On November 22, I purchased Tomb Raider from Steam for $19.99. On November 25, Square-Enix released a bundle on Steam, and the bundle contained every single Tomb Raider PC game and all the DLC available for the price of $19.99. The version of Tomb Raider that I bought, of course, contained no DLC. If there were pre-sale announcements, I might have known that the game I was about to buy would shortly be sold with ten other full games and all DLC for the same price, but no such thing exists regarding Steam.
After researching the issue about, three things struck me as obvious. First, this would not have happened if there was a pre-sale catalog that allows players to peruse upcoming sales and, perhaps, wait to purchase a game if it’s going to be available cheaper. I understand why publishers wouldn’t want to do this–why tell players that they’re about to knock 75% off a game, when they can sell it today for full price and you’re generally left with no recourse? But this is incredibly anti-consumer, and that isn’t a mentality we should allow developers and publishers to put into action.
Secondly, there should already be an official system in place for dealing with this, because this is not the first time this has happened to me. When I bought the Legendary Edition of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, it went on sale less than two weeks later for 75% off–a difference of $30. I was not anxious to replay Skyrim, and I certainly would have waited. When I bought the Game of the Year version of Batman: Arkham City, it went on sale that very weekend for $5, causing me to lose out on $15 because I didn’t know. I bought Portal for $2.99 and Portal 2 for $4.99, and days later they were bundled together for $2.99. In the short span of about two months, I could have saved between 50% and 75% and still had the same gaming library I have today–with a bank account some $120-150 heavier. When you’re purchasing your own games to review because you refuse to take part in the behind-the-scenes back-scratching, these numbers matter.
The long-term effects of this behavior have been obvious: users across Reddit report that they won’t even purchase a game on Steam unless it’s 50% off or more, because the odds that it is about to go on sale are extremely high. Players are left guessing entirely in order to prevent paying double what they have to in order to get the game, and they solve this problem by refusing to ever pay full price; they’ve been burned too many times and have burned away too much money because sales are not announced priorily. If, on the other hand, players knew, beyond any doubt, that Fallout 3 is not going to drop 50% in the next two weeks, they will be more likely to go ahead and buy it, because 2+ weeks starts getting into the timeframes where many players would rather go ahead and enjoy the game now and pay a bit more. But buying a game on Steam at full price has become a gamble, because consumers have no assurance that it won’t go on sale the moment after they click “buy.”
Thirdly, this is not actually the responsibility of the distributor to handle, because this is not retail. If this was the world of retail and Wal-Mart was putting games on sale in order to get rid of some of its stock, I would fully agree that any issue with price drops and bundles needs to be taken to Wal-Mart. That is not, however, the way Steam works; Valve doesn’t have a stock of game keys, and they don’t arbitrarily decide to lower the price of games. In fact, Valve has no control over what bundles and prices are listed on the Steam Store. Steam is merely the distribution channel. Publishers are the ones who create the bundles, who set the MSRPs, and who initiate the sales.
When this happened, I did research into the matter, and the general consensus appeared to be that most people “knew of” someone experiencing this, contacting Valve, and having the issue handled satisfactorily, but there were not very many forthcoming firsthand accounts of this happening. Seeing as I thought the matter through and realized that the interaction took place almost entirely between myself and Square-Enix and that Valve/Steam was simply the vehicle through which that interaction occurred, I opted to contact Square-Enix and Valve, but I admit I only contacted Valve because the Reddit users suggested it had been successful.
Within 48 hours, Valve responded to my support request by issuing a refund on Tomb Raider. Because the sale was Limited Time Only, Valve bypassed the otherwise-mandatory 4-7 day waiting period to receive funds acquired through refund, and I was immediately able to turn around and purchase the Tomb Raider bundle. So basically, they “took back” the initial purchase, gave me back my money, and sold me the bundle. Except… they didn’t really, did they? No, they just cleaned up Square-Enix’s mess. And kudos to Valve for that–I have a great deal of respect and love for Valve overall. I greatly appreciate their willingness to fix something that was, by all rights, Square-Enix’s responsibility, and Valve earned +1 Respect that day.
Yesterday, December 2 (the day after the bundle sale ended, it’s worth mentioning), Square-Enix replied to my support request, saying:
We apologize for the trouble. We would like to clarify that unfortunately we cannot offer you a refund for this game under any circumstances. We do recommend approaching the place of purchase for a refund. We understand that you are not happy with the Steam’s lack of notice of pre-sale advertising and this feedback will be forwarded to my superiors.
This is in flagrant disregard of the fact that I told them I did not want a refund, and that what I wanted was for them to address the issue by giving me keys for the other items included in the bundle–which they most certainly could do. They’re the fucking publishers, mate. They’re the ones with the product keys. They’re the ones who own the right to distribute the product. That’s what a publisher is. And let’s be absolutely clear here: they received the money for the purchase. There might be some sort of delay between when Valve takes my money and when it gets to the publisher, but make absolutely no mistake: this is not retail. Steam is not being reimbursed for copies of the game they purchased from Square-Enix, as would be the case, usually, in the retail world. Steam is merely acting as the agent through which Square-Enix sells its games almost directly to consumers.
Seeing as Valve and their excellent customer service and general customer-oriented mindset had already satisfactorily handled the issue, I replied back to Square-Enix:
I see. Well, that’s okay. I mean, I’m working on the review of Final Fantasy V on PC for a gaming site aggregated by OpenCritic, MetaCritic, and Gamefaqs, so I’ll just “let slip” of your anti-consumer practices during the review. Have a good day.
And while that’s certainly a bluff on my end, it serves a few purposes. First, I want to see how it affects Square-Enix’s treatment of me. I have routinely see developers and publishers change their attitudes fast when they learn that I’m actually a reviewer for an actually aggregated gaming site, that they’re not just fucking over “any old customer” but one with a voice that actually gets heard by lots and lots of people. You have my word that I have NEVER allowed a publisher or developer to actually give me special treatment for this; when they have attempted to, I have spit in their face for being the wretched pigs they are.
For example, Nintendo and I had an issue over a piece of shit shovelware “game” called SDK Paint on the Nintendo Pee-U. I contacted them as a concerned consumer, suggesting that they pull the title from the eShop because it didn’t fucking work. Like it literally didn’t fucking work, and I was the only reviewer to catch that because I was the only reviewer who covered it with the fucking integrity to do more than pop it open for thirty seconds, verify that it functioned, and bang out a quickie. Instead, I actually spent nine hours with that abomination, and it honestly crashed like clockwork every ten minutes. This means (because the issue is a known bug, and it was then ubiquitous) that none of the other 3 “professional” reviewers even spent ten continuous minutes with this software they scored as average.
Nintendo replied with a lot of bullshit, suggesting that I power down and reboot the Pee-U, and unplug it for 30 seconds, trying a different user profile, and all of that asinine stuff that I don’t have to try because I own an I.T. consultant firm and I’ve got a pretty good handle on this whole “technology thing.” And, as I told them in the initial message, I had already tried the standard troubleshooting steps; it was a software issue. I can identify a software issue a mile off; anyone who has been in the field for seven years can. Around the time I replied “Nevermind,” I’d updated my email signature to include a reference to the review site, and the tonal shift in Nintendo’s message was immediate. While their first message had taken more than a day to arrive, every message they sent after that came within minutes, and they were far more cordial, up to and including offering for me to ship my Pee-U to them at their expense so that they could verify there was nothing wrong with my console. They jumped through a lot of hoops to keep me from writing a review that said “Nintendo allowed this non-working shit software to be sold in their eShop.”
But that’s exactly what I wrote, because that’s exactly what they did, and the average consumer who bought SDK Paint wouldn’t have gotten the offer from Nintendo to diagnose their console at no cost; the average consumer would have been told to ship it in and pay a $75 diagnostic fee, and then it wouldn’t have done any good because the simple fact was that SDK Paint didn’t work.
Endemic to the Industry
I mentioned earlier that I have a habit of rejecting review codes when they are available. This is particularly true with free-to-play games. I admit that I don’t always reject review codes; it really depends on the status of DiMezzo Gaming’s finances, to be honest, how expensive the game is, and what the review code entails. I don’t like reviewing Free to Play games, because they present a bit of a problem for anyone with integrity.
When I reviewed Magicka: Wizard Wars with two other reviewers, we used review codes that gave us something called “Press Kit”. After getting into the game, it almost immediately became obvious that this Press Kit gave us a shitload of overpowered weapons, armor, and enough gold to buy literally everything in the store. After a bit of arithmetic, I learned that the review codes we were given equated to about $120 of free shit per player. That meant that we weren’t getting the experience someone playing it for free would get; someone could only get an experience on par with ours if they were willing to shell out enough money to otherwise purchase two full-release console games. I was appalled.
So I created a new account, a free account, and poured no money into the game. The findings were staggering. While my Press character routinely racked up 20+ kills with less than 5 deaths per match, my free character was almost exactly the opposite, averaging 6 kills per match and 17 deaths per match. The difference was overwhelming. I was no longer steamrolling people and earning more points than the rest of my team combined. I was still leading my teams, but the margins were extremely narrow, and it was nowhere near as enjoyable.
For all intents and purposes, we had been bribed.
I am going to be brutally honest in every direction; it’s kinda my thing. So when a developer goes for broke by giving the press a special package of candy valued at more than $100 that drastically alters the gameplay experience, I am going to take that bitter taste left in my mouth from the candy and remove it by forcing myself to get rid of all of it, and to instead play the game as the average player would. And when idiotic consumers pre-ordered Arkham Knight and a Season Pass despite knowing damned well how WB handled Arkham Origins, I’m not going to feel any pity or sympathy for them, and I’m going to say that consumer responsibility must enter into the equation at some point. I am on consumers’ sides, because I am a consumer, but I will gladly choose honesty over loyalty–because sometimes, in order to be truly loyal to people, you have to tell them what they don’t want to hear: what they need to hear. Yes, if you got burned on Arkham Knight and its Season Pass and you had experience with the PC version of Arkham Origins, it is your own fault.
Back to Square-Enix
While I won’t actually mention the anti-consumer shifting of responsibility that Square-Enix has displayed over the Tomb Raider matter in my review of the PC version of Final Fantasy V, that’s partially because it isn’t necessary. Final Fantasy V shows Square-Enix’s disdain for consumers directly; I don’t need to go into long diatribes about Steam and consumer rights. The PC port of Final Fantasy V is INFERIOR to the mobile version. That tells you everything you need to know. Don’t give it a free pass to be a shitty port because “hur hur hur its final fantasy v tho so u cant give it a 3.”
Bullshit. I just gave it a 3. Because the PC port has no reason to exist. And if it absolutely must exist, then gamers deserve more effort than that. So look out, Square-Enix. You have riled Aria DiMezzo, and she’s going to systematically take you to task for it. You better mind your Ps and Qs, because I’m looking for you to fuck up. I won’t fabricate shit, obviously, but I will use every single one of your mistakes against you. I will highlight every mistake, every failing, every screw-up, and I will broadcast them to anyone who will listen. When you slip and fall, I will be there–laughing and pointing. Every time you do something stupid, every time you show your outright contempt for gamers, every time you spit in our faces, I will be there, keeping notes, because you may be a AAA publisher right now, Square-Enix, but things change. Look at Atari. Look at John Romero. Look at Nintendo. Look at Microsoft. You, EA, Ubisoft, and WB are on borrowed time, and the rise of the indie scene is going to overthrow you. Watch your back, Square-Enix, because consumers won’t blind themselves to your behavior forever.