Image: Subsurface Circular
In the year 2018, Steam can be described in many ways, but "hospitable to developers who make short games" is not one of them. And yet, developer Mike Bithell just released Quarantine Circular, his second non-free, story-based game that can easily be finished before Steam's refund timer runs out.
Quarantine Circular is a brief, choice-driven narrative about interrogating an alien and, hopefully, saving the world.
It's Bithell's surprise successor to Subsurface Circular, a similarly brief noir thriller he released last year. Quarantine probably wouldn't exist if Subsurface hadn't paved the way with its own unlikely success.
It might not sound like much, but brevity and a $US6 ($8) price tag are big hurdles to overcome on Steam. Thanks to the race-to-the-bottom pricing that's emerged from Valve's opening of the floodgates to all developers great and small and a penchant for deals, deals, deals, the PC gaming scene has reached a point where people unironically determine games' supposed value based on their average cost per hour.
(Never mind that one hour in one game could be like experiencing a whole film, while an hour in another could be akin to a few pages from a book. If the game doesn't have the right number of hours, well then ye gads, can it even be called a game?)
Despite Subsurface's one-to-two hour runtime, you won't find many Steam reviews griping that it should be free like so many slight-but-punchy narrative games that came before and after it.
In fact, 96 per cent of its 718 reviews are positive, and Bithell says that even though players could have refunded the game after finishing it, 98 per cent of them didn't. He credits that to clarity.
"I think we've been very upfront about the short duration of the game, and we've done similar with Quarantine Circular," Bithell said in an email. Both games' Steam pages contain sections that explain their brevity while also requesting that players keep the human cost of game creation in mind.
"I'd like to think our return rate is so low because we're very clear about the experience the player should expect," he continued.
He also noted that in Subsurface's case, even the people who did refund it rarely cited length, or price relative to length, as reasons. Instead, they usually select the "purchased by accident" or "not fun" options on Steam's refund form. Bithell doesn't take any issue with that.
"We try to be very clear this is a text adventure and what that entails, but the majority of returns are people who were expecting a very different game than the one described on the store page or in the trailer," he said. "So totally fair that they'd seek refunds."
Like its predecessor, Quarantine sports a runtime of around an hour or two. It also follows in Subsurface's unconventional footsteps in another way: Bithell and his team hardly made a peep before the game came out.
No hype, no fanfare, no idle wondering about what it would be like if you could just talk to the aliens. Again, he said, it's all in service of making sure players don't get their hearts set on some impossible fantasy version of the game that doesn't actually exist.
"We are terrified of people getting the wrong idea from a screenshot of the game," Bithell said. "What better way to control expectation than to not allow time for it to build? Here's our game. This is what it is. We put a lot of work into it. We hope you enjoy it. If you do, please tell a friend."
So far, Quarantine Circular's only been purchased by a fraction of the number of people that bought Subsurface, but it's also only been out for a day. Reviews are 94 per cent positive, though, with players lauding it on its own terms as a piece of quick but fascinating sci-fi.
Now, all of this does come with a caveat: Mike Bithell is Mike Bithell. His reputation - earned not only by Subsurface Circular's surprise splash, but also foundational indie hit Thomas Was Alone - precedes him.
He realises, though, that it doesn't take much to lose Steam users' trust in this era of overcrowded shelves, so he's not about to start taking all of this for granted.
"We had the opportunity now to tell two small stories," Bithell said. "Both explore different themes and are the result of tough work. We spent a lot of time deciding how to price Subsurface Circular fairly and the community responded by giving us the opportunity to create a follow-up."
"We tried to be fair and honest in our marketing and, in this very specific instance, for us, it worked out well. I think that's probably largely down to the reputation we've built over the years."