Last week’s introduction of a concrete refund policy on Steam was a clear win for consumers. Valve used to only issue refunds for Steam purchases in extreme situations, but now there’s a general policy that offers a money-back guarantee for any game purchased in the last 14 days and played for less than two hours (Valve will also “take a look” at refund requests posted outside of this window).
But for developers, the idea that players can return games for any reason is a little scary. In the week or so since the policy was introduced, many developers have publicly complained about it sky high yield prices on their games. Others worry about players trying to play the system; Octodad developer Kevin Geisler notes that the vast majority of revenue for his game has so far been outside the prescribed two-week window.
It’s a bit early to know if these trends will continue or if it’s just a reflection of the previous pent-up demand for refunds (and the attention the policy is getting in the press). For what it’s worth, Steam Spy estimates show a slight increase in total ownership of games in the Steam library since the refund policy was announced (although some individual games have shown downward sales trends according to the tracking site).
Watch out for short games
Either way, it’s enough that some developers are concerned that the long-term impact of most of their digital sales is no longer final. Among other complaints, casual game designer Andrew Pellerano noted in a blog post that certain games seem to be the subject of frequent refund requests more often than others.
“It suddenly makes sense to change your early game progress to encourage a two-hour binge,” he wrote. “Refunds will hit harder on genres where these protections can’t work, such as deliberately difficult games, level-based puzzle games, or retro style arcade games. It can even be so bad that certain types of games suffer ‘refund death’ where they simply unable to retain players by motivating them after two hours.”
That’s a design issue shared by some of the other developers we’ve talked to. “The two-hour refund policy clearly states that you shouldn’t make two-hour games,” Alex Nichiporchik, CEO of TinyBuild, told Ars. “Most people don’t play games for more than two hours, and this refund policy is encouraging [developers] to show really great moments in the first two hours.”
In much the same breath, however, Nichiporchik seemed to recognize that the change isn’t all bad. “Often you hear game developers screaming that ‘there’s this moment in 30 hours, you just have to get there’, but come on – we live in a society where hundreds of things are happening at once. Gamers are constantly distracted,” he said. “You need to have really great content in the first few hours (and throughout the game, of course), and I think that will help game developers think about a more quality experience.”
Other developers expressed similarly mixed feelings about the two-hour cap on no-questions-asked returns. “I really think this has the potential to be difficult for really short experimental games like Thirty flights of lovingwhere you can play through the entire game and commentary and crash it a few times and still clock in under half an hour in total,” Robert Boyd of ZeBoyd Games told Ars.[But] if it encourages developers to make their games fun from the get-go rather than stuffing the beginning with boring, unskippable tutorials, that’s great too.
However, some developers believe game designers will start using the same tricks and molds regardless of the new payback schedule. “It would be sad if certain games weren’t ‘safe’ to sell on Steam anymore,” said Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, before adding that making games to attract people early “has always been something that developers do. If you can”. If you can’t grab people within the first twenty minutes of your game, people won’t like it and will rate it negatively. The shift to consumer reviews has already done that.”
Developers I spoke to seemed less concerned about unscrupulous gamers trying to abuse the refund system by constantly asking for refunds for games they actually liked or finished (although Valve says it will look out for any such abuse). “It’s already trivially easy to pirate my game, so anyone willing to pull out their wallet is already a good person,” Papers, please said developer Lucas Pope. “The extra refund protection will hopefully create more people like that, so it’s probably a net gain.”
2D Boy’s Ron Carmel agreed that there are bigger things to worry about than gaming the system. “It’s easier to torrent a game than buy it and then ask for a refund within a limited time, so there’s already a better exploit out there,” he said.
How returns benefit developers
Despite the kind of general wariness that comes with any major change, the majority of developers I spoke to about Steam refunds were optimistic about the overall impact of the change. Most expected that the refund system would give consumers the confidence to try a game they might not be sure about and that they would prefer not to withhold money from dissatisfied customers in the long run.
“97 percent of the 6,000 people who reviewed At gunpoint liked it,” developer Tom Francis proudly noted, “but over 99 percent of Steam users haven’t tried it. Those 3 percent who didn’t like it, I’d rather not have their money. I can be very happy with the 97 percent of players who are happy that they paid for our game. And I’d much rather have a satisfied non-customer than a dissatisfied customer.
“Even if your game is much more popular than mine and one percent of Steam users buy it, and even if one percent of those people request and receive fraudulent refunds, ‘people not trying your game’ is still a problem 9,900 times bigger than “people abusing refunds,” he continued.
Ismail van Vlambeer agreed that more people are likely to try strange games under the return regime. “I know I don’t like buying products from places where I can’t return them, and Early Access in particular will benefit from increased consumer confidence… If they don’t like my work, I’d rather they spend money.” money on something else. Dissatisfied customers are super sad to have. “
Some developers felt that Valve’s return policy didn’t actually go far enough given how some companies have handled game returns in the past. Ryan Michael Clark of Brace Yourself Games recalled that his previous company, Grubby Games, offered no-questions-asked refunds up to 60 days after purchase. “Despite this permissiveness, our return rate was a fraction of a percent,” he said. Dejobaan Games’ Ichiro Lambe reflected on the shareware days in the 1990s, noting that when “most of us offered a no-questions-asked 30-day refund policy. I’ve made everything from little puzzle games to first-person shooters—and the payback rate was well below one percent regardless of game length or genre.”
An escape valve with technical support
Developers also mentioned another benefit of the new returns system that may not be immediately apparent: using returns as an easy solution to persistent tech support issues. Instead of spending a lot of time and effort fixing an esoteric glitch a player encounters, a developer can now simply issue a refund and move on with a clear conscience.
“[Returns are] good for me because the number of PC configurations out there is infinite, and sometimes after dozens of tech support emails back and forth, your game just won’t work on anyone’s computer,” said Dan Marshall of Size Five Games.” Steam refunds will be a huge burden on my mind.”
Clark noted that these issues are not easy for smaller indie developers to solve. “As India, we don’t have QA compatibility labs, so it’s almost impossible to fix a bug like that sometimes,” he said. “I’m glad that users who can’t play the game (through no fault of their own) can now get their money back. I certainly don’t want to take money from people if my game doesn’t work for them!”
“Unfortunately I can’t always solve technical problems, and having a failsafe return system relieves that pressure a bit for me,” Pope added. “Valve previously had a return policy to cover this, but it’s a lot clearer and easier to use now.”