Gearbox Publishing recently announced that it would sever its relationship with game key marketplace G2A. The decision came after a revolt by fans, urged on in no small part by celebrity YouTuber John “TotalBiscuit” Bain. It was only after meeting with Bain that Gearbox issued the ultimatums that eventually led to the breakup — a divorce which, judging from the silence on the matter from both parties, is still ongoing.
But Bain and Gearbox seem to concede the point that G2A has the right to provide a marketplace for reselling game keys. Instead, their list of ultimatums began with a demand about the G2A Shield product, a subscription-based add-on product that the company has been selling for some time.
Within 30 days, G2A Shield (aka, customer fraud protection) is made free instead of a separate paid subscription service within terms offered by other major marketplaces. All customers who spend money deserve fraud protection from a storefront.
So what is G2A Shield? How is it sold? And why are Bain, Gearbox and others in the industry so worked up about it?
G2A Shield is both a one-time upsell and a subscription service that is, by default, added to every purchase made through the G2A marketplace. Customers must uncheck a box to avoid purchasing it. Even game keys purchased from G2A Direct members — that is, from developers and publishers directly — have G2A Shield added on by default.
So what is it? At its core, it’s enhanced customer support. G2A Shield promises dedicated 24/7 online chat with G2A staff and “one-contact resolution.” That means that if you buy a game key and it doesn’t work, you don’t have to go through the reseller — who is typically anonymous — you’ve purchased the game key from to get a resolution. Instead, you can go through G2A directly.
But G2A Shield is as much a product as it is an ecosystem. The landing page promises free transfers of G2A’s exclusive digital currency, cash back bonuses, priority delivery of pre-orders and a price match guarantee. If you’re really invested in G2A as a platform, it seems like the way to go.
A one-time purchase of G2A Shield, protecting a single transaction, can be added for as little as €3 while a membership will run you €1 per month.
But why do you need G2A Shield in the first place? Shouldn’t G2A guarantee the purchases you make through its marketplace anyway? That’s something that Amazon and eBay do, to a greater or lesser extent, for free.
It’s a question we put to G2A’s CEO Bartosz Skwarczek during our interview last year. Here’s an expanded portion of that conversation:
“If I buy a key right now on G2A,” I asked Skwarczek, “and I do not purchase G2A Shield, and that key does not work, will G2A give me my money back?”
“It is not a question of whether G2A is going to give you your money back,” Skwarczek said. “It’s a question about how it works. If you bought a key and the key is not working — we don’t know how — what you do is go to our resolution center. And the resolution center, like on every marketplace, is helping to communicate you and the seller. The seller is selling keys, and you as a customer are buying keys. We’re helping you in this process between you and the seller. That’s it. This is how it works all over the world.”
“So if I do not buy G2A Shield,” I asked again, “and the game code I’ve purchased on your marketplace does not work, will G2A give me my money back?”
“Why would or should G2A give you your money back?” he asked. “I’m saying it always depends on the case. Sometimes a customer buys a product and just uses it, and after that comes back to the marketplace saying, guys, the product isn’t working. And the truth is the product was working perfectly, but the customer doesn’t want to play it anymore.”
It is always necessary to track down the issue with a non-working code, Skwarczek stressed, and determine the reason why it’s not functioning. With Shield, however, there are no more or less guarantees that a buyer will get satisfaction after buying a defective product. It’s just a matter of how convenient that process is, and how many hoops a buyer has to jump through to get the matter resolved.
“We have to be fair between sellers and buyers,” Skwarczek said last year. “Sometimes, rarely, something happens, and then we’re helping both sides, customers and sellers, okay? So it always depends on the case, when customers can receive his money back, when he has rights to do it, to receive it, and when the money right is for the seller, because the seller is right and the customer is trying to do a fraud. That’s the answer for your question.”
To John “TotalBiscuit” Bain, the mere existence of G2A shield is enough to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the entire company.
“I think on a very basic level, G2A Shield is pretty much an admission of guilt,” said Bain in an interview with Polygon earlier this month. “To require such a program and even to charge for it on a site, a marketplace that sells keys, is an admission that there is obviously a serious enough risk — of acquiring a key that may be deactivated because it was fraudulently put on the marketplace in the first place — that they need to have this program.”
But the real trouble is that, as mentioned above, G2A Shield is both a one-time purchase and a membership. Once you’re a member, it’s very challenging to turn that membership off.
“They have decided to lock people into monthly subscriptions that are incredibly hard to get out of,” Bain said. “There’s a lot of bait and switch, of trying to fool the person into not unsubscribing, even pulling on the heartstrings with cute little mascots which some companies do mostly as a joke after the unsubscription, not before. That’s extremely manipulative, comically so, I think.”
Bain isn’t exaggerating.
Say that you accidentally sign up for G2A Shield and want to quickly unsubscribe. It’s simply not possible. The terms and conditions that you’ve agreed to state that you must wait until the last two days of the first billing period to do so. When exactly that is is anyone’s guess.
Once G2A does allow you to attempt to unsubscribe, the automated process requires an email address verification, a credit card number verification and a firm 20-minute waiting period while the final email containing a unique, time-sensitive unsubscribe link is sent out.
Only after all of these steps are completed correctly are users able to get out of their contract with G2A.
Bain said that these types of misdirections are called “dark patterns,” a term coined by user experience expert Harry Brignull. We showed that unsubscribe process to Brignull, who is currently consulting for Spotify. He said it was one of the most brazen schemes of its kind that he’s ever seen.
“If you read my work and then took the worst possible perspective on it, then you’d end up with a design like this,” Brignull told Polygon. “It’s a kind of manipulation that he’s seen for years, most frequently in the discount travel space with budget carriers like Ryanair.
“The amount of money that they’re talking about [when using dark patterns like this] is usually just enough for you to go, ‘Screw it. It’s not worth my time,” Brignull said. “Ten dollars here or there, is that worth keeping this thing on my calendar and keeping track of it? If it was a huge amount of money, there would be a much bigger fuss over it and everyone would make sure that they canceled on time.”
Brignull’s website, called DarkPatterns.org, catalogues more than a dozen of these kinds of methods of confusing, befuddling, demeaning and otherwise exhausting methods of getting consumers’ money. He says that it’s all about “conversion rate optimization,” or the process of turning someone merely browsing a website into a paying customer as seamlessly as possible.
Where companies like Amazon have used the study of CRO to come up with things like one-click purchasing, Brignull said that companies like G2A have turned it into a dark art, making the process of opting out of their services as difficult as possible.
“Generally they target a small percentage of people, out of a large population, and a small amount of money at that so that it just gets swept under the carpet and people go, ‘You know what? Ten dollars or whatever, just let it go. I’ll be smarter next time.’”
On April 10, G2A responded to Gearbox and Bain’s ultimatums with a four-page statement. They essentially said that they could not or would not make any of the changes requested, including the demand that G2A Shield be converted into a free service.
G2A’s statement was confusing, however. It was an instance of the company lashing out at its critics, while at the same time talking past them and reaffirming long-standing company policies.
“We respect our critics and believe that they have the good of the industry at heart,” the statement concluded. “Unfortunately, sometimes they do not understand how G2A.COM works and as such this misunderstanding causes them to mislead the public about our company. The best proof of this are the four ultimatums formulated in part by John Bain, which, it turns out that were completely unnecessary as all of the issues raised have long been a part of the G2A.COM marketplace.”
The statement went on to call the accusations made by Gearbox and Bain “defamatory.”
The topic of G2A Shield came up again just this morning, when a group of indie devs showed up to heckle a G2A employee at an international conference in Croatia.
Marius Mirek said that he acknowledged that the G2A Shield program wasn’t “perfect” and stated that his organization would look into reworking the system. Changes were on the way, he said, in 2018.
The developers on hand weren’t buying it.
“Just to be clear,” asked one, “you’re saying that within G2A, you weren’t aware that you’d made this cancellation process so arcanely difficult? Because you keep on saying that it’s not perfect, but I think what the original questioner was implying was that it is the opposite of perfect, and perhaps consciously opposite of perfect.”
“We’re gonna change it,” Mirek replied.
It’s a statement reinforced to Polygon in an email from G2A’s head of public relations, Maciej Kuc, earlier this month.
“We are working on improvements regarding G2A Shield and the deactivation process has since been made significantly more user friendly,” he wrote in an email. “G2A always prioritizes the user experience of our customers. Please follow our website to check for new features, as they will come soon.”