Just a few days ago on Steam, the system was rigged against the customer. We had a situation where Valve were not outright denying across the board but certainly obstructing the rights of lots of people with their refund policies. Getting a refund shouldn’t be frictionless but it shouldn’t be thought to be off the cards either and yet, this was the case with refunds on Steam.
Whilst refunds were difficult or felt impossible to obtain we’ve been spending the past few years increasing the levels of risk that we expect the buyer to take. Long gone are the days where you just log on to the store, buy a videogame, play it and file it. That hasn’t been videogames for a long while now. Sure, your videogame might be a one shot deal but let’s not pretend that’s representative of videogames as a whole.
We’ve been continuing with the selling preorders, a practice you’d hope would have died out after Knight Rider and Streethawk in 1984 and certainly made little sense once we made the move to digital. It’s not like people were able to just buy a game and be done either. In the quest to absorb all the customers possible, preorders have become increasingly convoluted with different stores offering different chunks of videogame to go alongside the preorder. We’re at a point where we’re seeing charts made so that people can comb through and work out what they get from where. Is it a free game? A soundtrack? Depends where you buy from. And no, you still won’t know if the game is rubbish until it comes out.
We’ve been selling season passes, a fairly innocuous name but really, this is asking people to buy things they don’t and won’t know what they are. It's a lucky bag, a grab bag of content. Pay now, get a surprise later! Get two or three pieces of story DLC? Get three multiplayer DLC? A mix? Who knows, you’ll find out. You'll get something though, promise. Will it be worth the twenty or thirty pounds? Well, you don’t even know if the game is any good or how many people will be left assigned to make the season pass content when the game is wrapped or what they’ll come up with.
We’re selling IAP and DLC that you can’t feasibly develop demos for. I mean, you could but demonstrations of stuff before you buy? That's now mainly a thing people go to YouTube for rather than be able to try it themselves. When it’s not a thing done for the base game, the extra time and expense of doing it for IAP/DLC too? Nah.
We’re now expecting players to give us money to help us develop our videogames. Thanks to alpha funding/early access we sell games in various degrees of broken or unfinished states. We expect to be able to sell people our unfinished works, to give them the privilege (heh) of peeking at the game before it’s done in exchange for the money we need to make the game happen. We dress it up in all manner of ways but when it comes down to it, we’ve found a way of monetising unfinished work and it’s asking for a lot of faith from the customer when buying in. It helps us make games that might not exist otherwise but it puts a lot of the risk on the customer side, no doubts there.
We have the ability to fundamentally change what the customer paid for. I can buy a game now and it might not be the same game I bought in a few months time, in a weeks time, in a days time. Maybe that’s bugfixes, maybe that’s extra levels but maybe it’s stuff that fundamentally changes the parts of a game’s structure that appealed to me for something that doesn’t. There might well be a strong case that it makes the game better for more people or whatever but I’m not more people, right?
As the floodgates open and more titles leak onto Steam, as smaller titles leak onto Steam, the ability to filter these titles by normal means will be difficult. Sure you can probably find a review or playthrough of it somewhere if you keep digging but our traditional sources will struggle to keep up, our traditional checks and balances will struggle to keep up. They already are this manifests itself in weird ways, from old hands who know just admitting that it’s manpower and they can’t afford to cover all the things to the people who think “maybe if we just ask Valve to stop putting games on their service, that’ll fix this”, it won't ever fix this but people still cling to that.
We like to think what we do is fine and accepted but the scary thing about being a small unknown developer is that we’re a risk when it comes to someone throwing cash at us. The smaller, the unknowner (I’m keeping that word), the harder a sell we are. The more reticent people are to just give us money.
The very stuff us smaller devs depend on for access is the very stuff that begins to break the systems we have in place where folks can go and easily find trusted reviews for stuff. Sure, Steam has its own reviews in place now but like with Amazon where I wouldn’t use them to decide whether a film was worth watching or a book worth reading, that applies to games. And yeah, yeah, this can be solved by empowering more niche sites and publications but it’s not solved. So.
All these things tip the scales massively away from the customers, they push a lot of risk onto them when it comes to parting with their cash and when you’re in the business of selling stuff, you want people to feel as safe as possible parting with their cash. You need that! And sure, as we move towards more open markets, where titles are spread across a number of stores and sales are known and plentiful, in brutal market terms, the only smart way to compete will be on who treats the customer the fairest.
More than ever, we need robust no quibble refund policies and we need them before we go any further. We like to pretend that everything is rosy in selling videogame land or that some people are “entitled” so we can kinda just write off their complaints but there’s a genuine rise in people getting very angry that we’re changing the rules of the game, that as we do that there are developers who are less scrupulous or less able to deliver on the things people paid money for or that we change things they like in a game and take that away from them forever. And they have little to no recourse. Best case scenario, they have to put up a fight to salvage something from it.
That’s messed up and it’s already biting us in comments sections, in forums, on social media, just whilst it’s not personally us we can turn a blind eye to it, yeah?
We need better consumer rights in the digital space, no question about it.
And the thing with rights, consumer rights especially, is that they are imperfect things. Refund policies in retail are built with the knowledge that there are a fringe of people who will try and take advantage of them. Unless we can work on getting rid of humans and all human traits, these are expected behaviours. There will be people who watch a film at the cinema and complain loudly for a refund because that’s what they do but most people don’t. You don’t take the refund policy away from everyone else because any one of them might be genuinely aggrieved or upset by what they saw, yeah?
Bluntly, you don’t treat most people like trash because of a minority. I know, I know, modern capitalism crapping its pants makes fools of us all there but that’s no excuse not to try and sort this, more every reason we have to sort this. Especially as digital creeps ever more into our lives and corporate internet gets more pervasive, more invasive, more consuming.
I’m sad that adding a baseline of consumer rights, rights that skirt the bare minimum of what should be in place, are met by developers with some degree of fear or trepidation. How will these rights being given to our customers reduce our bottom lines? That makes me sad. They'll be fine. It'll be fine. This is a thing we should be not celebrating but demanding of the stores we do business with. This should be business/customer bare bones stuff that we build on.
But it doesn’t make me as sad as the fear that some developers have about how it might ruin them. You know, the minority devs, the women, those that work on the fringe. It makes me sad that we’re at a place in games where every decision, no matter how right that is leaves them having to calculate how much more this might ruin them. Not because they’re scared of refunds but because they’re scared of the people who will weaponise any and every tool on a storefront to make their lives a misery.
I don’t think you solve that by restricting consumer rights further, I don’t think you solve that with anything other than forcing our digital storefronts to start taking the safety of the developers and publishers far more seriously, to start treating the way people use their systems as weapons as a serious problem. Whilst it’s not personally us, we cruise along thinking it won’t be us but I think deep down, we all know it could be. We know how fine the line is, we’ve seen it happen to our friends, our peers.
When people are genuinely scared because how a small percentage of people behave on stores, how a minority of people can work to ruin someone’s chances of making a living for no good reason other than they’re being led astray by awful grown ups or they're bored or this is just behaviour tolerated on the internet so why not, we need to stop pretending this isn’t a problem for all of us and start insisting that stores where it’s rife begin to take steps to protect devs. We don’t tolerate abuse of retail, production and waiting staff in physical spaces and we shouldn’t tolerate it in a digital space either.
It makes me sad that whilst I can celebrate a victory for consumer rights, that victory makes people I respect afraid.