Steam are now offering quibble-free refunds and it's about time too. After years of complaints and even a defiance of EU legislation, Valve will now let you get your money back for any game you've played for less than two hours for any reason whatsoever, within 14 days of purchase. It's a big step for a company that has long been criticised for its aftersale customer service.
Unfortunately, like so many nice ideas on paper, Steam refunds have already revealed a worrying dark side that's causing any number of small studios to be out of pocket due to gamers doing what they do best: gaming the system.
Is it abuse? Is it actually an exploit? Is it even an extension of the Pay What You Want model? Let's take a look at the problem and then get involved.
Here's the situation. Steam's two-hour refund window is a good size when it comes to most games, which typically last somewhere between 5-40+ hours. It's enough time to test the game, mess about with the graphics options, attempt to fix any performance issues and get a good feel for the gameplay before making an informed decision about whether it's broken, incompatible with your hardware or simply not your cup of tea. After which you can get a refund. All well and good.
The problem, unfortunately, is that plenty of games last less than two hours... which makes them prime targets for so-called abuse.
Two types of game fall foul of Steam's refund policy: short and focused art projects that are designed to make a statement in as punchy a manner as possible, as well as arcade-style action games that present sessions that last only a couple of minutes. You can complete both kinds of game well within the two hour window (for arcade titles, several times, perhaps getting your fill in the process), after which point you can get your money back even if the game is fit for task and has actively delivered on its promises.
Examples already abound. Beyond Gravity, a one-button physics game that has "very positive" Steam reviews, saw 13 out of 18 sales refunded, leaving them out of pocket [via Gamasutra]. Gone Home and other artistic games are also uniquely vulnerable.
This is clearly a major issue, seeing as developers are literally not getting paid for their work. But...
It's time for some real talk now, folks. As much as we love and respect developers of all sizes, we don't write for their benefit. We write for you, gamers, in an effort to inform you about games and just as importantly to save you money. As such, I can't help but feel that I should be encouraging you to partake in this practice. If you can complete a game and then get your money back, with no real effort and technically not abusing a system that has been established with no qualification as to why you should get a refund in the first place, I'm not sure how unethical it really is. In gaming terms, it's an exploit, not a hack.
After all, you don't have to get your money back if you feel the game deserves it, and more to the point Steam literally says that you can claim a refund "for any reason." Any reason. As such, "because I can" seems to be... fair enough?
Except, of course, that it isn't. Though I'm conflicted and the devil on my shoulder is telling me to encourage you to game the system, my conscience is screaming at me. Or more accurately, screaming at Valve. After doing much (too much?) to get indies onto their storefront in volume, their loose language is now burning plenty of developers and they need to sort it out. In the short-term developers are literally losing money, but in the long-term Steam are incentivising studios to create great big piles of unfocused content that last longer than two hours as opposed to short focused and punchy projects with a cohesive message.
In effect, they're encouraging developers to pad the hell out of their games! And that's all before bringing in the ethics of whether it's okay to short-change small studios just "because I can." Clearly it isn't.
So what can be done about this? Honestly, I'm a bit stumped. The broad language used in the terms and conditions make it very difficult to effect any sort of change or improvement to help protect indie titles that deliver in two hours or less. Valve could let developers choose their own refund window, but that idea is so atrociously stupid and ripe for abuse of a different kind that I feel embarrassed to even mention it. Valve could implement a two-tier system, but doing so would be difficult to police and qualify. Valve staffers could play each game and decide on an appropriate length of time, but this would require a huge amount of hands-on curation, a concept that they seem to find abhorrent. I suppose that developers could issue trial and unlock demos with no refund functionality, but that's still unsuitable for story-driven games and any number of genres.
Even the basic terms and conditions are incredibly difficult to tweak. They could make gamers prove that a game doesn't work with system logs and crash reports, but how can you prove that you just don't like a game and want to return it? Without pulling a paid mods-style backtrack -- which we hope doesn't happen -- I'm actually at a loss right now in terms of how best to go about addressing the problem beyond punishing repeat offenders by blocking their ability to claim refunds. And even then, how can they prove that someone is "abusing" the system as opposed to just buying lots of games that they sadly couldn't get on with?
Personally-speaking, I wonder if this might make developers start to consider other avenues of digital distribution beyond Steam. We do love Valve's marketplace, but it's fast becoming a monopoly (even their competitors tend to sell Steam codes these days!), which can't be healthy for the PC market in the long-run. Perhaps we'll see more smaller studios start to explore other marketplaces such as itch.io, GamersGate and even the currently embattled Desura, raising their prominence in the process especially if larger boutique outfits take up the cause as well. Perhaps Origin and even... oh the humanity... Uplay could do more to get worthwhile projects onto their own storefronts.
Ultimately I can only urge you to act with your conscience and vote with your wallet. The Steam refund system is a good thing and you should use it, both if a game doesn't work and if you don't enjoy a game. But if you play a game to completion, enjoying a tight and well-told story or a mechanically satisfying arcade shooter, consider the fact that you probably got your money's worth... and that the developers deserve to get paid.
Let us know what you make of Steam Refunds, and especially whether you've used them, in the comments!