Tag Archives: Steam

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.


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Borrowin’ Morrowind

So I’m a filthy stinking thief. Well, maybe. It’s complicated.

See, as you know, I’ve been playing through the entire Elder Scrolls series. Started with Arena, then moved on to good old Daggerfall. Both weren’t really an issue, since both were released as free downloads by Bethesda. There are some issues with arena, since someone out together a version of arena that worms Ike a charm and is utterly superior to tie official download from Bethesda that uses the CD version of the game that isn’t technically legal. But, honestly, its not like Bethesda is going to lose any revenue from that.

The next game in the series is the third main-series game, the widely-beloved Morrowind. It’s a bit different. It’s not being released for free. It’s still on sale right now. You can buy it on Steam if you like. But I didn’t! Nope, I did something so terrible, so evil, so reprehensible that one must shudder at the thought…

I borrowed it.

That’s right. I borrowed Morrowind. I have a friend of mine here in Toronto who is a big ol’ Elder Scrolls fan, and she already has both the regular and Game Of The Year version of the game, with all the extras. It even has the “creation kit”, which the Steam version very much does NOT have. I asked her about it, and she was happy to lend it to me.

So here I am. Playing a version of the game that I didn’t pay for. What perfidy! What horror! O, the despicable SHAME of it! I am clearly a wretched soul, thieving rightful sales revenue from the poor downtrodden Zenimax corporation!

Well, no. Obviously not. Borrowing a game is no more shameful than borrowing a DVD or a CD or a book. It’s also no more or less shameful than, say, renting the thing or buying it used. But that’s exactly the sort of thing that is being decried by so many developers and publishers and even media figures for some reason. The simple act of friendship that I benefited from is now so loathsome that entire digital rights management systems are being designed, implemented and enforced to prevent it from happening.

Certainly it’s the case with Elder Scrolls. I can’t do someone the same favor with, say, Skyrim, that my friend did for me. Even if I wanted to pass it along, and wasn’t going to be playing it myself, it’s linked to my Steam account. You aren’t technically supposed to be sharing or giving those to people. It’s against the EULA and TOS and whateverthehell other incomprehensible documents that lawyers serve up for people to scroll down through in sheer bafflement.

(People do share online accounts, naturally. But you aren’t supposed to.)

So I have to thank my friend—her name is Karen, by the by—for making this possible, and I really do regret that it’s so difficult to do the same favour for people. I’d love to lend Skyrim to a friend for a week or so to let them give it a try, the way that I used to lend people PC games and can still lend them console games, and books, and DVDs, and everything else. But I can’t. Kindness is the province of desperadoes. MORAL people tell their friends to buy their own.

Anyway, I’ve played through the first bit of Morrowind. It’s good. Really good. The graphics were great for the time, and are even surprisingly good now with a little work. But I’ll get to that next time, when I talk about Morrowind and modding. It’s kind of a crazy story, but it shows why open platforms matter so much.

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