Stardock Admits Mistakes

By Shamus
on Nov 13, 2008
Filed under:
Video Games

A few weeks ago Stardock released their 2008 customer report (PDF) which discusses, among other things, the current state and future plans for their own content delivery platform, Impulse.

Impulse is the first serious rival to Steam. Not in size (at least not yet) but in functionality and intent. It offers many of the advantages of Steam while avoiding many of the annoyances. The PDF I linked above gives a peek at what they have planned. It’s a long read, but it’s not padded with a lot of touchy-feely PR speak. It is a vessel densely packed with information, and time spent reading it will not be squandered.

One of the most intriguing things about the report is that it looks at what went wrong with Impulse at launch, what’s been fixed, and what issues still need to be resolved. It reads like an internal memo, but it’s been sent out to all of us so we can see where the company is going with this. This is something I love about Stardock: The ability to appraise and address shortcomings in public. Compare this to how a company like EA or 2kGames approaches criticism:

  1. Silence.
  2. Denial that the problem exists.
  3. Partial quasi-admission of the problem, along with a promise that a fix is on the way, without saying when it will come or what form it will take.
  4. Release of a slight fix or policy change to address part of the problem, without commenting on their earlier silence or denials and without admitting that any mistakes were made.
  5. A press release trumpeting their superlative commitment to customer service, even when dealing with stupid non-issues like this one that weren’t that big a deal anyway.

This sort of mindless PR is poisonous to customer relations. This Baghdad Bob method of relating to the public is insulting and frustrating for customers because they aren’t really talking to us in those announcements, they are talking to the shareholders.

Ann buys a toaster, which turns out to be broken. She returns it to the store and approaches the customer service desk. The person working the counter (who is played by Will Ferrell) doesn’t make eye contact. He’s wide-eyed and slightly manic, just looking out over Ann’s head as if she wasn’t there.

ANN: Excuse me? I bought this toaster and it doesn’t work.

Will’s eyes look at her nervously. He seems to think if he just keeps smiling she will go away.

ANN: Hello? Sir? I’d like to return this toaster.

Will picks up the phone and holds it up to his ear in a transparent attempt to pretend he’s too busy to talk. The dial tone can clearly be heard.

ANN: (shouting) Hello! I’m returning this broken toaster.

Will hangs up the phone and tips the box to glance inside. When he speaks, he talks in a loud voice so that everyone around can hear.

WILL: THERE MUST BE SOME MISTAKE MA’AM. THIS TOASTER IS JUST FINE. THANK YOU FOR SHOPPING WITH US AND HAVE A NICE DAY!

Ann is flabbergasted.

ANN: No. It’s not fine at all. The dial was missing and it blew a fuse as soon as I plugged it in.

Will smiles. There is a long pause.

ANN: I want to return it.

WILL: YES OF COURSE WE ARE HAPPY TO HELP. HERE YOU GO MA’AM.

He hands her a new toaster.

ANN: But… this is just like the one I’m returning.

WILL: WONDERFUL AND HAVE A NICE DAY.

Other shoppers are peeking over the shelves to see what the fuss is, which only makes Will more frantic to make it look like nothing is wrong.

ANN: I don’t want another broken toaster. I just want my money back.

Will smiles. His desperate expression seems to be begging her to leave.

ANN: (Raises her voice.) I WANT MY MONEY BACK!

He flinches as she raises her voice, although she’s still being quieter than he is.

WILL: I AM SORRY YOU FOUND THE UNIT UNSATISFACTORY. OUR PRODUCTS ARE OF THE HIGHEST QUALITY. PLEASE ACCEPT THIS REPLACEMENT UNIT.

He hands her another toaster. This one is smaller.

ANN: This is worse than the one I bought!

More staring from Will.

ANN: Give me my money back or I will never shop here agai-

Will shouts over her to drown out her voice.

WILL: YES AND THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS MA’AM I’m GLAD WE WERE ABLE TO RESOLVE YOUR PROBLEM.

Ann storms out. Will goes back to staring at the horizon.

They act like this because they have to. They are publicly traded companies, and publicly traded companies are never allowed to make mistakes, ever. Inevitably, this sort of thinking leads to perpetuating problems instead of fixing them, since every change of policy carries with it an implicit admission that what you were doing was wrong. (Otherwise, why did you change?) But this is a flaw with how our investment system works, and applies to a lot more than just videogame publishers. I’m not even qualified to suggest a remedy. I can only point at it and say that a zero-tolerance approach to mistakes is a rotten way to do business. Actually, its a rotten way to do anything.

The other major reason they behave this way is because they can. The major gaming press is often deeply dysfunctional and is usually all too happy to repost a press release under the heading of “news”. The perfect example of this is the BioShock debacle where players complained about SecuROM, online activations, and limited activations. After months of ignoring them, 2kGames resolved one of the three issues by removing the installation cap. Credulous game journalists then told us all about how the DRM had been “removed”. Their inane cheerleading and parroting of the company line was shameful and a disservice to the industry they cover. (I have yet to see a single retraction or correction, either.)

Seeing Stardock engage us directly and speak openly about their shortcomings makes me confident that they’ll actually fix them.

The other thing to note is the tone of the report. This report was written by Stardock President Brad Wardel himself. The guy who runs the company is the one talking to us, telling us his plans, and making promises.

I cannot hope to catalog, much less fix, all of the profound dysfunction in the videogames industry. The best I can do is take note when someone does something right. In many other industries Stardock’s behavior would be common sense, but in the bizzaro world of videogames it makes them some sort of iconoclast.

If you want to read it for yourself: Stardock 2008 Customer Report

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20201Feeling chatty? There are 41 comments.

From the Archives:

  1. Laco says:

    I find it pretty incredible that Brad Wardell is also the lead designer, writer, and AI programmer on the Galciv games. How does one man have the time (or ability) to do even one of those things while running a company?

  2. Kel'Thuzad says:

    Perhaps because he has some intelligence, and wants to make money. I know he’s gotten quite a bit of my money, and I’m quite happy to be giving it.

  3. Factoid says:

    @Laco: It’s a pretty small company, so that helps.

  4. Illiterate says:

    I think Sins is definitely going on my christmas list. Maybe galciv II as well.

  5. Noumenon says:

    Stardock is not in a class by itself. Wizards of the Coast, who make Magic: the Gathering, is another company that openly admits when it has screwed up a design, launch, or rollout. And revealing these weaknesses doesn’t make me think less of them — it makes me like them more.

  6. Apathy Curve says:

    I’m not certain this is “a flaw with how our investment system works” so much as a flaw in how corporate victims of the Peter Principle perceive it to work. That’s called incompetent management, and inevitably results in one of two things: collapse of open stock, or a bail-out and partial socialization, (think auto manufacturers and airlines). There are lots of publicly-traded companies which are well-managed… you just don’t hear about them as much as PR disasters like EA. It’s the train-wreck corollary at work.

  7. Sitte says:

    @Noumenon
    I would actually list WoTC as a company with pretty bad PR. They’ve shown some signs of getting better at it, but the past 2 years have been a ridiculous string of blunders. Too many times they’ve made a change, announced it in some obscure location with a poor explanation, and then apologized when everyone yells at them for not being more vocal about it. Then they do it again a month later.

    I mean, it’s great that they admit when they screw up things, but they’ve shown themselves to be depressingly slow at learning from their mistakes and depressingly good at making new ones.

    However.
    Despite this, I’ve never declared that I’m going to quit because of one of the changes (like many in the forums do). While I’m appalled at how changes are handled, most of them don’t affect me directly. MTGO3 was/is pretty bad, but they finally got around to telling us why it is so bad. It took way too long (once again) but they did. It’s even getting better, slowly.

  8. elias says:

    Honestly I think you’re being too lenient with the zero-tolerance approach to mistakes from EA and other big publishers. I really don’t think being publicly traded forces them into such a stance; they employ PR people who can put a positive spin on virtually anything.

    If they wanted to abandon the denial and silence, they could spin it as an improvement. Then when they do make mistakes, every fix would be another improvement, even if it meant going back to an earlier policy they dropped through an “improvement.” Heck, they already spin things in this manner, they just don’t actually fix problems. So no, I don’t think they have any valid excuses.

  9. Gary says:

    Shamus, you forgot the part where Will Farrel yells at poor Anne claiming that she used stolen bread in the toaster and that is why it stopped working and that use of stolen bread clearly voids the warranty.

    Or in other words claims that somehow she is a criminal to cover the fact that their product is flawed.

  10. Kevin says:

    Heh heh… that Will Farrel always cracks me up…

  11. Loneduck3 says:

    I agree with Shamus. Investment issues play a large role in these bad decisions. A helluva lot of bad business decisions result just from stock options. CEO owns stock in game company. If the stocks go up two points, let’s be frugal, and say he gets two hundred dollars. Stock goes down, he loses money in those options. So if his company admits a mistake, that could cause a drop in stock, meaning a loss of his own money. So if you were already hesitant to admit fault, the potential loss of money almost guarantees you won’t want to admit fault. That assumes you actually were listening to the enraged customers. Ideally, you’d have a clever phone tree, and a forum to soak up these issues. You hear complaints a lot less if you give people a complaint box. But eliminating stock options would be a VERY tough sell to American businesses.
    P.S. I didn’t end up getting Mirror’s Edge. I picked up Okami and Final Fantasy Twelve for 2/3 the cost of Mirror’s Edge. I’d say I came out on top.

  12. Tesh says:

    I have long argued that the “investment society” is the root cause of a lot of bad business and personal decisions. It’s even one of the root causes of the current economic meltdown.

    The game industry is behind the curve when it comes to business acumen and experience. The “ea_spouse” flap pointed out one aspect, and this is another. Change is slow, but it can happen. (Unless, of course, the bailout bill extends to game makers as well. Rewarding failure is a national pastime here in the States.)

    It is good indeed to see someone who is trying to get better, not just find a new herd of customers to milk with as little effort as possible. I can only hope that as the barrier to entry into the field lowers thanks to middleware and tech advances, we’ll see a shift in the direction of a meritocracy and intelligent business practices.

  13. Duoae says:

    Yeah, i’ve read through the DRM section of this report when it first came out and i still didn’t find it entirely to my liking (which is to be expected – they are still a company focused on profit making).

    Requires people to get updates through a specific source (Steam, Impulse, publisher secure website, etc.). This is one of our biggest pet peeves. If a game ships and there’s some bug found that materially affects gameplay, then sure, put out a patch wherever. Publishers have every right to make sure the people downloading updates are legitimate customers.

    The thing is, if a game is released in a buggy state then why should we have to sign up to another service to get this fix to a broken product? I can understand for gameplay updates and content increases… but bug fixes? This leaves the system open to abuse – i.e. releasing broken products on purpose.

    Makes it harder for people to resell programs. (Not saying reselling programs is right or wrong, only that it is not the function of DRM to make it hard or easy to do this, it’s a separate issue.)

    Oh, so again this rears its head. Apparently stardock, while championing customer service, satisfaction and respect, still doesn’t recognise that games are not a service – they are a commodity…. regardless of whether the function of DRM is a separate issue from being able to resell a product that doesn’t automatically excuse this denial of a commodity’s worth.

    If I spend $5 million making a game, someone paying $50 doesn’t “own” it. There has to be some middle ground on serving customers and protecting IP holders. Users who disagree and want to stick with this principle have my respect but we believe a balance needs to be made that is satisfactory to most users and most publishers.

    Of course, that all depends on your definition of ‘owning’ something. In the traditional meaning of the term corresponding to commodities a consumer doesn’t own the base elements of said commodity. We don’t own the right to reproduce or distribute the commodity – nor do we own the IP rights associated with the commodity. Everyone pretty much knows and accepts this… so why is it that the game industry chooses to think that owning a commodity somehow grants the consumer access to use the game engine or patents regarding sound software and art assets etc.?

    If we can resell a DVD or VHS tape we ‘own’ but not owning the rights to the content of the film, the IP etc. then surely the same logic can be applied to games as well?

    Brad may be an intelligent person and though i do like Stardock’s current way of doing things… their views on the situation aren’t really that different from the big companies like EA. Stardock just see that this ‘customer friendly’ course of action will get them more press and more sales while they are still a small and growing company.

  14. Strangeite says:

    I agree with many of the others that I don’t believe that being a publically traded company automatically means you cannot admit fault. However, it is the reason publically traded gaming companies refuse to admit fault. The market has done an awful job at properly valuing gaming companies.

    EA has a market capitalization of 6.3 billion and Activision has a market cap of 6.5 billion. What the institutional investors don’t realize (which make up over 90% of both companies investors) but the companies do realize is that their companies are extremelly shallow. EA has yearly sales of 4.3 billion, but huge production costs. Also, the executives making up the rank and file know very well that a couple of spectacular flops could destroy the company.

    They lie because they are afraid that the institutional investors will figure out they are way overvalued.

  15. Veylon says:

    A big chunk of the problem is that the stock is a commodity. People don’t buy EA stock because they want to own part of EA or participate in the running of the company, they buy the stock with the hope that it will go up a bit so they can sell it later. Thus, such short term thinking. EA no longer owns itself, none of it’s higher ups have a real stake in it’s existence. So it’s badly run because nobody cares about it’s long term survival.

  16. Dev Null says:

    I really would like to like these guys, based on what sounds like a collection of really sensible business practices. The problem is, none of their _games_ grab me at all.

  17. Al Shiney says:

    Huh, you learn something new every day. I had no idea that Will Ferrell was in charge of Microsoft’s Red Ring of Death public relations.

  18. Oleyo says:

    I would modify three like so:

    Partial quasi-admission of the problem, while blaming the customer for the problem, and THEN including a promise that a fix is on the way, without saying when it will come or what form it will take… while sighing and shaking their head dismissively at the customer.

  19. Ben says:

    How did you get Will Ferrell to act in your blog??

  20. LexIcon says:

    How did you get Will Ferrell to act, period? I figured he was incapable of it.

    /internet hate machine

  21. r4byde says:

    Shamus, you have no idea what a refreshing read that was. I hope Stardock’s plans take off and they’re able bring more developers aboard. Impulse could turn into a VASTLY superior rival to Steam.

    So let’s see which software development companies still have my respect, Stardock, CDProjekt, -Becasue of GOG.com more than the Witcher.- and Bethesda; even though they butchered Fallout 3, I’m just glad they didn’t go overboard with the DRM. So that’s only three companies, two if Bethesda doesn’t release a construction set for Fallout soon. We need more indie game developers.

  22. Illiterate says:

    You should turn this into a stolen pixels… We won’t tell the escapist it’s recycled. Honest.

  23. Blurr says:

    The skit you described is so close to one of John Cleese’s skits I just had to link it:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9igQ18GIqvc

    Of course, that’s a joke, not real life. =(

  24. guy says:

    I got emailed it a while ago. Just now read it, and i agree that it reads totally unlike press releases. I didn’t know that stardock is privately owned, but it explains a great deal.

    Also, terror stars look fun. i should use terror stars.

  25. Alexis says:

    @Chuk: you made me laugh out loud. More snorfle than laugh maybe.

  26. RR says:

    Regarding the 2K Bioshock debacle, there were a couple of other aspects to it that really bothered me.

    – As you’ve stated before, their community manager is a clueless mouthpiece. She was wrong about no SecuROM in the demo, wrong about what would be included in the Collector’s Edition in North America, failed to tell people waiting on a PC demo that one would not be coming at the same time as the 360 demo (people overseas had stayed up late hoping for a PC demo, only to have wasted their time), put a massive spin on the reason why the “true” soundtrack was eventually released for free, and lied about the status of the replacement figurines as a stalling tactic. And it was funny how she made a post once saying “if you have a problem, you can yell at me and I won’t mind”, yet if you did just that you could find yourself banned.

    – Fanboys defending her and 2K. It was unbelievable. Aside from having to worry about being banned for being critical of 2K (I had legitimate complaints and was trying to be constructive, but people who complained had a nasty habit of suddenly disappearing), there were plenty of fanboys who would butt-in and often curse out anyone who had a complaint. Yet, somehow, these people were allowed to remain forum members. Funny how on the internet people are willing to butt-in like that, yet if a you were a customer in a store with a complaint: you would never see any idiot come up to the customer service desk and defend the store against your complaint.

    It disgusts me how video game publishers have been able to get away with lying to and abusing their customers during the last few years. But the problem is, not enough people speak up and make their displeasure known. Meanwhile, there are always enough people who bend over and take it. As long as that continues, not much will change.

  27. fefe says:

    Your description of “Ann buys a toaster” reminded me of this skit from “how to irritate people” with John Cleese. Insincerity is not a new concept!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9igQ18GIqvc

  28. J SMith says:

    I too apprechiate that Stardock is open about its policies. What I don’t apprechiate is being told thats its games are DRM free, only to find that to patch them I need to install Impulse, have an Internet connection @ home and then ‘authorise’ the patch. These things are hidden from retail CD customers (If you buy via Impulse then you know what you are getting into). The Stardock CEO has made clear on his forums (Don’t have a link handly) that they will happily sell you the retail CD but if you don’t have Internet access on your gaming machine than they don’t give a toss about you or want to talk to you as they already have your money! :(

  29. William says:

    The game is DRM free. Patches, however, are not.

    Personally i’m fine with this, i expect to get a game for my money, and only a game. If i want more than just the release game then i have no problem with the company wanting to know that i did actually purchase their product.

  30. William says:

    You get the GAME DRM free. It’s exactly what it says on the tin, and nothing more.

    Look at it this way, if i call up Foxtel for some maintainence or something on my Foxtel box or whatever, is it really so much for them to find out if i actually have bought a Foxtel service with them and aren’t just hijacking the connection from my neighbor?

  31. J SMith says:

    Foxtel don’t insist that you have to have an expensive external pathway and customer number and permission to get maintainence. If they did they would have clearly stated it on the box, rather then springing it on you when you have a bug that needs fixing, while claiming to still listern to the customer and be DRM free.

    I don’t mind providing Stardock with a serial on a website logon to prove purchase, I do mind having patches artificially limited without prior warning and ones that require ‘activation’.

    What is Foxtel anyway?

  32. For the record, I just want it to be known Purple Library Guy called the Monty Python allegory first and I love ‘im for it!

    Anyway, there’s something to be said not just of investors, but also of your target audience. EA and Activision are clearly targeting the ‘mainstream’ gamers. If you want to know what that means, it means they are focusing on the demographics that encompass the largest consumer base they can get their hands on. Aside from the obvious reason for doing this, a large consumer base means by law of lowest common denominator 1) they aint gonna be all that bright, attentive, or assertive and 2) they WILL notice a PUBLIC admittion of guilt, but most likely ignore a denial.

    I imagine that’s why Shamus is so frustrated on the issue. He’s the guy in the 1400s (or whenever) shouting at everyone that the world is ROUND. So what if he’s right, the people that EA and Activision target as consumers, simply don’t care. Most don’t know, but the core issue is they don’t CARE enough to find out. Shamus’ (and everyone else who rails (sp?) against DRM are arguing largely on the ethical issue of the matter, which is clearly ineffective. That core base doesn’t care about the morality of the matter. That core base doesn’t pirate, cause they don’t know (read: care) enough about the methods in order to do so. Any one of them that finds out how will then do so with impunity. This I do not doubt.

    Stardock, by contrast, is catering to a small, intelligent demographic that very clearly cares about the issue. Of COURSE their going to do ‘the right thing’. It’s what THEIR target audience is asking for.

    I guess what it all boils down to is asking Shamus this question:

    What do YOU think would happen if EA released a document like this to the gaming public?

    Mind, you, I’m not asking what you think SHOULD happen, but considering all the variables you are aware of concerning business, consumer reaction (INCLUDING the casual gamers), etc.– What would be the outcome?

    Then ask yourself if a company like EA or Activision would prosper from such an act.

  33. Sitte says:

    Also: What Dev Null (@17) said.

  34. Galenor says:

    I’d just like to go ahead and add a sixth point to EA’s approach to critisism:

    “It’s not us. It’s them.”

    Oh, hello, Mr Irate Customer. It seems you’ve bought our EA-related product. You know, i’d just like to go out-of-the-way and say what an excellent choice you ma-what’s that? It’s not working? Something must be wrong. Hm? Something’s wrong with OUR game? No, no, you have it quite mistaken; it can’t be our game. In fact, no matter how much you TRY to say it’s us, we have these fantastic things called ‘hoops’ which you have to jump through in order to get your word in. Hope you were good in sports at school!

    So, uninstall the game. Now, reinstall it. No, not that way, the ‘other’ install. You know, the other one? Okay, it’s still not working. Run DXDIAG please, and sent the report. Okay, got the report here…looking good, there, i must admit! Very good system specs. You should be able to run it on your system, so i have no clue why you’re contacting us.

    An error? Oh yes, now i remember. Ahem. Oh, see, this is why we can’t get along, you’re blaming US for the error. ‘Patch up’ this and ‘sort out’ that; it’s clearly something we can fix by tinkering with the Registry. Or maybe the D Drive. New computer? Maybe your bodily energies are corrupting the CD. Perhaps wrap yourself in tinfoil. Or lead, for more effect. What do you mean ‘how do i wrap myself in lead’? That’s a stupid question.

    Besides, that’s a third party metal, and we don’t support that.

    What’s that? You’re not contacting us again? Okay then, goodbye…now, let’s see, if we look on this chart here, it says “If the user does not continue contact, assume that their queries have been resolved”. Awesome! Time for a youtube break!

  35. Tesh says:

    Aaaaand on the flipside, we have Take Two joining the greedy zombie patrol:

    Take Two wants your subscription

  36. Hey Shamus, I’m sure you’re busy with other things, but I wasn’t sure if you knew: When using the “Chaotic Evil” and the “True Neutral” themes, your category images don’t work.

    Hope the wrists feel better!

  37. guy says:

    @J Smith

    The required activation codes come with the game, i’m fairly sure. And if you don’t have internet, you have NO RIGHT to expect them to provide internet based patches. Also, Impulse is free.

  38. Tola says:

    Perhaps.

    It’s still a massive hassle to do it if you’re not hooked up on your own PC. Yes, such a thing can happen. And Impulse(and other such things) is….not really an option if you’re on dial-up. Having your computer tied up for hours on end is not anyone’s idea of fun. Hence the wish for some way to get the wretched things without such issues.

    And just think-Dark Avatar and Twilight do not HAVE actual CDs. Unless you get Impulse, there’s no way to get those expansions-they’ve stated they have no plans to release them in stores or anything.

    I know, I know, the world’s supposed to be on Broadband now. Well, it’s not. And until it is, is it too much to ask that we have a good way of getting hold of these things?

  39. Dreadjaws says:

    I’m coming from the future with bad news. Impulse was bought by Gamestop and then discontinued. Oh, how different things looked back then.

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