Steam’s doing refunds!

Ayup. Steam is now providing refunds for pretty much any reason. There are only two restrictions: you have to have bought it in the last two weeks, and you can’t have played more than two hours.

So, what’s my Hot Take? Largely positive! The biggest issue with game consumers is that they’re practically forced to be very conservative by the nature of the medium. With the demise of rental as an option and the decline of both demos and shareware, players are forced to make $60 decisions on little more than reputation and trailers.

(Sure, they can go check out the reviews. But for a variety of reasons, that may not be a great option. Let’s Play videos are helping to fill the gap a bit, but your experience ain’t going to match the Pewd’s. That Toast game is way more fun to watch than to play.)

With refund as a possibility, players will be more willing to take a chance. They aren’t really risking their money, just a bit of time and hassle. If they like it? Great! If they don’t? Great! Either way, they’re coming out ahead! As a consumer, hooray for this!

For creators, well…it’s a bit more complicated.

Make no mistake: this conservatism has really hobbled publishers and developers alike. Gaming is a tremendously fear-averse and risk-shy industry. Consumers mostly go with what they already know and trust. This has led to almost every annoying thing about modern gaming:

  • Publishers obsess over brand equity, and jealously guard their precious “IPs” like dragons brooding over their hoarded gold.
  • Sequels are routinely more successful than the first, since consumers take success as a sign of quality, so games end up becoming massive yearly franchises even when they really shouldn’t be. Series, and whole genres, burn out very, very quickly. Look at Guitar Hero.
  • Marketing budgets skyrocket, as publishers do everything in their power to overcome consumers’ conservatism, and those without a AAA marketing spend get left out. Mid-tier publishers are basically extinct.
  • Adventurous creators are forced to either downscale to “indie” level, or to embrace the industry’s conservatism, and either way their creations will end up compromised.
  • And free-to-play has rampaged its way across the landscape, even though so many F2P games are exploitative dreck, since lying to consumers about a game being “free” has been one of the only ways to get past this problem that doesn’t involve billion-dollar marketing spends.

Having more adventurous consumers is a good thing: it’ll give us more adventurous creations. Current creators can become more adventurous, and more adventurous creators will have an easier time bringing both consumers and publishers on board. PC has always been the platform for creativity. Valve is reinforcing that.

But, yes, there are some issues.

(Besides “can’t make bank from a bad game with a deceptive trailer”. That’s the whole point of this exercise. That’s practically a scam and should be wiped out.) 

First, if your game is less than two hours long and has no appreciable replay value, you’re in trouble. Despite the endless complaints and whinging from some game journos—the sort that unironically use the phrase “entitled consumer”—people still really don’t like paying full price for short games. Nothing’s going to change that. There will be people who play a game, finish it, and demand their money back if it’s too short. Valve may rebuff them, but I certainly wouldn’t count on it. Portal aside, Valve may well sympathize.

Second, games that are “slow burns” are also in a bit of trouble. Some games do take a while to get good. Many classic RPGs, like SMT: Persona and Dragon Quest 7, take hours and hours before they hit their stride. They demand patience, and while they do eventually reward it, it’s a long time coming. But with this refund system, consumers are always going to be watching the clock, as they’ll know that their window for evaluation closes after a few hours. If they aren’t drawn in early and hooked well, they’ll bail.

Finally, if your game is DRM-free, it’s possible that consumers might scam you out of money by “buying” the game, installing it, switching the directory, then getting a “refund” and happily playing away. John Walker worried over it on RPS, but I’m not actually that concerned. If consumers are that intent on getting a DRM-free game for free, they’ll just pirate the thing. That’d actually be easier than scamming Steam, and if there’s one thing we know about prospective downloaders, it’s that they’ll take the path of least resistance.

(Easier-than-piracy is a big reason why Steam blew up in the first place! And Netflix! And Spotify! And Hulu! Heck, laziness-trumps-greed is half the reason capitalism itself exists!)

So, yeah. Steam’s giving you more room to bring people in—but you’ve still got a short window to prove yourself. And if your game ends within that window, you have to really justify it, in a way that makes them want to support you despite the opportunity to get their money back.  I think it’s doable, but it won’t be easy.

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