Consumerst + Stardock = Brad Wardell Headache?

I often read the Consumerist, a consumer rights website recently purchased by Consumer Reports. It looks like Stardock made the headlines by selling Warlord’s Battlecry 3 in a ‘pirated’ state:

I'm hoping this story has enough of a "man bites dog" flavor to actually be worth publishing. The summary is that Stardock, a company famous for opposing invasive copy protection, is selling a game which will not work because of copy-protection, and refuses to fix the problem. A little background follows (please excuse the length).

The game company Stardock is well-known in gaming circles for having a relatively sane stance on DRM, and in fact they were the subject of a Consumerist story back in '06 for releasing a DRM-free game and clashing with DRM developer Starforce.

In the time since that story was released, Stardock has gone on to develop Impulse, a direct downloading platform which competes with Steam but is somewhat more consumer-friendly than it, and their CEO Brad Wardell published an article proposing a "gamer's bill of rights," which are generally pro-consumer rules that I think most PC gamers would agree with.

One of the games currently listed on sale on Impulse is Warlords Battlecry III (WBC3), a hybrid RPG/RTS game which was released in 2004 and has something of a cult following. Having been a fan of the game when it was released, and seeing it for sale for $9.99, I bought it and played it for a while.

It was shortly apparent that something was wrong with the game. In some parts of the game the player finds random items; in my game every item was a "ring of elven greed". When I set my scout units to automatically explore the map, they would head directly for a corner and stop moving there. Every time I tried to cast a spell, it would fail.

Finally I tried Googling "ring of elven greed," and found this forum thread on Impulse / Stardock's own site (as a note, I am the user "thither" on that thread). As it turns out, the version of WBC3 which was given to Impulse by its American publisher, Enlight, has a copy-protection scheme in place. When this scheme is activated the random number generator is messed up, and every random item generated is a "Ring of Elven Greed". This is presumably in place to prevent the game from being torrented and so on.

There is an unofficial patch which exists to fix this problem, but Stardock will not apply it to the version of the game they sell. The result is that nobody who has bought this game from Stardock will actually be able to play the game. I feel that it's wrong to sell a broken game for money and then refuse to fix the problem — if I've payed money I should be able to play the game I paid for without applying some dodgy patch from a random fan site.

Purely looking at the Impulse forums, there are at least three Stardock employees who are aware of this situation - two of them comment in the thread I linked above, and one commented in another thread about the issue. Stardock CEO Brad Wardell has a pretty visible online presence, as well, and I was able to find his address with very little work; I shot him an email about two weeks ago asking that he look into the issue. I have not yet heard back and at this point don't expect to (in fairness, Impulse just launched a pretty big game with a lot of technical problems over the last two weeks, so I'm sure he's been busy).

This email is a little long already, so I'll leave it there; if you read the first forum thread above you'll get most of the basics. Most people who bought this game are understandably rather angry.

I know Brad is often here so hopefully he will see this and address it. A lousy time for the forums at Consumerist to be going through maintenance as nobody can comment there at the moment.

Whaaaaat? So the game is automatically broken when you download it?

I can understand if Brad says he can’t go back and edit someone else’s game with their own patch, but why is he still selling it now?

Prettyy stupid of Enlight to give them a copy protected copy and not tell them. I’d just withhold Enlight’s fees until they covered all the returns this is going to generate. Also it lets Brad know that next time, his contract needs to stipulate stuff like this (if his contracts don’t already…in that case Enlight is in breach of contract and can be sued like anyone else).

I had heard about this a long time ago. I avoided purchasing WBC3 on Impulse because of it. It’s a bit disconcerting to hear that it’s still an issue.

There is an unofficial patch which exists to fix this problem, but Stardock will not apply it to the version of the game they sell.

Well to be fair, it’s not really reasonable to expect a publisher to include a third-party patch in the software.

Weird, I bought this on sale and heard nothing about it in the Bargain Thread. Haven’t even tried it yet. Is there a time limit on returns? Because I’d be inclined to just wait it out, or pirate it and apply the patch myself if I have to.

True, but it would seem that it is fair to expect the publisher to only sell a working, non-crippled version of the game. What is being alleged here is that somehow the version on Impulse requires some sort of DRM that isn’t included, and hence the game as sold is useless. My guess is some sort of communications screw up somewhere.

That email touches upon some interesting issues that the writer, as a consumer, is likely not aware of. Primarily, as others here have noted, the existence of an “unofficial” patch doesn’t give Stardock the right or the ability to distribute it via Impulse. Stardock is contractually obligated to the makers of Battlecry 3 to release their product as they provide it and is perhaps furthermore bound by some pretty messed up laws that prevent tampering in an effort to overcome DRM. Jumping up and down and writing mean-spirited emails to Enlight or Infinite Interactive won’t change that fact one bit. Someone dropped the ball on their side, but Stardock is legally forbidden to pick it up and run with it.

In short, it’s neither Brad’s nor Stardock’s fault that the game is broken, nor is it their fault they can’t directly give the unofficial fix via the Impulse download system. You know, the ones that helpful users LINKED TO ON THE FIRST PAGE IN THE REFERENCED THREAD. AHEM. (important note: not save-game compatible with previous versions)

That said, it’s in his company’s best interests that everything works perfectly, and refunds were offered long before this email ever hit the Consumerist (blogs doing research FTW!!1!). I would also assume it’s the responsibility of Stardock to pull an unworkable product from their product line if the contract allows that, which it may very well not until a predetermined time has expired.

Odd question - does the game work for ANYONE straight out of the proverbial box from Impulse? If so, I wonder what the compatibility issue really is for the users having the problems (not saying they aren’t real, just thinking it may really be something other than the DRM bogeyman).

Agree with all of the above, but I think it’s worth pointing out that Stardock does have the option of taking the game off Impulse. They may not be able to tamper with it, but they can tell the makers (or whomever owns the rights to the game currently) that Impulse will not distribute a non-functioning version of the game.

It does make me wonder if there’s something in their contract with Enlight that prevents Stardock from just unilaterally pulling it from the store without some kind of penalty, and they’ve decided that the support costs of dealing with the problem don’t outweigh that penalty.

I disagree; from an Impulse customer’s point of view, it certainly is Stardock’s fault if they’re selling a game that does not work out of the box. It may not be their “fault” in the sense of “they broke it”, but it absolutely is their “fault” in the sense of “If it doesn’t work, then don’t fucking sell it.”

If there is a contract penalty and they’re forced to sell the title, you’d have to ask why they would put it on sale to attract attention to a broken game, assuming they knew about it at the time.

I entirely agree. I guarantee there’s no contract provision that requires Stardock to sell a broken product.

Have you reacted this way every time Gamestop, EB, and Best Buy have sold games that don’t work out of the box?

Back up. I’ve yet to buy a game from a retailer that knew the game they sold me was categorically broken for every single person. They have distribution recalls for that kind of thing.

Back when I managed at Target, we would get the order to pull stuff off the shelves when it was known to be a CS issue.

Huh? Of course I (and most other people) would throw a fit if Gamestop, EB, or Best Buy sold me a game that didn’t work at all.

What point are you trying to make, exactly?

We’re not talking about random hardware incompatibilities, though. If the game in question was broken in such a way that it didn’t work for anyone, then yeah–I would expect Gamestop to pull it from the shelves.

On the one hand, Stardock shouldn’t knowingly sell broken product. On the other, they do have a pretty good logo.

If the game works for no one the retailer damn well better take it back. I bought my copy of WBC III from GoG, I sure hope Enlight didn’t give GoG this copy!!!

Well, you’d be disappointed.