Tag Archives: Valve

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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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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