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.
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."
"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."
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.
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:
Concern about the Steam refund policy I just saw: will this allow people to "review bomb" games by buying them, downvoting, then refunding?
— Craig Stern (@sinisterdesign) June 2, 2015
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.
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.