When the biggest online retailer for PC video games makes a big policy change, even the tiniest shift in how it does business can have implications for players and game developers all across the globe, sparking a huge range of reactions.
Now that Steam has announced its policy to allow refunds, developers everywhere have to consider the new implications of doing business on Steam, and what refunds can mean for people buying games, DLC, or microtransactional content going forward.
Speaking with multiple developers, a rough read is that reception to this policy is somewhat warmer than Valve’s more divisive plan to allow payment for mod creators, with the rough consensus that the policy could be positive for those playing games -- but could subtly reshape or reinforce the nature of PC gaming itself.
Power to the People
Valve’s new refund policy firstly gives more agency to players buying games on Steam but unaware of any technical problems they could run into when they made the purchase. With PC gaming being a notoriously fickle hobby, this gives easy recourse for players who may purchase anything from Crysis to Gone Home only to discover it doesn’t run on their device.
Developers like Tom Francis, creator of Gunpoint, find this a huge relief, and a welcome change to their only previous option: referring players to Steam’s (notoriously unresponsive) support team. “Allowing refunds has been top of my wishlist for as long as I’ve been a developer,” Francis says. “Gunpoint’s had an incredibly positive reception, but for the few people who did have issues, it killed me to have their money.”
Beyond handling basic technical problems, the refund policy also opens the door for developers to be comfortable in the idea that players who own their game are satisfied with having spent money on it at a quality level level as well. That may sound like a slightly romantic notion of doing business, but sometimes the statistics of doing business on Steam mean that knowledge could help provide stability to developers.
Tyler Glaiel, developer of Closure, has to deal with an uncomfortable fact whenever he boots up his current Steam statistics: two-thirds of the people who own Closure on Steam have not played it, and two-thirds of the people who have played it did so for less than 10 minutes.
Glaiel points out that those 90 percent of owners are subsidizing the game for that small percentage of players who played it all the way through, and that’s a strange economic model to develop games on. Shifting the needle on that percentage in any way -- even if it means losing the revenue of the Steam sale impulse buy or the Humble Bundle inclusion that Closure has had -- would let Glaiel be more confident in his design, and his ability to put out a game worth a player’s money. (And possibly let him charge a better value that reflects that quality to the audience he knows has faith in the product.)
That confidence in consumer satisfaction, as Defender's Quest developer Lars Doucet points out, could have a quiet impact on the battle against the bundle -- a marketing model of selling games that has led some developers to be frustrated with the increased downward pressure it puts on game prices, and in status, too: “Putting your game in a bundle or putting it on sale, a process whereby you gain a bunch of low-paying players at once, does correlate with a spike in negative reviews.”
“So a culture of selling to tons of people who may or may not like your game trashes your quality perception, especially if you’re niche or otherwise outside-of-mainstream taste. Now players who are frustrated or disappointed can ask for a refund, a safety valve likely to decrease such negative reviews.”
Valve’s addition of refunds also helps developers align with EU Consumer Protection Laws, which allow for the possibility of digital refunds within a 14-day period. (To comply with these sections previously, Valve required EU users to waive their rights in order to download titles on Steam.)
Game the System
To be fair, Valve’s stated in its own policy that if the company detects any abuse of this new refund system (specifically for the use of ‘free games’), the privilege of refunds could be revoked. But in posting this policy, Valve hasn’t explicitly stated how it intends to support two kinds of developers -- those who make games that clock in under the two-hour mark, and those targeted by online harassment campaigns. Valve's new policy explicitly states that buyers can file for a refund so long as they haven't played a game for more than two hours, and that timeframe comes with specific consequences.
“I can’t imagine that there are many people who would play the type of game I make who would want to scam me out of the price of the game,” says Cameron Kunzelman, “but that doesn’t change the fact that one could theoretically experience the entirety of what my game Epanalipsis has to offer and then return it.”
The prospect doesn’t weigh too heavily on Kunzelman -- it’s just the impact that choice has within Steam’s overall economy. When someone buys a movie from Walmart or Amazon, watches it, then returns it, those companies can absorb that cost among a wake of bulk sales. But Kunzelman or other developers may more directly bear the weight of that decision on Steam.
David S. Gallant, whose game I Get This Call Every Day was inspired by his experiences in manning a telephone service line, feels frustrated because his game also falls under the two-hour chopping block. There's another reason it disquiets him, too:
“Valve’s policy doesn’t seem to care why you want a refund in the first place. I spent a year working in games retail in Canada, and while our policies were robust in helping customers replace or refund defective products, there was no policy in place to refund customers who didn’t just like the game they bought.”
Shortly after the policy went live last week, the impact already began. Developer Vladimir Roth of Qwiboo in London noticed on Saturday that something was off about sales on his game Beyond Gravity---the graph showed 13 refunds and 18 sales over the last few days. Throughout the game’s lifespan, only 50 refunds had been offered previously through Steam’s ad hoc refund method, out of over 20,000 successful sales.
However, refunds are added to the graph on the day they are awarded, so some of these may be the initial rush of refunds from players who have held the game in their Steam accounts for longer periods of time - and in some cases, players are getting refunds for games played for more than 2 hours, or held for longer than 2 weeks. (Valve allows players to ask for a refund even if their game is 'officially' outside the rules, and there's evidence that many are being approved.)
Nonetheless, the leveling-out of the sales graph surprised Roth---with an 89% approval rating on Steam, and procedurally generated levels providing value beyond the initial playthrough of Beyond Gravity, he’d had data saying Beyond Gravity possessed a surprisingly long tail. Of course, if the refunds are from much older, 'only' 13 extra refunds from the 2,000 purchases is still not that significant - only time will tell if this levels out.
Comments from these developers point to an emergent mix: Steam is reliant on automated systems, offers a sometimes literally ”gameified” design, and its systems influence market dynamics in significant ways. This has lead to the weaponization of some of them for organized forces online.
There's plenty of possibilities here - organized review-bombing on games like Gone Home, the blistering statements left on mod creator’s pages during the week of Valve selling mods for Skyrim, or carpet-bombing public comment sections on Steam Greenlight campaigns have all been examples.
Regarding refunds themselves, Garrett Cooper, developer of Black Ice, wonders if this problem could be solved if Valve had more humans monitoring the refund process. “These won’t be problems if Valve actually has oversight on these returns, but I don’t think they have enough people. I have a feeling Steam is a gargantuan beast barely under Valve’s control.”
Ripples in the Pond
Economics, for better or for worse, is a strange, silent force that can shape creative and cultural design. And Valve’s refund policy certainly qualifies as such an influence. Gallant -- a developer who talks about making games for people who don’t identify as part of “gamer culture” -- is worried that the two-hour return window could help further calcify what a “video game” is, and provide an economic disincentive to innovation.
Andrew Pellerano writes in his own blog that the same window introduces the idea of an onboarding process seen in mobile games, which could quietly reshape how developers design their already front-loaded process over time.
Both of these ideas are harder to categorize into positive or negative impacts, but they do reflect how Steam’s size and systemic design could influence both player and developer behavior. The danger would be to accept that changes born to satisfy Steam's tacit requirements are essential to “good game design,” when they're merely “optimal ways to design your game to sell it on Steam.”
It may also be that the initial 'rush' of refunds being applied to the current day's sales in Steam's developer-facing graphs make the eventual size of them look larger than they will actually be, and some of these worries are overblown.
Yet the oddities, potential upsides, and potential downfalls of Steam’s new refund policy, once again, are borne of Valve’s 'behind the curtain' policymaking process and its tendency for to spring major changes onto the market swiftly. In particular, the willingness to go outside of the official rules for refunds is an interesting one for a major company - such policies tend to be more concrete when set up.
But the new refund policy's benefits are outstanding for players stymied by technical errors and maybe for developers looking to escape the low-price, high-volume sales cycle. Its success in building a stronger games economy will require heavy human involvement on Valve’s side, and a goal to make sure the policy supports developers who make games of all shapes and sizes.