Indie devs discuss the pros and cons of Steam refunds
If you buy a game on Steam and play it for for less than two hours, you are allowed to ask for a full refund with no questions asked. This can be seen as a positive development that will make players more willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar title. But it is also a cause of concern for many developers.
"I think there’s potential there for short experiences to suffer for it," says Sam Beddoes, developer of Manos: The Hands of Fate and Angry Video Game Nerd Adventures. "A lot of short indie games sell at a lower price, but now there’s the concern that people can get the whole experience and get their money back."
Realistically, there is nothing in place at the moment to stop players from using Steam's refund policy as a free rental service. Players can get through their entire gameplay experience, reaping the benefits of years of developer efforts, and then get all of their money back.
This can be even more frightening for developers of non-traditional, experimental games. "We were a bit scared of how it would affect our game." says Denis Asensio, one of the developers of Calendula. Calendula is a horror puzzle game that takes place entirely in a game's menus - far from the average gameplay experience. "We were probably an easy target, since our game has a very particular feeling and a very exclusive target, so it is fairly easy to disappoint the average player who is expecting a more classical gaming experience."
We spoke to eight developers about their experience with Steam refunds and their feelings about the policy. All interviewed felt that the refunds were a positive thing, keeping buyers confident and allowing them to try out a new game with little risk. Even so, the consensus was that the current system has holes in it that can be abused, and these need to be addressed by a policy that is more complex than the one-size-fits-all return system in place now.
Refund numbers have accounted for between 1-7% of total sales for all of the developers contacted for this article, and a not insignificant portion of those had played through most or all of the game before returning it for a full refund.
A Useful Tool
"I believe that refunds protect the consumer. We've all read about shady developers who create games that are not what they advertise, are incomplete, broken, or buggy."
The refund process is not something developers we spoke to consider to be bad by default. A refund system helps protect the customer from shady business practices, technical problems, and other issues. These give the customer the confidence to purchase a game without fear of being stuck with it should some unforeseen problem arise.
"I believe that refunds protect the consumer," says Jon Oldblood, developer of Masochisia. "We've all read about shady developers who create games that are not what they advertise, are incomplete, broken, or buggy. These are very valid issues that no gamer should be tricked into being stuck with."
The refund process also gives the developer some unintended boons. In some situations, technical problems can crop up relating to a single user's computer. Without a return system in place, that can force a developer to devote time to fixing a problem that only exists on a single sale. Time and energy that would otherwise be absorbed into making the game work on one player's computer can be saved by simply offering refund, even if the player runs into it later in the game.
"As the only technical developer on the game, I don't have the time or energy to do a lot of troubleshooting as I would like," says Nic Tringali, developer of Sun Dogs. "When problems occur that seem specific to a computer and not the game as a whole, I feel comfortable recommending a refund request to the person. I'd feel bad if I had taken their money and they haven't played the game due to some technical issue.
Customers can also try out a game even if they're not sure if the game will work on their system. "If a user is running a hacked-to-bits Red Hat Linux distribution with weird graphics card drivers and they want to check if the Linux of the game version works for them - great!" says Matt Luard, developer of The Cat Machine. "That's a perfect way to feel safe supporting indie games."
The Cat Machine
With no fear of losing your money over a bad purchase, players can also be encouraged to try out a game they might not otherwise buy. You can get your money back if it doesn't turn out well, so why not try it?
"When the customer knows that they can get that money back, no questions asked, if the game turns out to be a broken piece of crap, that makes them far more likely to take the plunge and give the game a shot," says Beddoes. "I’ve experienced it myself. Since the addition of the refund system I’ve bought games I wasn’t sure about, feeling far more confident to take the risk."
"Valve is heavily implying here that games that aren't considered 'Fun' aren't worth buying. Games don't have to be fun, and everyone's concept of fun varies."
Despite its good sides, the return option has resulted in some unpleasantness as well, especially when it comes to experimental games, or ones that don't stray from the traditional idea of how a game should engage you.
"When I look at my stats and see a category called 'Not Fun,' I am disappointed." says Tringali. "Valve is heavily implying here that games that aren't considered 'Fun' aren't worth buying. Games don't have to be fun, and everyone's concept of fun varies."
"The vast majority of refunds are not related to technical issue, system requirements, etc," says Oldblood. "They're simply people not being happy with their purchase after playing at least a portion of the game. The "Not fun" category alone makes up a little over 50% of refunds."
"They can potentially be 'sorta-free', if you're inclined to think of them that way." says Tringali. "I wouldn't consider Sun Dogs a 'fun' game in the traditional sense, and I think the majority of people expect games to conform to their standards of fun. I get the sense that a lot of those people don't see the value in paying for a different experience, usually a short and experiential one. This puts some of them in a moral gray area for refunds."
This could be seen with Calendula, even when the player did have fun with the game. "In addition to people not liking the game and refunding it--which could be arguably fine, even if they finished it--there are cases of people who played the game, liked it enough to participate in the game's community forums, and still refunded it," says Asensio. "We know of at least a couple cases like this one. People who openly admitted it, and there are probably way more who didn't."
Other games are seeing the same problem.
"I can read the refund notes and have found notes which specifically cite being displeased with various parts at the end of the game (or the end of the game)." says Oldblood. "I can't speak to how many complete the game before refunding it but based on refund notes, I know it's occurred at least semi-regularly."
"For 99% of indies, we have to be on Steam. Our bread and butter comes from desktop and laptop gamers, and so you'll see very little jumping ship, and plenty of shrugging and saying 'Oh well, what can we do?.'"
If a developer is nervous about this policy, what can they do? Should they consider other sales avenues for their short games?
"Honestly, the majority of independent developers cannot survive without Steam, and we all know it," says Luard. "If Valve were to suddenly remove The Cat Machine from their store, my business would be in trouble. For 99% of indies, we have to be on Steam. Our bread and butter comes from desktop and laptop gamers, and so you'll see very little jumping ship, and plenty of shrugging and saying 'Oh well, what can we do?'."
Steam accounts for a huge portion of PC game sales, and a presence on Steam is a must for many indie games to sell. For visibility and ease of sales, short games still need to be on the platform. Developers have to live with whatever decision Valve makes on the policy, but that doesn't mean they have no options for being creative.
For Dylan Barry, developer of Uriel's Chasm and Selfie: Sisters of the Amniotic Lens, that means being bluntly clear what the player will get in the game's description. "I did try really hard through the Steam page to let people know they were in for a rocky/challenging ride. I put them off, even, and tried as hard as I could to drive the price down on bundles."
He has also ensured that Steam cards were included with his games so that players could recoup some of their money through selling cards. "I always include cards so I can pay them back for their faith in my stuff," says Barry. "A lot of us gamers don't really have that much spare change - we manage to build the little we have up by selling cards." Barring any of that, Barry also suggests a return to demos as a possible fix, helping the player get an idea of the game before they buy.
Manos: The Hands of Fate
For Beddoes, this meant making players want to play his games over and over again. "I tried to incentivize multiple playthroughs of Manos." He included new playable characters (Torgo Mode) that changed the game, collectibles that offered new endings, and an in-game timer to encourage speedruns. Small touches added a little more to the game, encouraging players to keep it and play again.
"Although neither Torgo Mode nor the collectibles make a huge difference to the content, it incentivizes the player to come back and try again at least once, and I like to think that cements the game in their mind as something to keep and revisit for an hour every once in a while," says Beddoes. "Based on the figures, I think these few little touches (which don’t take much time or money at all to add) do their job."
For developers like Tringali, it will not affect them at all, as they refuse to let their vision of what they wish to create be altered by the potential for lost sales. "I don't have the desire to make a very long game, though I will make different types of games, not all short and experiential ones. I won't be making any artificial changes to them to get around the refund policy."
As important as Steam can be for many, there are other options out there, too. "Steam definitely isn't a perfect home for these kinds of games." says Julian Glander, developer of the lighthearted exploration Lovely Weather We're Having. "I think itch.io nails it in this category. and I think Valve is probably pushing a lot of similarly minded indie developers toward other platforms."
Lovely Weather We're Having
Can Steam Do Better?
"All developers contacted suggested a change in the duration of the refund time."
Do developers feel that it is fair to have to pad their games, make alterations, and shift their design focus to get around a two hour refund window? Despite the low numbers of people returning their games after playing them in full, a handful of lost sales can make a big difference for a struggling developer.
"One of the first lessons as a game designer is to learn to try to break your own game," says Asensio. "Look for extreme situations, as unlikely as they seem, and check if they can hinder your system. In this matter, Steam's refund policy is highly exploitable and easily abused, letting short games be treated as a free rental with no penalty. In a game, that would not be a good design."
All developers contacted suggested a change in the duration of the refund time.
"I’d say that 2 hours of play is maybe too long," says Beddoes. "It doesn’t take 2 hours to work out if a game is completely broken or falsely advertised, and if it does suddenly become broken after several hours of play, you can usually contact Valve or the publisher and get your money back that way."
"I don't think applying a 'one size fits all' refund policy to every single game on Steam is the appropriate way to manage refunds (even if it is the easiest way). If you buy my game and it's not what you expected from the trailer or screenshots, you will likely know that in the first 30 minutes to an hour of playing." says Oldblood. "If the game is poorly made or buggy, you will likely know that within the first few minutes of the game. A shorter window of time on games (such as 1 hour) would be much more suitable for narrative or experimental games while ensuring the game can't be 'rented.'"
"Currently, Valve has slapped a two hour refund time on every game, and this just doesn't map to the wide variety of experiences that are available on the platform. If I can play the entirety of the brilliant Thirty Flights of Loving, and then get a refund... then there's room for improvement in how refunds work." says Luard.y
"If I can play the entirety of the brilliant Thirty Flights of Loving, and then get a refund... there's room for improvement in how refunds work."
As much as developers want it to be fixed, beyond a change in the length of time before a player's refund period is up, there are few ideas. Even in that, opinions differ, as each game has its own lengths and quirks, requiring the games be done on a case-by-case basis rather than the automated system in place now.
"I certainly do want a refund system in place - it helps me out as a developer and is an important consumer rights initiative to be in place," says Tringali. "But I think it's worth having an ongoing conversation over, to question the types of games that we implicitly value and how the 'other' games fit into the marketplace."
"I do not envy Valve's responsibility to sort all this out," says Luard. "From a gamer's perspective, refunds are an excellent thing - we all benefit from basic consumer rights. But I see Valve's approach to refunds to be very similar to how they've gone about Greenlight: Automate Everything. Sadly, one size does not fit all."