While last year went out with a bang and brought on a wealth of controversial topics in the gaming industry—ranging from loot crates and microtransactions to YouTubers and Twitch streamers conjuring up drama and infamy—there’s a substantially important topic that has had a lot of radio silence and it’s time we have a serious discussion about it. Without beating around the bush, we seriously need consumer protection rights going forward into the new year; some countries already have their ducks in a row, in that regard, and it’s high time we collectively take a step back and address this issue before it magnifies. Let’s put loot crates and Logan Paul on the back burner for a moment and recognize a commonplace concern with digital media. Raise your hand if you’ve heard someone tell you “digital games are the future” in the last six months, and don’t be shy about it.
Digital entertainment has become a cornerstone for consumer convenience that has only become more favorable as time passes and more innovations break ground. As of Q1 2017, Netflix amassed 100 million subscribers; Hulu clocks in at around 12 million; Steam claims 125 million active accounts; and according to the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), approximately 74% of video game sales are digital. It’s so easy to lounge on the couch and stream a movie or television program opposed to making a pilgrimage to the nearest RedBox kiosk; it’s also just as easy to purchase and download a game to your console from the PlayStation Store or Xbox Store from your mobile device while on your lunch break and come home to it being ready to play. The level of convenience that digital entertainment provides is second to none, but it is not without its grandeur faults when it comes to making a purchase.
Digital v. Physical — The Benefits of Both
It’s an age-old argument in the gaming industry: digital versus physical and which is the better deal. You’d hear one of two answers depending on whom you ask, but the reasons always seem to echo from one person to another. A main issue that gamers face with digital merchandise is the fact that digital sales are final; there is no such thing as selling or trading a digital game and that is an understandably massive turn-off for a lot of consumers. The idea of wasting money is not a pleasant one, but with physical games, at the very least, there is the option to sell or trade the game in question. Sure, there will be a loss of X% between the price you paid and the trade value at GameStop or how much you’re able to sell it for on Glyde, Craigslist, or the Facebook Marketplace. For a lot of people, the option to receive some sort of reimbursement for the regret of the purchase is satisfactory and will choose that over getting nothing at all; that could very easily be considered the primary reason for a lot of gamers not adopting a digital lifestyle just yet.
With physical games, you also have the ability to secure membership discounts such as the Gamer’s Club Unlocked (GCU) from Best Buy or even Amazon Prime. With Amazon Prime at $99 per year, one of the benefits is getting a 20% discount on games within a week of their release window, as long as it is both shipped and sold by Amazon. With Best Buy, for $30 bi-anually, you have access to several neat benefits, primarily a 20% discount on new games; their definition of new is not within a one week window from the game’s release, but a new and sealed copy, regardless of when the game was released. That’s one of the best deals that I have personally seen and that’s why I left Amazon Prime and signed up for the GCU myself. You won’t find any such deals when it comes to digital games on the PlayStation or Xbox stores, unless you’re willing to wait for a sale months, maybe years later. “Waiting is for the patient,” as Lara Croft once said.
Digital games offer their own realm of convenience that serve as levels of justification as well. You can download a digital game and it’ll be tied to your account, to be kept safe and sound, and played whenever you want. You don’t have to worry about losing a disc or the disc getting damaged, or even stuck in the console’s disc drive. You won’t need physical storage space for the discs or their respective cases. You’ll also have access to some pretty sweet annual sales that everyone can take advantage of; up to 60% off some of the hottest titles. You’ll rarely see sales with that level of generosity in your local GameStop. However, a true and disappointing issue with digital games is that because it is not a physical item, you merely have purchased a license to play that game, and licenses can be revoked. Just ask James Bond, if you don’t believe me. Should your PlayStation, Steam, or Xbox account be banned for any reason, you will no longer have access to any of the digital content you paid for. Naturally, it’s remedied by simply following Terms and Conditions that you agree to when creating an account with either service to ensure that you are not banned or penalized in any capacity. Either way, the idea of not being able to access content you purchased for any or no reason at all is enough of a turn-off for a lot of gamers.
Digital v. Physical — The Final Sale
As it stands, there are only three gaming services that have a refund policy, and it’s interesting that they are all personal computer based: Steam, Origin, and GOG. Steam allows its users to submit refund requests that are honored with a simple criteria: within 14 days of purchase and has been played for less than 2 hours. With Origin, it’s within 24 hours after you first launch the game, within 7 days from your date of purchase, within 7 days from the game’s release date if you pre-ordered, whichever comes first. GOG will only offer full refunds on pre-orders if they’re cancelled before the release date; any other refund requests are only valid if there are technical issues that their support team cannot resolve. Naturally, both Steam and Origin have abuse policies in place and will make decisions based on their determination of whether or not you’re using them as a rental service.
No such policies exist for the digital stores of Nintendo, PlayStation, or Xbox; although, in Q1 2017, there was a bit of hope for Xbox customers as Microsoft seemed to be slowly rolling out a Self-Service Refund system similar to Steam, but it has not yet reached full capacity. Nintendo and Xbox both flat out tell you that refunds are not going to happen, but PlayStation makes a point to copy and paste their ‘Contact Us’ link under frequently asked questions ranging from unauthorized purchases to “I didn’t like the game I bought.” Even though PlayStation does not flat out tell you no, they will when you take the time to reach out. Sure, PlayStation and Xbox have been known to make exceptions if you press the issue, but gamers shouldn’t have to. It’s one thing if you purchased a game and didn’t like it—you should have done more research, rented a copy, asked a friend to borrow it, etc.—but digital games that are faulty, not-as-advertised, or otherwise problematic should be eligible for a hassle-free refund and they aren’t. That’s a problem.
You can log onto Reddit and read a series of refund stories and how consumers had to jump through all kinds of hoops and hurdles to get their money back, with many players questioning Sony specifically; Sony does not issue refunds to any credit card, debit card, or PayPal account—only store credit—which leads consumers to question both why they only do store credit and why they’re so tight-pocketed about refunds when the money will go back to the company anyway. I, myself, have had to submit a few refund requests in my history; a couple of Steam titles that didn’t run well on my computer, despite exceeding hardware specifications, but more notably, two incidents on Xbox and PlayStation respectively. Last year, I purchased a digital copy of Shadow of Mordor’s Game of the Year edition only to find out it was considered a separate game and game saves/progress was not shared between the vanilla and GOTY version. Naturally, that fact was not disclosed on the description. I had to twist the arm of the Xbox Support agent while maintaining a polite and friendly demeanor, but ultimately secured a refund. Another incident was with PlayStation—a digital game I purchased kept freezing and after exhausting every troubleshooting step up to and excluding a complete wipe of the console (and lose everything for one measly game), I had to show my teeth a bit and threaten to file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau to secure a refund.
Consumers should not have to jump through hoops like a circus poodle to obtain a refund in legitimate circumstances.
…and that is the bottom line.
We Must Propose a New System
It goes without saying that we need a system in place for console experiences on Nintendo, PlayStation, and Xbox, similar to how Steam and Origin operate their return/refund policy. It will allow consumers to obtain a hassle-free refund in legitimate and non-abusive circumstances and still maintain a good standing with the service in question. In the current state, there have been Reddit threads about being banned or suspended from PlayStation and Xbox for too many refund requests, whether legitimate or otherwise and that is a problem. Consumers should not be penalized for good-faith refund requests. Naturally, frequent refund requests will raise a red flag for abuse of the policy, and that is sensible. It seems implausible that someone would have 5 legitimate refund requests in a one-month period on PlayStation, Nintendo, or Xbox unless there was a security breach. We can’t expect to receive refunds just because we don’t like something we purchased when there are numerous resources available to assist gamers in making informed purchase decisions. but we can and should expect hassle-free refunds for authentic and good-faith situations.
While some people may argue that we should be able to return a digital (or even physical game) at any time for any reason, it is not a reasonable request. You can’t walk into Best Buy and purchase a $2000 MacBook Pro and decide a week after the return policy window that you don’t like it and deserve a full refund. It’s rather amazing that some countries, like Europe, have consumer protection laws in place that require businesses to provide refunds in reasonable situations, but no such protection exists in the United States, for example. As such, companies like Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft have perceptually firm “no refund” policies in place and will flat out refuse to issue refunds because there is no regulation that requires them to. It’s no secret that happy customers results in return business and revenue. Return and refund policies exist for a reason and they are beneficial to the consumer and non-toxic to the business when they’re properly adhered to. However, in the case of digital games and merchandise, a good start would be to actually erect a return and refund policy to begin with.