."

Really? And how many of those remedies have been successfully exercised--ever? That "multitude of remedies" is, in essense, zero remedies.

Would this be disruptive to the software industry? Yes, particularly to the development houses who ship betas. Or alphas.

It's about time.

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