Steam Refunds Could Cause Some Big Problems

Steam Refunds Could Cause Some Big Problems

Finally, Steam is offering refunds! Oh joyous day. But the new policy could actually cause more problems than it solves.

Valve’s new refund policy has two main stipulations: you have to have purchased a game less than 14 days prior, and you can only have played it for two hours or less. The latter, especially, has people up in arms for a number of reasons.

The system, some people worry, seems highly exploitable. For some games — say, The Witcher 3 or GTA V or Clicker Heroes (why can’t I stoppppp) — two hours is just a drop in the bucket. But for others — smaller, more personal games along the lines of Proteus, Gone Home, and Papo & Yo or even bigger budget experiences like Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and Portal — two hours can basically be the entire thing. So, in theory, someone could buy one of those games, play it to completion (or close enough), and then get a refund. Boom, free video game. For obvious reasons, that could hurt game creators pretty badly.

Steam Refunds Could Cause Some Big Problems

Two Hours Too Many

Now, Valve has said they will monitor for abuse of the system and, if it seems like someone is taking advantage, begin denying refunds, but they don’t exactly have the best track record for, you know, anything concerning customer service. On top of that, developers of shorter games have taken this as a sign that they’re not entirely welcome on Steam, that 60 hour big budget romp-o-nanzas are the default, the standard by which all games on the service are judged.

“I definitely think it has something to do with triple-A metrics with tons of content being the sole measure through which we understand games,” Epanalepsis creator Cameron Kunzelman, who first blew the whistle on the two hour problem, told me. “The Steam policy is actively giving us a world where certain kinds of shorter experiences don’t even figure in to the economic ecology that we imagine around games. It’s actively destructive to anyone wanting to make something smaller and content-driven, like concise narrative games.”

Nina Freeman, creator of brief, heartfelt experiences How Do You Do It, Freshman Year, and the upcoming Cibele agreed, adding that Steam kinda generally makes things tough for smaller games.

“What I find most insulting is just how little respect Steam seems to have for smaller games,” she said. “They also don’t let you write reviews for games that you’ve played for less than five minutes. So like, I put freshman year on Steam, and it barely has reviews because no one wants to play such a sad thing twice just to write a review. They basically just keep doing things that say they don’t care about small games succeeding on their platform, which is bad because they’re one of the biggest and most important platforms for releasing games.”

“I’m sure there are benefits,” she added. “It just feels like Steam is always doing things that are based on play time, which reinforces the idea that games should be a certain length, which is obviously an unhealthy expectation.”

Steam Refunds Could Cause Some Big Problems

However, Jack King-Spooner, creator of countless art games — recently released game about his hometown in Scotland, Beeswing, most prominent among them — views this as better than nothing at all.

“It does make it a bit like a free rental for wee games, doesn’t it?” he said. “But I think it is better than not having any refund policy at all. I think that if people want to scam a game for free, they will work it out one way or another.” As for worries about Beeswing specifically: “No one really bought it anyway so doesn’t bother me.”

Which suggests that, yeah, in some cases small games don’t exactly thrive on Steam, and this refund policy probably won’t help. But between numerous challenges involved in getting your game’s name out there and an audience that’s sometimes outright hostile toward less traditional games, that particular problem is bigger than Valve alone.

Kunzelman, however, saw one bright spot among all the gloomy grey. He noted that his game — atypical and immediately inscrutable as it is — got written off by a lot of more traditional sites, curators, and the like. As a result, the audience that’s sought out his game on Steam is composed only of people who really dig it.

“We’re actually seeing a really interesting Steam space where it is becoming harder and harder to be discovered — and Steam hasn’t been great at fixing that — but that has also meant that there’s a place for subcultures to then sort of bloom or at least exist in some kind of way,” he explained.

Small, enthusiastic communities sustaining games. It’s the Valve-merican dream as originally envisioned by Steam Greenlight… kinda. Maybe that’s a sign of things moving in a kinda good direction? At this point I’m not optimistic, but it sure would be nice.

Steam Refunds Could Cause Some Big Problems

A Problem For Everyone

But the Steam refund issue goes beyond smaller personal games. As mentioned earlier, short games are becoming more common, even on the big budget side of things. There are episodic games like Telltale’s Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and Tales from the Borderlands series or Dontnod’s Life Is Strange. Then there are brief yet potentially long-lasting experiences like Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes or Portal or Ubisoft’s artsier efforts like Valiant Hearts and Child of Light — not to mention short DLC episodes from, well, anyone. Will the idea of striking back at The Man over high prices or past infractions be appealing to some, enough of a reason to fashion Steam refunds into a weapon of justified vengeance? Certainly. Could it make big studios reconsider their stance on short, more immediately meaningful experiences and be harmful in the long run? Possibly.

Meanwhile, my former Internet house Rock Paper Shotgun points out that Steam’s refund policy will make it pretty easy for people to take advantage of truly DRM-free games, which is basically equivalent to swiping candy from a baby who’s also a genie that offered you three wishes because it liked your personality. RPS’ John Walker explained:

“Games that have opted not to use Steam’s DRM, which of course is usually perceived as a customer-friendly decision, can now be purchased, copied over into a different directory, and then a refund requested. With the new no-quibble policy, they will get their money back, and have a working copy of the game remaining on their hard drive. It is, essentially, the same shady antics that were possible when brick-n-shelving game stores would provide refunds on DRM-free boxed PC games. It was, in fact, a huge reason why boxed PC games had DRM.”

He also noted that Steam trading cards unlocked within the first couple hours of a game’s runtime can still be sold for profit, meaning that people could get both free games and (mostly) free money out of the deal.

Oh, and then there’s the issue of Steam review bombing, which I covered in-depth previously. Steam refunds, with their current rules, could add another weapon to review bombers’ arsenal. As people pointed out on Twitter:

People have to own games in order to review them on Steam, so the logic works out. Will Valve safeguard against this loophole in their already not-exactly-ironclad defences? Here’s hoping.

Steam Refunds Could Cause Some Big Problems

The Big Picture

I reached out to Valve for comment on these concerns, but as of writing they had yet to respond to my inquiries.

Certainly, it’s a good thing that Valve has finally added a proper refund option to Steam. A very good thing. However, as is often the case with Valve, they appear to have paired their good intentions with worryingly little foresight. This is the sort of feature that people — some just trying to recoup the precious little money they have or hoping to righteously hit back at a big publisher who did them wrong, others looking for a new way to scam people outright — will pick apart like vultures. Once again, Valve stared into an unfeeling crystal ball of numbers. They didn’t really consider how this might affect people.

Here’s hoping they address these potential problems soon. With this new system out in the wild, time is, quite literally, money.

Picture: MickBoere


  • The upside to it though is you can essentially try out a game without committing to it. Some kind of “demonstration” you might call it, or “Demo” for short. Taking the tongue out of the cheek though, with the large number of games coming out on Steam of varying quality, having a security net against the games of lesser quality is useful. I agree the 2 hour rule needs refining but I would think I’m not the only person who doesn’t buy a lot of games because they don’t have demos and I’m iffy about their quality.

  • Damned if you do damned if you don’t.
    Imo steam refunds won’t be abused in this manner by the vast majority and the whole review bombing concept will only really happen to those atrocious games that are genuinely bad that are the same games that people have been requesting to get refunded because it’s unplayable or something.

    Small indie games that are about experiences like above might have to deal with a few percentage of refunds being processed. Of that half might be genuine refunds required.

    • I agree, I think it will be a much smaller problem than it is being made out to be. How many people REALLY abuse EB’s 7 day return policy versus total sales?

    • They could have just asked EA who have a similar refund system in place.

    • Why can’t they just have the time being a percentage of the estimated total play time. So for the Witcher, with it’s 40-60 standard playtime, 10% is the refund window, so 4-6 hours is plenty.
      But for 2 hour indies, it would be 12mins.

    • Don’t a lot of those more artsy and small game types tend to get picked up more in bundles than direct Steam purchases? – I’m more interested in some earlier suggestions about season pass DLC issues, and with cases like Ubi games where you have to go through a secondary licensing profile system like Uplay

    • Agreed.

      Fundamentally, most of the objections assume that consumers are bastards. In practice, some consumers are bastards, but a significant majority are basically honest and won’t abuse the system.

      Essentially we have the game authors here playing the part of the RIAA or MPAA, assuming that their customers are crooks and wanting to retain an old business model to force them to pay even if the product turns out to be poor.

      The discussion also overlooks the possibility that it’s now relatively risk-free to try out a game that you may or may not like. All those games with “Mixed” or even “Mostly Negative” reviews that I would previously ignore now become candidates for purchase because I know I can get my money back if it turns out their promises are not delivered.

      In practice, I haven’t even played at least half the games I have on Steam… and in terms of retail stores, in 25 years or so buying games I’ve returned… two?

  • I kind if can’t believe I just read an article about how bad it might be for valve to give refunds.

    Are journalists even on the consumer’s side anymore ?

    • The point of journalists, real journalists, is to not be on anyone’s side.

      It is their job to state the facts as they exist, to report a story, not offer a commentary on whether they think it is a good idea.

      In this article, the author offers a possible situation, and provides some quotes and information relating to said scenario.

      News should not simply be what you want to be told.

      A journalist on the consumers side is just as dangerous as a journalist on the corporation’s side, when it comes to actually reporting the news.

    • The article was simply to illicit thought and provoke discussion.
      All of the points raised in the article will most likely be smoothed out within the few couple of months, the article has simply pointed out the most obvious ones.
      Don’t worry, Kotaku still has your back.

    • Did you actually read the article?

      So just because a refund system is finally offered we should ignore the possible implications of such a system from various perspectives?
      As a consumer I have seen the steam community first hand at it’s best and worse as many of us have. Concerns such as review bombing from a developers standpoint is equally important in my eyes.

    • I’ve got to admit for some reason as I was reading this the thought kept crossing my mind of ‘if developers and publishers want to fight this fair enough but it’s their problem not ours’. It’s almost like the article is written as a ‘why this matters to you’ article without realising the ‘you’ in this case refers to publishers and Valve rather than Kotaku readers.
      It’s weird, I don’t disagree with anything in particular from it, but it’s like they forgot to establish a connection between why bad for Valve/publishers is bad for us.

    • The author of the article is good friends with some indie games devs that he shamelessly promotes during this article without proving disclosure. He isn’t writing this on consumers behalf but on behalf of people he knows personally that make short games that bank on consumers out of their money.

  • And if you are troubleshooting the game to get it running for two hours or waiting for a patch then you are stuffed too.

  • I think Nathan Grayson should keep his stupid opinions to himself and stop being anti-consumer. The a proper “journalist” doesn’t do opinion pieces, they report the facts.

    • He’s entitled to his opinion, as you are to yours. And this isn’t a “hard news” website; it’s a “gaming culture” website, so if you just want the facts, you are in the wrong place, buddy.

  • I have to LOL at the developer complaining that no one will play their game twice to reach a 5 MINUTE restriction on posting a review… seriously, you’re charging money for a game that can be completed in 2.5 mins?

    The two hour restriction seems reasonable to me. I don’t buy games that I feel I would only play for a couple mins ever total. That’d be wasting my money. Even if the game is short, as long as it’s got replayability it’s fine.

    • Presumably a game that short would have a very small price tag – who is going to bother getting a refund for $1?

    • I too was wondering what kind of game can be clocked in under five minutes – hell most Game & Watch’s last longer

    • It’s actually a free to play game.
      The point they were making is that valve policies don’t take into account the smaller games and with this one as well it makes it seem like only massive content filled games are wanted

  • People who abuse the system could probably just as easily pirate the game right now anyway (probably even easier) so I don’t think this is a real problem.

    Now I think about this article a bit more – what a load of fanciful tosh that is based either on a tiny minority of people who probably pirate now anyway, or is based on a contemptuous view of game players as a whole. What nonsense.

  • This is a good thing valve have done. I cant believe the article is demonstrating negativity towards steam consumers.

    Worried that we might pirate the game? Pirates wouln’t have paid for it anyway reguardless of the method, the majority of people prefer NOT to pirate unless no other option is available. HELL do you know the lengths I went to to legitimatly purchase hotline miami 2 even though the devs themselves told australia to pirate the game!

    Worried we might review bomb? To be honest reviewing on steam is a very small power that us consumers have been given. But you know what at least it makes developers listen, it allows tiny little almost insignificant voices of consumers to group together and be heard.

    Overall I think this will be a boon even for small time devs, as consumers will be more likely to try out more games. There have been many times when as a consumer on steam I was fearful about purchasing a game (especially early access) because of mixed reviews etc. Now I will be able to give the game a try at least and be able to make up my own mind. In the end this will work for devs who have good games that haven’t reviewed well.
    And since the article is very anti consumer just remember that there have been PLENTY of times devs have screwed over their consumers for a quick buck. But Im sure just like not all consumers are pirates, that not all devs are theives (I think the ratio might be pretty similar infact)

  • Review-bombing, purchase-as-a-demo, discouragement of <2hr games, DRM-free folder-copying, all of them are minor problems that are totally dwarfed by the benefit of a) being consumer-friendly, and b) complying with Australian consumer law.

    And let’s look at these complaints…

    Review-bombing: Already happens to a lesser extent, because you don’t have to purchase a game to up-vote the helpfulness of a negative review. These get to drift to the top. To buy a game just so you can bag it out is a kind of douche-baggery which should only be limited in number, and should only affect either high-profile popular titles and be ignored, or socially-progressive titles whose audience already know not to put much stock in review scores.

    Purchase-as-a-demo: This I’m actually in favour of. The ‘death of the demo’ has many reasons cited, with developers and publishers claiming that demos cost sales. The only figures I’ve seen on this point are highly dubious, and seem to indicate that only shitty games lose sales from putting out a demo, but they make arguments about the man-hour cost of creating the demo compared to developing… oh, anything else. Well this way, there are no development costs! Just a two-hour-or-commit-your-money timer! Win:win.

    Discouragement of <2hr games: This is the only one where I don’t see much of an up-side. All I can offer is the non-consolation that if your game doesn’t last two hours, Steam was probably not your vehicle for success in the first place.

    DRM-free folder-copying: Oh please, really? Yes, because we all know that a copy of the game folder for your DRM-free title was impossible to source from anywhere else. Look, if anything, it’s probably more effort to buy a new-release title and claim a refund than it is to torrent it. (Hint: try ‘GOG torrent’ sometime. Somewhat related: GOG reckon from their own measurements that piracy of GOG titles is lower than they or publishers expected, which is probably why they’re getting more new-release titles. Publisher confidence comes from numbers and results, not altruism.) They might have a point about more obscure titles that don’t make it to the torrent sites out of sheer unpopularity, or age… but seriously? Steam’s DRM is so utterly benign that you’re hardly being draconian by requesting that users check in with Steam’s library to see if the game belongs there before starting up the first time, then being allowed to run in offline mode forever after. If offline mode doesn’t suit your needs, then your needs are either incredibly niche or are just a cover for ‘share with a friend’ piracy anyway.

    I’m not seeing anything to even remotely outweigh the benefit of an avenue for refunds.

  • Seriously, some of these concerns are pretty ridiculous. So, someone is going to go to the trouble of buying a game on steam, finishing it before the 2 hours and getting a refund? Or, buy the game, copy it over to another folder and then request a refund? If people want to circumvent paying for a game, why are they going to bother doing that when they can just pirate it?

  • i doubt many will abuse the 2hr thing. look at people’s libraries after steam sales… so many games unplayed.

    really, if people didn’t actually want to pay, they’d just pirate it. its easier and you don’t have to worry about any transactions.

  • No different from EB’s return policy, in fact its a lot stricter.
    If you can finish a game in under 2 hours, then it should be free in the first place IMO

  • This system seems like a pretty good first go. I mean, there’ll definitely need to and probably will have revisions as the system matures.

    The time will always be contentious because of the varied playtime in games. An average Witcher 3 run would be different to most indie games or FPSes. And how would you calculate the average play time of open ended games like say Cities:Skyline or football manager. So 2 hours is a good set point to know at least the game isn’t overly buggy (and actually works).

    Maybe they need another policy for indie games (but that’d also add more confusion since indie RPGs are coming out more and more as well…)

    As for review bombing, just have a automated check that deletes the review if the person refunds the game. That way only people who played and kept the game (even if they uninstall it) can review

  • sooo what happens for people who brought something like Deus Ex 2 (yes, shame on me in the first place) which still to this day doesn’t work…….

  • Americans!!! All the complaints are from americans and their Buyer Beware culture!!!

    There can be exploits, as mentioned above… but thats what Steam says by monitoring it. If they detect anyone pulling any of the stuff mentioned, up comes a new monitoring script, automatic refusal of refunds for individuals or habitual mechanics. Also takes 2 weeks for a refund to clear, so that time period will mess with any major attempts by individuals to pull any freaky stuff on a repeated basis… ie the person with a refund request for every game that came out in the last week is going to be sending off alarm bells.

    I hope this improves the quality of the game market with the crappy greenlights that just turn over stock assets into a Unity sandbox etc… cause if Valve has to start turning over 90% of cash back on certain “developers” or styles of games, then they will just save themselves the hassle and flat out ban them from using their service.

    This will see the better quality of games make it to the consumers where they belong.
    You may get 2 or 3 refund requests before your account is flagged.

  • I’m kind of interested but how is this a problem for everyone? Is it just that you think it’s a problem for everyone but couldn’t contain the hyperbole?

  • pitty i can’t do it on previous purchases
    Grid 2
    Grid Autosport
    F1 2011
    F1 2012
    F1 2013

    spent HOURS trying to get them to work, with codemasters, and they have given up, as they realize it was an issue with the game engine, and not fixable.

    end of the day though, it is a good thing, the point someone made about demos costing them sales, well, correct
    no demo, i won’t usually buy it for a while.
    or i will find my own demo.

    if the demo is costing them sales, it is because it is probably unfinished, or simply crap.
    how many games have you guys got with very little hours because they are just rubbish?
    if you had a demo of the game, would you have purchased it?

  • How do you know Nina, Nathan? How did you get that interview? Why did you link to three of her games?

  • My only problem is when you purchase a game by accident or it doesn’t work properly, you’re forced to play that game for a while as it’s all you got…. >:( VALVE GET IT RIGHT!

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