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4 reasons why Steam Refunds are a threat to indie game devs.

by Guille Oruga on 06/10/15 02:13:00 pm

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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Recently, Steam introduced their refund policy allowing you to return any game for any reason, as long as you haven't played it for more than 2 hours during the two first weeks after purchasing.

Valve said they would be monitoring for abuse, but they are not exactly quick to act, and seems like their system has already shown a couple of loopholes that users have started to notice.

This is a list that depicts several possible doom and gloom scenarios, this is not necessarily a reflection of my own opinion, but a compilation of the biggest fears some developers have. Expect a lot of negativity in the next paragraphs...


Trolls now have a powerful weapon against developers.
Have you ever read those unjustified vitriol-filled comments some players make on twitter or any gaming community towards developers? Insults, death threats, harassment... If you have a thick skin, you can shrug those off. But now, they can write negative reviews, use your game to earn Steam Cards and achievements for free, and make you feel dissapointed because those copies of your game you thought you sold were returned two weeks later. Hurting, not only your feelings, but your business too.


Refunds will shape how games are designed.
You surely know (and probably hate) how microtransactions, in-app purchases and free-to-play games have shaped the way games are designed on the mobile market. Some of these games are designed to create addiction or even to make the game unwinnable if you don't buy their items.

With the Steam refund policy we could start noticing how developers are pushed to design games in certain ways that favor the first 2 hours of play. Instead of having a more natural flow, games may be forced to impress early, showing, for example, the whole game content in the first 2 hours of play and then reusing content and making the rest of the game repetitive and dull when having an even distribution of content would be preferred.

Some developers may choose to not unlock any achievements or Steam cards in the first 2 hours of play, when, to most players, getting achievements early is an expected incentive to keep on playing.

The thing is, we may see some changes on how developers design their games, and this may break and ruin some game experiences.


Developers will stop making short games.
There's nothing wrong with a short game, seriously. I'd rather play a 2 hour game that's amazing and fresh during every minute than a 20 hour game that's repetitive and heavily reuses assets and enemies along many other cheap tricks to enlarge its length.

In this day and age, I even think games should be shorter! I can count many games that are great, but I wish they were much shorter. Everybody has tons of games to play and little time. Short and good is the way to go! But Steam is discouraging this practice. When I go to the movies I don't really care how long the movie is, I don't feel I got a great deal out of The Hobbit because the movie was over 3 hours long and I paid as much as you'd pay for your average 90 min flick.

Some indie game developers feel threatened because producing long games is riskier, more expensive and much harder, at the time that a longer game doesn't equal a better game, but sadly, many players feel cheated if they finish the game they just bought in one sitting. Even if they paid only a couple of bucks or less for it, which is like 1/4 of what they pay to watch a movie, or two 5 minute songs on iTunes... Games, it seems, are just a less valued form of entertainment.


"Demo gamers" will emerge.
A lot of people has little time to play, and to many, enjoying a game for a couple of hours could be a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon. And now you could do just that: Buy a $10 game, play for almost 2 hours, get a refund, and get another one. Rinse and repeat. You could be fulfilling all your gaming needs out of that $10 investment for a long time... At this time Steam hasn't been clear enough as to specify what's exactly considered an abusive behavior. How often can you refund games? How many games can you refund? What happens if someone abuses this feature? Only time will tell, but right now there are no answers to these questions. Valve doesn't exactly have the best record when it comes to enforcing policies. I reported many times a user for posting joke Greenlight projects, they deleted the project and he would post it again, he did it many times before getting banned (if he ever did).

Some developers fear this 2 hour window will serve as some sort of demo, but there's a reason there are no demos any more, and it's not exactly because game developers think their game isn't good enough. A good demo takes time and money to get developed, and some players would only play demo after demo never buying a thing. There's no shortage of games nowadays, so you could play demos forever. Also today we have 90% off sales, bundles, "let's play" videos and reviews from verified players who own the game right next to the "Add to cart" button. Is it really that risky to buy a videogame?


These are some of the reasons some indie game developers fear this new policy may hurt their sales and change how games are made. Only time will tell if these fears are justified or just an overpessimistic look at a feature that has been around in other markets for quite some time. I'll talk about the other side of the coin in an upcoming article, stay tunned!

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