Tag Archives: Indie Games

The hidden problem with Steam refunds that people aren’t talking about

steam-iconAs I’d said in the previous blawg entry, Valve has decided to take Steam’s poorly-understood and ad-hoc refund system and make it both automated and accessible. Users can get refunds on anything that’s 1) less than two weeks old and 2) has been played for less than a two hour grace period.

The latter is…controversial.

The idea of this grace period is laudable. There are a lot of games where people just aren’t able to get it working properly, for whatever reason. There are many, many more games where the advertising may be deceptive, and the game just isn’t what you thought it would be. Steam’s given you enough time to determine whether the thing’s going to work, and whether it works for you.

But what if the game’s less than two hours long? If it’s a bullet-hell shooter, or a casual platformer, or some sort of experimental artgame? Many of those are short. Most of those are short. What’s to stop people from “renting” the game by buying it, finishing it, and getting a “refund”? Valve has said that they would ban people from receiving refunds if they abuse the system…but what do they see as abuse?

There had been concerns. Now, there are outright accusations. From what I saw on Kotaku:

  • Puppygames, developers of Revenge of the Titans, are claiming that there’s been a “55% uptick in refunds” since the program started.
  • Qwiboo, creators of Beyond Gravity, similarly claimed that “72% of purchases were refunded”: 13 out of 17 purchased units were returned.
  • and Skatanik Studios, who made RPG Tycoon (which I didn’t know about and am going to look into!) said that they’ve had an uptick, and are concerned that “there’s no way of knowing why users have claimed a refund”.

I know that people are freaking out about the prospect of these “free rentals”.  But in a lot of ways, it’s that latter quote that really concerns me, because people aren’t talking about it.

Look: even leaving aside the sell-back issue, refunds are going to increase. It’s going to happen. They’re going to increase simply because people know that they have the option. For a little while, they’ll exercise it simply because they can. Novelty is a whole thing, but it does fade. They’re also going to increase because people are going to find that the game doesn’t work well on their system, and they are going to play games for a few minutes and decide that the game isn’t for them.

That isn’t “abuse”. That’s the system doing what it’s supposed to do.

Some devs are even happy about it. Bryant Francis pointed out on Gamasutra that Tom Francis (creator of Gunpoint) actually applauded the ability to get technical-issue refunds; it means that developers don’t have to spend as much time doing tech support for customers, and can rest easy that they aren’t sitting on money for games that customers can’t even play.

Francis also cites Tylar Glaiel, creator of Closure, as being “uncomfortable” with the fact that two thirds of the people who’ve actually played his game have only played it for ten minutes. He sees those people who paid good money for a game they didn’t really play as “subsidizing” those who have played all the way through. It’s a fair assessment.

But, Valve, none of this is going to matter unless developers know exactly, and I mean EXACTLY why the refund happened. 

They need to know absolutely everything that they possibly can. They need to know whether the game ran, how long it was played, and whether the player had technical issues. If that involves a more detailed survey at the point of refund, and more options, DO IT. You’re all skilled coders, I know you can figure it out.

And yes, Valve, you do have a moral responsiblity here. Devs need to know exactly why people aren’t playing precisely because you’ve opened up this refund system.

Before, devs could feel comfortable focusing on getting sales. Feedback was still important, but due to the frontloaded nature of video game sales and the lack of refunds, devs were somewhat insulated from issues with their games. They were never completely insulated: bad word-of-mouth is toxic when it comes time to pick up the secondary group of buyers during sales and whatnot, or when you start marketing your next title. But they were insulated. That gave them their own grace period, where conscientious devs could look at issues, resolve them where they can, and learn from them where they couldn’t.

They aren’t insulated anymore. That grace period is gone. People who are unsatisfied will get refunds, and it will be an issue. Bad reactions and bad feedback doesn’t just mean future consequences, it means bad consequences right friggin’ now.

If there are technical issues, that’s money lost right now.

If there are serious gameplay issues, that’s money lost right now.

If there’s bad word of mouth rippling across the Internet, and people who bought the game in the last two weeks but who haven’t played much get caught up in it, that’s money lost right now.

In that kind of environment, devs need to know EXACTLY what’s happening. If there’s a storm of refunds, they need to know why, so that they can move to fix it right now.

Even the two-hour tourists are a source of information. Why did they play? What did they do? What didn’t they do? Did they play as much as they could, or just toy with it and then shut it down? If it has replay value, did they bother to replay it? What did they replay the most? As annoying as they might be, in great enough numbers they could actually be the same kind of font of useful information that the hordes of free players are in F2P games. But that only works if devs are provided with that information.

So get on it, Gabe et al. You want to make the consumers happy? Awesome. I’m a consumer and, yes, this make me happy. But it’s your policy, so it’s on you to make sure devs have the information they need.

GET ON IT.

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Does Thomas Piketty explain why there are too many indie games? Maybe…

The Indiesplosion on Steam of 2014 has lead to a big ol’ argument over whether the market’s now crashing, 80s style. There’s an absolute TON of new games on Steam now, many indie, and many transparently terrible. So we get Jeff Vogel saying that there are too many games, there’s only so much money, and discoverability is impossible. “Only ‘x’ number of dollars that can pay for ‘y’ number of games”.  While Robert Fearon says “what, just because there’s a bunch of indies now there’s suddenly too many? Isn’t that conveenient?” in response. 

Okay, fine, that’s not a direct quote. A direct quote of Robert would be something like this:

It didn’t happen during the 16bit years when shareware, the demo scene, Blitz Basic, commercial games got spewed out one after the other! It didn’t happen with DOS despite there being thousands and thousands of games around the place and more being made week in, week out. It didn’t happen with casual, it didn’t happen with windows, it happened now, under our watch. Forty fucking years and that’s our lot, we nuked it in six. 

Uuuggghh…I hate arguments like this. They’re so well-meaning and snarkily uplifting that I feel like a jerk knocking them down. Nevertheless: Robert, the problem is gatekeeping and distribution.The reason why music didn’t die when a million different little grunge bands appeared in the 90s (or punk bands in the 70s) is the same reason why the thousands of DOS games weren’t a problem back then: because we had multiple levels of gatekeeping going on, and distribution was in the hands of those gatekeepers. It didn’t matter how many DOS games you made; they were only going to end up at the local store unless you found some way of distributing them, and the distributors made their literal business out of deciding who was worth it and who wasn’t. 

THAT ISN’T HOW IT WORKS NOW.

Distribution is trivial, especially for an indie game. Distributing something as small as most indie games is so comically cheap you could likely do it with many home connections. The only reason why Steam is so sought-after is because people want Steam’s easy library organization and patching. It’s not really about distribution

Because distribution is trivial, and duplication is free, there are no “local” markets anymore, and nobody playing gatekeeper. (Even Valve’s given it up.) There’s every reason for games to stay in “print” forever and be universally available.  As Vogel said, you aren’t just competing against free games, you’re competing against every game ever made, as well as almost every other piece of created entertainment ever made, not to mention thinly-veiled amusements like Facebook and HuffPo and BuzzFeed and Twitter and whatnot.  

On that I think that Fearon’s wrong, and Vogel’s right. There really are too many products chasing too few dollars, and it is unique, due to distribution. (See Everything That Clay Shirky Has Written Ever.)  

That’s not the important bit, though. The important bit, the one that neither piece talks about, is the economic side of all this. Why is the pool of people willing and able to buy games so limited? Why is Vogel’s “x” variable so small? Because people’s inflation-adjusted wages are stagnant at best. Free-to-play relies on “whales” for the same reason that Thomas Piketty wrote the most important book of our century, and why London, New York, and Vancouver are becoming empty cities of oligarch vacation homes: because the only economic model that works anymore is one that targets the vanishingly-small-but-fabulously-wealthy people at the top of the world’s economy.  

Remember, the concept of “whales” in F2P monetization schemes comes from casino lingo, referring to the people who blow hundreds of thousands of dollars at the tables. It’s all about extracting a majority of cash from a minority of players. The majority don’t have it to begin with.

And why are there so many indie devs? Because people want to be able to make a living actually making something, something that they see as valuable and worthwhile.  Game-making is one of the only places where you could conceivably do that nowaday–most other creative fields are in worse shape than gaming is–but you sure aren’t going to find it in AAA development. (See: any given Gamasutra piece on the industry.) Is it any wonder that people with any sort of skills in the field are piling into indie development? What else are they going to do, devote 90 hours a week to some doomed tech-bubbly SF startup or soul-crushing, economy-wrecking NYC finance gig? Or just resign themselves to a lifetime of poverty?  

So while Vogel’s point is right, but I think Fearon has a legitimate grievance about his tone. People are trying to make it big, yes, but it’s because “doing okay” is no longer an option in an economy divided between the rich and the poor. You need to swing for the fences, because there’s no such thing as a base hit. If indie can make you rich, the modern economy means that you’re compelled to try. That’s not their fault.

This isn’t a problem that can be fixed by the game industry itself. It’s a symptom, not a cause. Vogel’s “x” and “y” are parts of bigger forces, so arguing about whether or not the industry has issues is a completely irrelevant waste of time. Depending on who you talk to, we’re either living through the transition to a new feudalism, or the slow self-destruction of the capitalist system. If you’re going to worry about something…worry about THAT. 

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Comics vs. Games 2 at the Toronto Comic Art Festival

I’ve been working on a somewhat-lengthy react to Spec Ops (which I’ve finally played), but since I’m waiting on something else I thought I’d give a breakdown of some of the games I got to try out/demonstrate as part of the Hand-Eye Society, Bento Miso, and Attract Mode’s Comics vs. Games 2 and Bit Bazaar presentations during this weekend’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival.

Where is My Heart 

This one did my head in a bit. Like all of the Comics vs. Games exhibits, this was a game that riffed on the comic aesthetic. It seems simple enough at first, with three little 8-bittish monsters running around being controlled one-at-a-time, as a sort of lo-fi Lost Vikings.

Then it changes, and the screen breaks up into comic-style panels that, crucially, are not directly spacially related to each other. You could start up in a panel on the right, move to the left, and end up in a panel above you, and then a panel below you, and then a panel on the other side of the screen, and then two panels above that one at the same time. And that’s just the start; soon you’re rotating the screen underneath one of the characters in order to get them where they need to go. It was around the point when teleporters got involved that I moved on. I want to go back, though.

(by Die Gute Fabrik, published by the Copenhagen Game Collective. Out on PSN, coming to PC.)

Framed

Enjoyable if short iOS demo. This is a murder mystery where you don’t directly control the main character. Instead, you arrange the panels that he travels through, with the story ending differently depending on how the panels are arranged. It’s got a sorta Lemmings-ish feel to it in its own way, mixed with the sort of “Siliwood” look that went away in the 1990s and that I do sorta miss on some odd level. Demo was only about three or four screens, though.

(By Love Shack Entertainment, coming for iOS and other platforms.)

Gorogoa 

This one was almost disturbingly beautiful. It focused on panel manipulation (definitely a theme here), but this time you were arranging panels on a 2 by 2 grid in order to get…fruit? To stop some sort of …monster? I don’t know, it makes sense in the context of the game. You zoom in and out of gorgeous 2D environments, and can shift around the pictures at nearly any time, trying to create serendipitous arrangements that get your character where he needs to be and get him the fruit(?) that he needs to get. The strangest part is when you move a panel and discover a layer coming off, creating an overlay that needs to be used with a completely different zoom level in a different panel. That happens a lot,  it’s not always terribly intuitive, and certain puzzles just felt annoying more than anything else. When it worked, though,  it did a good job of disrupting the sense of space and embodiment.

(By Jason Roberts, coming out later this year on PC and then later on mobile.)

Storyteller

To my intense surprise, this was the breakout hit. It was almost always mobbed with people.  it doesn’t seem like much at first, just a set of panels and some little 8-bit people to place on them to tell little comic stories. But, quickly, the game starts challenging you to create surprisingly difficult and involved scenarios involving those little people, and then continually reveals that you’ve retold classic stories (like Romeo and Juliet, or Waiting for Godot, or even Star Wars) in three panels or less.

People were ENTHRALLED. It wasn’t any longer than Where is My Heart, but while people would just wander away from that one, people would practically camp out at Storyteller. It’s not that there would be any tension or fighting, either; people would be collaborating to try to figure out how to best tell the story, and to pull off the optional “achievements” for telling the stories in non-intuitive ways.  Some of the best players were kids, too; a fact which surprised and delighted me. Daniel Benmergui has a winner on his hands; can’t wait until he releases it.

(By Daniel Benmergui, coming out later this year on PC/Mac/iOS.)

Here’s a few initial impressions of a few of the Bit Bazaar games I played as well:

Beat Patrol

A fascinating and frankly fiendish combination of bullet-hell shooter and rhythm game. The basic conceit is that it’s a one-on-one fight between a little SWAT-alike bounty hunter (that moves like a shooter ship) and a single big alien that shoots out bullet-hell patterns in time with music. His patterns become your patterns; you have to shoot back in time with the rhythm of the music yourself.

The way I described it to people was like a combination of Space Channel 5, The World Ends With You, and a Cave shooter. The game was clearly rough, and there were certain elements (like feedback on missed notes) that needed work. Still, the core is there, and it’s very clever.

(By Daniel Orellana and Patrick Rainville, release date TBD)

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime

Picture a cross between fl0w and FTL. That’s LiaDS. You and a friend control two little guys that have to manage something like five or six different stations between them in a little asteroid-cum-starship that’s locked in constant battle with an endless tide of killer robots or aliens or whatever. The aesthetic is awesome, like FTL but more so in the cutesy-things-shooting-at-each-other sense, and it’s wildly chaotic fun. Especially when they demonstrated the four-player mode they’d cobbled together.  Picture the shouting.

(By Asteroid Base, release date later this year)

Actual Sunlight

This cross between JRPG and text adventure would perhaps be better called “Trigger Warning”. Anybody who has even a vague knowledge of serious depression will recognize the mental state of the protagonist after bare seconds. After a few minutes of this demo, it starts hitting dangerously close to home. After a few more, it will annihilate you. I hate to even conceive what playing the full game is like.

It’s an important work, but I honestly don’t even know whether to recommend it. Be cautious.

(By Will O’Neil, and you can download the latest build right now.)

They Bleed Pixels

Yes, this one’s been out for a while, but due to my computing situation this was the first chance I’d had to play it. Pity. It’s an instantly engaging cross between Marvel vs. Capcom combat (albeit simplified),  Super Meat Boy’s unforgiving platforming, and Miguel Sternberg’s characteristic (and carefully-thought-out) shareware-era PC aesthetic. I can’t wait until I get to play more.

(by Spooky Squid Studios, out now on Steam.)

So, yeah, there ended up being a darned good crop of indies here in Toronto this weekend. The comics crowd were definitely into the Comics vs. Games exhibit, and Bit Bazaar showed how real-world interaction and engagement can still be important in this era of digitally-distributed-everything. ‘Twas a good time. Even if some jerk did reset one of the demonstration computers that one time.

(Oh, and I finally got to meet Christine Love, who lived up to all my expectations. Even if she is WAY too harsh on Persona 3.)

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