So Steam Refunds, who saw that one coming? I sure as Hell didn’t. After many years of providing some of the worst customer service ever and a series of other severe missteps, Valve blew everyone’s mind by announcing that you’ll now be able to get a full refund on any title purchased on Steam for any reason whatsoever within 14 days of purchase or 2 hours of use. Some think this is in response to the reputation damage some of their recent missteps have caused, others think this is to comply with European Union consumer protection laws which they are current in court over. I frankly don’t care what the reason is, this is absolutely incredible! Given Steam’s de facto monopoly position in the digital distribution realm on PC, it’s also a huge precedent. My hope is that we’ll see more PC digital retailers adopting similar policies and in my dream scenario, we’ll start seeing console makers doing the same. Consumer rights in general have taken a beating in recent years and gaming has in many ways, led that charge. This swings the pendulum a full 180 degrees back in our favour. It’s such a rare thing to see and makes me incredibly happy.
But of course, in the ocean of perpetual outrage culture that’s become all too common in the last year, no good deed goes unpunished. Shortly after Valve made this announcement, some indie developers (most of whom are completely unknown to the general gaming public) and their lackeys in the “enthusiast” press spoke out against the program, claiming that it hurts them because some many of their games are under 2 hours long and this just means that people are going to buy them, finish them and get a refund, thus robbing these indies of the right to get paid for their work. Kotaku hack Nathan Grayson was particularly aggressive in his assessment, once again failing to disclose that he was friends with most of the indie developers he used as sources. He never learns does he?
It amazes me that large swaths of the games press–who are supposed to be about serving consumers first–continue to go out of their way to deride things that are pro-consumer, usually in the interest of protecting small cliques of developers few knew or cared about anyway. These people are supposed to serve us but not unlike what we often see from big publishers, don’t see our loyalty as something to be earned and cherished but as something they are entitled to and that anyone who doesn’t provide it is the enemy. I hate to tell you guys but yes, gamers are still your audience and no, gamers are not over. If you’re not advocating for what is in the best interests of consumers, you’re failing consumers.
Aside from the attitude, the arguments being made also rely on flawed logic and fallacies, indeed the same ones many big publishers have made when decrying piracy. They first assume that everyone who buys their game and finishes it within the return window will always do and they also assume that the people who would do such a thing were true customers to begin with.
Disregarding the clear policy Steam has in place to prevent abuse of the refund system, if your game is good and appropriately priced for the value it offers, the vast majority of people will keep it if it’s good, either because they may want to play it again or to support the developer. Gone Home is a perfect example. Though it can stretch beyond 2 hours, it was well under that for many people, myself included. I thought it was a pretentious pile of both narrative and design clichés but a lot of people didn’t and I would wager that even if this refund policy were in place at release, it probably wouldn’t have affected the sales much, certainly not enough to turn it from a success to a failure. Hell, I didn’t really form my full opinion on it until several days after I played it so even though I ended up not liking it, I still would have ended up keeping it.
The other thing is that many of the people who would take advantage of the refund policy in such a way likely either would just skip your game entirely or pirate it if the policy wasn’t there. I would wager that most of them would not have ended up being true customers anyway. So with the refund policy in place, you have at least a potential few additional sales from this group whereas without it, you have more pirates or at least, less sales. When you do the math, it seems like a net positive any way you slice it.
There’s nothing wrong with sub-2 hour games. You can convey a lot in a short, well structured experience and it’s certainly not like it doesn’t take an incredible amount of effort to craft those experiences. Even the smallest games are incredibly difficult to create. However, this is not truly a question of length, it’s a question of value and those aren’t the same thing. If you are selling a sub-2 hour experience for money and you aren’t making that length clear to your customers up front or you’re charging too much for that experience, that’s only on you. It’s not Steam’s or anyone else’s problem that your hyper niche product that doesn’t have mainstream appeal isn’t selling, it’s your problem. Make a game that’s memorable and meaningful to the people you’re trying to sell it to and they will buy it, keep it and probably show up the next time as well. If you make something no one wants for whatever reason, that’s a problem with your creation, not the people you’re selling it to.
For all the shit gamers regularly take about being selfish and entitled, the amount of entitlement we’re seeing from some of these indie developers is amazing to me. It’s never their fault that their games don’t succeed or find as big an audience as they’d like, it’s always someone else’s fault. The supreme level of arrogance and narcissism required to think that an entire digital ecosystem’s most pro-consumer move since its inception is a bad thing because it doesn’t accommodate your hyper-niche type of product boggles my mind. How self-important do you have to be to seriously think such a thing? I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised given what we’ve seen certain indie subsets spout in the last year, yet I still am somehow. You have to make stuff people want and price it appropriately, you can’t tell them what they want. You’ve failed at the most fundamental level if you think the latter.
Many of the people decrying this system were the same people who have said for months that Steam needs quality control and curation because they’ve recently opened the floodgates and are allowing a tsunami of shovelware onto the store. I said way back then that retailers didn’t need quality control, they needed quality service because quality service puts the control directly in the hands of consumers and not some nebulous, unaccountable group that decides what we can and cannot buy. I’ve also said that Steam’s laissez faire approach to many things was turning it into a nightmare. This goes completely in the other direction, giving consumers the exact tools they need to exercise their own quality control. One gamer’s garbage is another gamer’s gold and this allows everyone access to everything and decide for themselves what’s worth their time. The good stuff will succeed, the bad stuff will fail. That’s how this is all supposed to work. Demanding that the service tailor a solution designed to fit the majority to instead fit your minority niche of the market is entitlement of a calibre far worse than gamers have ever shown.
I am so incredibly sick of this perpetual outrage culture that can take even the best thing to happen to gaming in years and which provides a direct solution to the epidemic of overpromised or just plain broken games we’ve seen lately and turn it into something bad because it causes a so far unproven inconvenience to a subset of pretentious indie developers. Get over yourselves. This program is only a good thing because it’s pro-consumer and without consumers, there is no games industry. There’s no game creators, no games retailers, no games press, nothing. If you aren’t serving consumers first, you are harming the industry and in the last year in particular, a whole lot of people seem to have forgotten that in their competition to see who can resent their audience more. Make stuff people want and they’ll show up with their wallets open. If they aren’t, that usually says a lot more about what you’re making than about what they’re buying. Maybe some self-reflection is in order cause I can tell you what, if you’re calling Steam and those who would appropriately use this refund policy bad people, yours is a game I certainly won’t be buying regardless.
Thanks for this Valve. While my opinion of Steam has been rocky of late, it took a big spike up with this news. I hope I won’t have to use the refund system much but I’m damn glad it’s there. It’s about damn time.