I was their ideal customer. I bought more games than I could play, partly to support them, partly to support developers releasing DRM-free games. On GOG I have 532 games on my account. I think about 130 are ones I haven't downloaded and played yet. I always promoted GOG on social media. I linked to their sales. I recommended games, sometimes reviewing them on my site. I regularly wrote about DRM and pushed people to buy from GOG. When I commented on gaming sites, it was often to provide links to the game on GOG, when the site had only linked to Steam. I'd been with GOG since it started: my first purchases were Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and 3 in 2009, c. 12 years ago. My point is that I was more than a customer, I was a kind of super-fan, a supporter. Even if they'd been paying me they couldn't have had more support.
I'd been slightly concerned at a few changes, such as a weakening of their DRM stance by selling games that apparently have dubious online connections (and I regretted buying No Man's Sky, which didn't have an offline version or even an offline toggle, so the only way I could stop it contacting servers was to block it in my firewall). I decided I would just have to be a bit more careful about what games I bought. I was also concerned about them pushing GOG Galaxy so much – I don't mind clients for anyone who wants them (even if they inevitably drain development time from other parts of a company), but there isn't a single feature that clients offer which I have the faintest interest in. In fact, they just offer problems. E.g. I have an old laptop I use for writing, which has no Internet connection (partly to avoid distractions while working, partly because it is an old and insecure OS – which is fine when it has no way of connecting online because it has no network card). But suppose I wanted to load HoMM2 on that laptop for the occasional game while I am travelling? Even though the game was written for that OS, a client like Steam or Galaxy makes it impossible to install the game, because they have both OS requirements (ruling out older systems, or – in GOG's case – Linux), but also they require an online connection. That's a form of DRM, because if the connection is removed at the other end (or broken), for whatever reason, you can no longer install the game you paid for. Only an offline installable file provides a DRM-free solution. With GOG at least I could download HoMM2 onto a USB stick and play it on my old laptop. I'm digressing a bit, but just want to show that I was a bit concerned about where GOG was heading, but my loyalty was unshaken.
I thought GOG was a good company. That it was trustworthy and honest. An underdog. That it wouldn't act like the big companies I distrusted. That it would keep promises, and not be afraid to do the right thing.
One of my favourite genres is horror. I'd been looking forward to Devotion because of the good reviews, so when I saw Red Candle's announcement that it would be coming to GOG on Dec 18th (2020) I was really excited. I'd only just finished playing Frictional's Amnesia: Rebirth (bought on GOG, of course). I popped the game on my wishlist. Then GOG made this announcement:
Earlier today, it was announced that the game Devotion is coming to GOG. After receiving many messages from gamers, we have decided not to list the game in our store.
— GOG.COM (@GOGcom) December 16,2020
That was immediately off, and raised way more questions than it answered. Gamers? All I'd seen was comments from gamers excited to play Devotion. Had GOG really received a huge number of messages asking them to cancel it? How many messages did that require, to cancel a game? What if they received messages asking them to release it, did they keep a tally? If they base release decisions on messages, if they got more messages asking them to release the game then presumably they'd have to do so? How did they confirm these messages were from gamers? Did they only count messages from people with confirmed GOG accounts? How were they getting these messages? Secret DMs? How were they distinguishing from bots? It's so obviously fishy. If this was a genuine reason then GOG would be willing to discuss it; if it was a disingenuous statement to cover up something else, then they would not. And it is the latter that has been the case. By making an ambiguous and far-fetched statement, they knew it would not hold up to analysis. This seemed to be a huge change in policy for GOG, that now decisions to release a game or not could be determined by messages (via an undeclared channel, and undeclared amounts of messages, and non-specified how they were confirmed for authenticity as individual GOG customers). But no explanation of the change occurred.
It's pretty obvious that what really happened is that perhaps GOG was threatened with being blocked in China if they released the game. Whether the threat came from the Chinese government, or was a veiled one from anonymous messages, only GOG knows. There may be other elements involved. They were probably also told that if they revealed any of this, they would also be blocked. Someone (or someones) high up in GOG made the decision to go along with it, and cancel the game. They also decided not to tell the truth about their reasons, so put up a disingenuous announcement. They knew that questions would be asked, since it is so obviously fishy, so they also stated that they would not respond to any questions about it, and made sure all their staff who deal with the public (support, social media etc) were told not to comment or respond to any mention of Devotion, and to hope it all just went away.
The point is (if this supposition is even partway correct – which GOG refuse to comment on, so it's all we have): as every person and company does, they'd been presented with a choice. On the one hand was sticking to your principles, behaving ethically, being honest, but accepting that you would probably make less profit. So they could have gone ahead and released the game (which, just to be clear, is not illegal, and the current version hasn't got the secret Easter Egg/joke that upset some people). They could have also made a statement about the covert pressure they were under not to release it: which would help to reveal the behind-the-scenes attempt to censor something in countries where there is nothing to censor. The end result might well be being blocked from China, but that would mean LESS potential money, not NO money. A business in the rest of the world can still make huge profit. But, instead, GOG chose to bow down to the covert threat. They cancelled the game's release. They kept the real reasons secret. They made a disingenuous statement which is mildly insulting to their supporters. And they kept silent about the issue after that.
I tried asking GOG about this. I raised it in their forum. Before long, they threatened to close my account if I "broke community guidelines" again (presumably removing access to all the games I've bought, without any form of refund or compensation). No doubt they sent the same threat to others, to try and stop people asking questions. I asked on social media. They blocked me on Twitter. Even if I wanted to, there's no way I could share links to their games or sales on that platform any more. I emailed their support, asking about this. They sent a confusing email, but it seemed that they had already marked it as solved without answering, and when I queries that, there was silence. I tried again a few weeks later and the same thing happened.
In itself, that behaviour – burying their head in the sand and ignoring customers – is irritating. But it also exposes a definite lie. Their website has a specific promise under their "Customer-first approach" (I suspect they will remove this in the near future):
"Direct contact with GOG Team. Have a question, need help or you just want to talk about great PC games? Reach out on GOG forums, tweet at us or drop us a message on Facebook, and we'll get back to you."
They portray themselves as helpful and friendly, but they go further: they state that they'll respond via those channels. And that is a lie, because they have ignored thousands of messages in all those places. They have responded to other comments, unrelated to Devotion; but on that topic, dead silence. The staff clearly have orders not to respond, whatever their personal feelings, whatever the truth, whatever the policy on the website says. That makes a lie of the GOG statement, a lie to all their customers. The implication of friendliness and trustworthiness is actually no different from the false promise from any big company that puts increased profits before ethics. And the sadness is that the decision is probably made by people higher up in the company who never have to deal with the public, who don't follow the threads and what is said, who don't bother with comments from customers, who aren't even directly reachable. Everything is filtered through support staff, and once they have been told to ignore something, it disappears under the carpet forever.
That is not treating customers with respect. It's a lousy attitude. It's disappointing when people have developed loyalty, because they had believed they knew what the company stood for, and that it was something good.
And this is why I am so bothered by it. I didn't see myself solely as a customer in a financial transaction. I saw myself as involved with one of the good guys, with a movement. To see it play out like this has been rather depressing. From a company like Steam, Epic, EA, Ubisoft, Activision, Blizzard or whatever, I would not have been surprised. To see it from GOG is kind of heart-breaking.
Every single day I hoped GOG would see sense. There was a way back. They could apologise to their customers. They could release the game. They could tell the truth. They could stick to their principles. Every day when we get up we have similar choices in our lives as individuals: to be better people, or worse people. To go for the job that pays more, working for a company we know is bad, or to go for the lower-paid job with an ethical organisation. To stick to our principles, whatever they are (fidelity, honesty, faithfulness etc) or to sidestep them for some material benefit or pleasure. Yes, being less ethical may well provide material rewards, but don't expect to be respected for making that choice. And there is probably very little self respect either. And yet, the beauty of life, is that no matter how bad you have been, you can still at any point choose to turn things around. The past has momentum, but just as it took time to create it, you can slow it and change it.
But GOG hasn't changed. So far, anyway. The disingenuousness, the withholding of pertinent information, the ignoring of their customers (against their own stated policy), the resort to threats and blocks rather than answering: it keeps doubling down on the lowest common denominator of corporate behaviour. I am so sad to see this happen to a company I respected. I'm sure there are many within GOG who feel the same way, but can't do anything about it because the decisions are made above them, and they have strict orders on what to do. I've worked for companies that exert that level of control and threat over employees livelihoods (often the same ones that then favour Non-disclosure Agreements to silence people even after they have left the company, to keep the truth hidden).
Even though I'd bought games in the past on GOG and not liked them, or they hadn't worked, I had never refunded anything. After this Devotion situation occurred and GOG just ignored requests for the truth, I did refund my last order for a number of games. Then sales came up, when I always bought more than I needed: I didn't buy anything. It's been three months now, and not only have I not bought anything on GOG when I would have spent a significant amount of money in the past, but I deleted my wishlist and stopped going to the site, stopped visiting the forums daily, stopped following them on social media (well, them blocking me also added to that). I've stopped promoting them and their games. In fact, in conversations about games, this is the topic that keeps coming up. Does one person have much effect? Well, it might be possible to calculate that maybe so far they'd have made £100+ from me in the last few months, and people I introduced to GOG might have doubled or tripled that. Over a couple of years that could well be an impact of a few thousand pounds, just from one super fan. I know I am not the only one disillusioned by this. Obviously GOG decided a few thousand from a few hundred customers isn't enough to compare to access to the Chinese market, and they may well be right (though it is daft to think it has NO impact – over a decade, where people discourage friends from buying games there, rather than encouraging, the figures may be higher. Who knows.). They also decided that the effects of treating customers like this, and the way it affects their reputation, are outweighed by potential increased profit. Again, they may be right, though in business there is an increased focus on the importance of reputation, super-loyal customers, your perceived honesty and so on. Those can have unmeasurable but real effects over time. Only time will tell. I think the saddest thins for me is that it probably was some financial weighing up made by senior staff: the point being, they were weighing up profit, and not applying much importance to non-financial considerations like reputation, ethics, fairness, customer opinion. All the things companies like to say are important to them can be thrown under the bus immediately when they see a chance at making more profit for the execs and shareholders. That reveals what a thin veneer the ethics often are over the core business, and how successfully people are manipulated into believing in the ethics.
Again, I'm sure there are good staff at GOG, who believe in the original mission. I'm sure many are frustrated. Many will be sick of this topic, and also hate the silence enforced on them. Hey have bills to pay and can't risk their jobs. So the senior staff get their way. They decide it's time to get rid of their long-term supporters, because maybe there is more profit nowadays in adapting to be more like Steam. After all, if they stick to some principle like DRM-free, they reduce the number of games they can sell; and, since they get a cut of each game sold, they are choosing lower profit and ethics over increased profit. With the decision about Devotion, it's fairly clear, reading between the lines, that they decided to actually go for the option that makes more money, and to sideline honesty or customer-focus. Maybe it's an experiment, to see how it goes, before making more radical changes that could boost profit even further. They know that if they are going to change so much, they'll lose the "old guard" anyway, the ones with them from the start, the ones evangelical about DRM and ethics and customer-focus. So maybe it's not a loss to them after all, just part of an inevitable emulation of the big game companies that make huge profits without worrying about ethics. So what if games on Steam require multiple accounts and forms of DRM and big publishers put in huge prices and push DLC and loot boxes … as long as they make increased profits, that's the thing.
I return to my point earlier: every person and company is presented with a choice. On the one hand is sticking to your principles, behaving ethically, being honest, but accepting that you will make less profit or have fewer material gains. Or you can go the opposite route. As a person who has always favoured ethics over my own convenience, preference or income (e.g. Choosing librarian/educator over advertising unethical products; never owning a car and not flying; choosing not to have children; avoiding games I would have otherwise enjoyed because I won't support DRM; adopting a vegan lifestyle favouring local and seasonal produce; shopping in small independent stores rather than supermarkets, to name a few) it is second nature to me to make my primary effort that of living by my beliefs, and telling the truth, and keeping my promises. I try to surround myself with similar people. In this case my disappointment is because I made a mistake in one of my choices.
I apologise that this is a long review. I feel like there is a lot I wanted to get off my chest. Maybe it's not even all bad. Since this occurred I've started buying games on Itch, and enjoyed many that aren't available elsewhere. I've also been spending a LOT less money on games. That's been a bit weird for me, as someone who started playing games in the 1980s on my Atari 2600, moving on to a C64, then Amigas, then PC, but who has never stopped playing games. They've always been my main hobby, sometimes to the point of obsession. I spent years playing Dungeon Master and Blood Money and Hired Guns almost exclusively back in my Amiga days. Before that I was obsessed with Ghosts N Goblins, Antiriad, Skool Daze and Alleykat on my C64. I've only just finished a 12 month campaign of the massive UFO mod, X-Pirates, and started another co-op playthrough of all the HoMM3 missions with my nephew. But I don't need to keep pumping money into GOG. Maybe they did me a favour by alienating me, and making me question where I spent some of my leisure money. I suppose it is like splitting up with someone, it can be a shock at first, but sometimes you realise maybe it's for the best.
[PS Apologies for any typos, this has been one long brain splurge.]
As a purely customer support issue (and regardless of disingenuous comments and poor decisions): ignoring customers, or threatening and blocking them, is poor customer service. I'd never recommend supporting a company that behaved in that way.