How Digital Refunds Change Everything, and What to Do Next

With the rise of the digital refund system, it is important to recognize that the new platform for digital video game refunds obfuscates the finality of a sale, and that games and the industry will have to change to account for it.


Recently, Steam opened the floodgates to digital refunds for its users which, in turn, caused a lot of commotion. Most players were thrilled and maybe a bit overzealous to flex their newly found refund muscles. From a consumer standpoint, this notion is great. It's like getting a free demo disc that you can return if you are not impressed, but becomes the full game if you are. Most developers, however, were (and still are) completely outraged. Suddenly, the certainty and amount of their sales have dropped. Whichever stance you take, it is important to recognize that the new platform for digital video game refunds obfuscates the finality of a sale, and that games and the industry will have to change to account for it.


The biggest anti-refunders are those whom are affected most: independent developers. Indie game developers are different from your standard Activisions and Capcoms, in that they price their games—usually lower—specifically for what meets the teams needs. They are almost expected to price their games below $20, despite the quality or content of the product. This is important to note because it outlines that indies require less profit to operate than AAA's, and therefore, there is more value to a single sale for them. The reason independent developers are frustrated with digital refunds is that already a minority of users play their games, but now a fraction of those will not count as sales. For a team of two selling a game for $5.99, losing a measly amount of final sales can be detrimental completely at the developer's expense.


And that is the change: the finality of a sale, before now, has never been the developer's responsibility. Remember buying hard copies of a game? You play the living hell out of the newest game, then return it GameStop for in store credit or cash. At no point does the developer ever reimburse you, because that is the job of the distributor. In that way, certain digital distribution companies are completely genius, in a Bond villain kind of way. They can appease their consumer base with an amazing refund system without ever losing a dime. What this does to the developer, however, is change the dynamic and relationship that she carries with the player. There is a different conversation going on between the two; no longer does a disappointed player write an e-mail with criticism (which can be very eye-opening to a developer, if done right), but he simply refunds the game and never thinks of it again. Suddenly, developers are both the creators of the game, and the cashier clerk nervously explaining the return policy at the game store. Nobody wants to lose a customer, or a player for that matter, and because of this change in relationship, a change in product has to occur.


“Just make a game so good that nobody will want to refund it.” That is the knee-jerk reaction. Make a game so beautiful and perfect and accessible that everybody loves it. This kind of new relationship will raise the bar on quality of games if developers want to survive!



But, we were doing so well.


We were innovating and being creative and reviving local-multiplayer; we were making multi-user experiences about building mine shafts and exploring the mechanics of rotating worlds and kissing each other; we made one-dimensional dungeon crawlers, visual-less deep sea diving experiences, and diaries to remember our deceased child's short life.


The industry has been changing rapidly, growing creatively, and evolving into a hydra of different niche notions of what a game is. If we try to make games that appeal to so many people that everybody will like them out of fear that we will have to reimburse those who don't, we will have abandoned creative progress in a medium that deserves cultural relevance. So what can we do?


In order to continue making games, developers have to make money. It isn't greedy, it isn't that we don't want to price all games at $1.99 or free, but that it's our job. We have to make money to be able to continue building experiences. So, developers, don't make a game that fits what everybody likes, make a game that will change what everybody likes. Make a game that changes the mass's opinions about what a good game is. Make a game so creative that, even if it's “not my thing,” I can't help but be blown away by what it is.



And find a fucking better distribution platform.




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