Steam Refunds: An Early Access Developer Perspective 7 Days In

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At the start of June Valve introduced their new refund policy stating that basically any user who has purchased a game or DLC less than 14 days ago and has not consumed the item or used it for less than two hours is fully entitled to a refund. Andrew Pellerano posted an opinion on Polygon 5 days later detail just what the refund process looks like and voices his concerns towards developers, the restrictions it places on us and how it may affect the future of development.

 

As you can probably imagine since Valve has introduced this new policy there has been a number of developers (including myself) voicing their concerns with this system from within the Steam forums and via social media. Initially, I hadn’t really given the entire thing much thought, however I had been asked by a couple of people my opinion as a developer, currently in Early Access on Steam, what my thoughts were on the whole policy and just how it would affect me. My aim with this post is just to identify what I feel affects me as a developer on Steam with this new policy by trying to be objective about the entire process.

 

I’d like to preface this entire post with my own personal opinion that, in theory, I think that refunds are a good thing. I think that they are helpful to consumers / gamers in the long run who may have been misled by a product or have accidentally made a purchase only to find that the game doesn’t run on their system because it doesn’t meet the requirements or they are running the wrong system. Mistakes happen and in these sort of circumstances refunds are fair.

 

I’m going to start this discussion with my experience of refunds on RPG Tycoon now that the new policy is in place. The following two images below show the trends in Sales VS Refunds on RPG Tycoon from the 1st – 31st of May before Valve introduced their policy and a much shorter but interesting first 7 Days of June during which Valve introduced their new refunds policy. Over the entirety of the 31 days of May, RPG Tycoon was refunded ONCE.  In these first 7 days of June out of the 60 average units sold, over 20 of those have claimed a refund. The spike in sales towards the end of May is due to an announcement of a new updated build of the game available for players, there has not been a sale on RPG Tycoon since April.

 

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 16.00.50 Screen Shot 2015-06-07 at 16.00.57

 

Initially, this data doesn’t really show much except the fact that people ARE almost instantaneously using this refund feature. It’s also worth mentioning that 7 of those refunds show no purchase data (which would only mean that these are claims on the game purchased towards the end of May) and the other refunds were interesting. Looking at sales data it’s not unusual for some users to purchase multiple copies of the game (I imagine for gifting to other players) however one user purchased the game 7 times and then refunded 5 of them. (Did they buy 6 copies for friends, only to find that 5 of them already had it?)

 

This is part of the problem. There’s no way of knowing WHY users have claimed a refund. There’s no communication with me as a developer.I have so many questions… Could it be that they were having technical issues? Is it something that could have been solved by talking to me? Did they ACTUALLY mistakenly buy 7 copies of the same game, is that even possible? 

 

I’m left with a lot of confusion over this process. 

 

Interestingly though, sales HAVE increased this week. It could be in regards to the fact that there is usually a one or two day spike in sales whenever a build of the game is updated OR the safety in knowing you can get a refund has encouraged people to purchase the game. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this data to find out.

 

It’s clear then, with just 7 days of data alone, that refunds are making an impact. Be it positively or negatively they’re having an effect. So there is definitely need for developers to be concerned.

 

Now, RPG Tycoon can easily last as long or as shortly as you like and most of the people playing on Steam have clocked over 4-6 hours into the game already. You know what you’re getting with the game in the first 10-20 minutes and most people seem to be engaged with it fairly quickly. The current amount of gameplay you can get out of one session is around 2 hours and I’m aiming to make the main game mode last around 4-6 hours anyway so I’m not incredibly concerned by the 2 hour time window for refunds. Though, I do believe an hour of gameplay is long enough for you to decide if you like the game or not, a decision which realistically should be considered during the free demo and not the actual game itself. (I was actually considering a demo for RPG Tycoon yet, it seems there’s no real point in that now.)

 

I think that one of my biggest concerns is DRM. Valve believe that this refund policy will allow players the opportunity to take more risks purchasing games knowing that there is a fallback in getting a refund should they be disappointed. In doing this they feel that they will discourage players from pirating games. On paper this kind of makes sense, however, logically and in reality it doesn’t. I’ve been absolutely fine offering DRM-Free versions of the game for players because, as a gamer, I believe that DRM is a pain in the ass and annoys the crap out of me. As a developer, I feel that players that purchase my game should feel free to do what they want for it, so long as they’ve gone through the right channels to do that.

 

Say you download a DRM-Free game such as RPG Tycoon:

  1. The download that you’ve paid for is a DRM-free executable and you’ve paid for it, so that seems fair enough.
  2. Now, you’ve taken the executable and put it on a USB Stick so that you can play it on another computer in the house. The game will still run on anything you own, you’ve paid for it, it’s your right to do that.
  3. But wait, you’ve not launched the game on Steam. You purchased it a couple of days ago and think that it’s okay, but now there’s another DRM-Free game that costs the same price. So you claim a refund and buy that instead.
  4. You’ve now got RPG Tycoon (which technically, you no longer own) AND a brand new game for the same price and I’ve lost out on that sale.

 

Now I kind of want to add DRM to the game so that you can’t play it because you’ve actively revoked your rights to it… but doing that is against everything I believe in and is totally unfair for those that have paid for it and have paid for it to be DRM free.

 

Let’s also consider the ability to just play a DRM-free game without Steam running so that your hours aren’t tracked. You could, in theory use Steam as a free game-rental service. Valve claim that they’ll have stats to stop this, but they mention absolutely no penalty for a player using the system like this. What exactly will happen to people that abuse the system, they’ll just get denied, is that enough if they’ve just scammed a whole bunch of free games off of hard-working developers?

 

Oh, and sales. Let’s talk about Sales.

 

 

“We may stop offering them to you. We do not consider it abuse to request a refund on a title that was purchased just before a sale and then immediately rebuying that title for the sale price.” – Valve

 

Initially this seems like a fair way of looking at it, HOWEVER there seems to be a large overlooked issue here in regards to developers, Valve and the sale economy in general.

 

Steam Seasonal Sales. How many times have you purchased a game during one of the big sales only for it to be “Featured” for even less the following day? Well, now this isn’t an issue. Just claim it back and get it discounted. This seems great at face value, but it offers developers no incentive to ACTUALLY flash sale their products. What’s the point? What’s the point in offering a featured discount  of 50% on your game in a long-running sale during which your game has been priced at 10% off, if everyone who has purchased the game at this time for that 10% off, can just claim the game for the Featured Sale price?

 

It doesn’t make any sense to me.

 

With everything said and done, I completely understand Valve’s move to providing a more available refund process to players and consumers alike. However, it feels to me as though there are way too many cracks and contradictions within this new policy for it to be clear to developers like myself that we’re protected, and that people that play the system will truly be identified or that they’ll even suffer any consequence. Perhaps it’s too early to tell, but you can understand how a solo developer like myself, who is relying on their sales to get by, could be concerned by something like this and that Pellerano perhaps hits the nail on the head with the threat of developers needing to move to the freemium economy, which personally I’m very strongly fearful of, if there’s no support for Indie Developers to not be abused, it makes sense for them to rely on freemium business model IAP’s to try and make a living off of their otherwise, now throwaway game.

 

Granted, I have faith in RPG Tycoon and the people that play it. I feel that it’s priced fairly for the amount of content that exists and that most users will enjoy it enough to feel as though they’ve gotten their value for money but in a community that clearly wants something for nothing, Im just hoping, for the sake of Indie & Early Access developers alike, everyone else that buys games like ours sees it the same way. Only time will tell.

 

If you’re a developer and reading this, I’d like to hear your experience. Feel free to tweet @SkatanicStudios on Twitter, trackback from your own findings on your blog or post a comment below.

 

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