How One Game Developer Views Steam's Refund Policy As A Boon In The Face Of Over $4 Million In Refunds

from the the-long-game dept

It’s been a little over a year since the Steam platform finally rolled out a true refund program for digital game purchases, with Microsoft quickly following suit. While gamers rejoiced at the news that every game purchase wasn’t some form of a gamble, game developers reacted in a range generally between being nonplussed to vocally angry or fearful. The overall concern was that this move to shift the balance of Steam’s supportive stance towards the consumer and away from the game developer would negatively impact the bottom line of developers now faced with a negative column in their sales metrics.

Yet there are still very smart people in the gaming industry. One of those people appears to be Garry Newman, the developer for Rust, a survival game available on Steam’s platform. Rust has been refunded a staggering 300,000-plus times, resulting in nearly four-and-a-half million dollars in refunds. But rather than freaking out and lashing out at the Steam refund policy, Newman instead decided to publish the refund statistics for everyone to see. And then he went on to explain why he thinks the refund policy for his game is actually a good thing.

Newman believes, however, that refunds provide Steam users who might normally keep their wallets under lock and key with some leeway. “I think in the long run, people knowing the refund system is there probably gained us more sales than it lost us,” he said.

That’s the sound of a man confident in his product. So confident, in fact, that he trusts that taking away some of the fear and mental cost to a transaction for his game will ultimately result in more cashflow in by gamers who keep the game than cashflow out from gamers refunding it. We make this argument all the time about digital marketplaces: taking away barriers for potential customers to enjoy a product will grow the customer-base enough to render any negatives unimportant.

There’s also something to be said for the vision of being consumer friendly in this way. Anyone reading Newman’s comments must certainly favor this kind of transparency and, again, the confidence in his product that he is demonstrating. More so, the flip side makes the inverse argument: game developers afraid of a refund policy are clearly afraid of it due to the anticipation that it will used. That would seem to indicate a wavering stance on how good the product is to begin with.

If nothing else, this past year has shown us that digital goods can still come packaged with consumer friendly policies while keeping the industry successful. Hopefully we’ll see more of this sort of thing.

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Companies: valve

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Comments on “How One Game Developer Views Steam's Refund Policy As A Boon In The Face Of Over $4 Million In Refunds”

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21 Comments
ThaumaTechnician (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not only "’cuz you didn’t like it".

Sometimes, the developer’s stated minimum and recommended system requirements are nowhere near what’s required to play and seem more trying to not eliminate sales and to not admit that the coders don’t know how to create fast, tight code and not admit that what you really need to be able play this game is a 10-core i7 running overclocked to 8GHZ while your system is sitting in a bath of liquid nitrogen…

I purchased a Steam game, a few months ago, my system’s performance was halfway between minimum and recommended. The opening credit video/demo could barely play, hitting something like one frame every 2-3 seconds. Time for a refund.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Refunds are almost like a demo

Agreed. This also argues that developers ought to be more proactive about publishing free-to-play demos. Let people try the game for free in a relatively limited form (limited enough that it’s not worth replaying it in lieu of the real game, but full enough to exercise the major code paths: startup, shutdown, any mandatory videos, basic gameplay), then the ones who might exercise a refund policy have an opportunity to discover they don’t want the game before they make that first transaction. It saves the developer the refund (and the fees, as noted elsewhere) and may encourage trials from people who otherwise won’t consider the game even with a refund policy (usually because of bad experiences with refund policies that are consumer hostile, which may or may not be the case with any given publisher).

For example, a minor with no ability to buy directly could try a demo, like it, and ask his/her parent/guardian to buy it, and succeed (and even show the demo as proof that it runs well, lacks serious objectionable content, etc.); but phrase that conversation as “Please buy this for me. The screenshots look good and it’s got a great refund policy if I decide not to keep it” and the purchaser may decide that it’s too much trouble and refuse to buy it sight-unseen.

Adults who could buy it directly might also decide that seeking a refund is “too much trouble” and still avoid demo-free games, particularly if the refund window is very time-limited, but the demo can be played indefinitely (and is limited by the amount of content, not number of hours played or when they’re played). I could see someone who only has a little bit of game time every few days/weeks deciding that there’s no way they can devote time to adequately judge the game before the refund window expires, but that they could spare the time (over a period of weeks) to step through the demo.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

IIRC, Steam allows two hours of playtime during which a game can be refunded. I certainly feel some of the games I play can be messed around with for two hours by a complete noob and not really do more than brush the surface. Demos, they are not.

More practically, there is an orthogonal axis of value here; Ever since Steam added refunds, the quarterly Steam sales have been much less interesting. There are no 90% discounts on big-name games. There are no flash sales and no instants and no dailies. Show up on the fourth day of sales, skim anything you’re interested, and you’re done.

The reason is not hard to see; if there were flash sales, anyone who bought games before the the greater discount would refund and repurchase. There’s no need for 90% discounts since anyone can just ‘refund’ to try something out.

Is this a very quantifiable gripe? Well… It’s hard to measure. But I sure regret the changes, even as someone who’s refunded a game or two before.

Daniel Audy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

This is very true.

I picked up ‘Battleborne’ on Steam when it was released and spent about 4 hours attempting to play it and working with tech support to fix the persistent performance issues that was making it unplayable. I eventually decided that it wasn’t worth my time to keep fighting with it when the first 8 supposed fixes made no difference and was able to refund it, despite being past the official 2 hour playtime limit.

As a result I moved on with my life and bought ‘Overwatch’ instead. If I had been out the $70 that I’d paid for an unplayable game I would have been quite upset and left some nasty review about how the game was substandard and never risked buying a game from that developer again. Instead I still view the developer with a relatively positive attitude since they produce interesting games and might, if it is ever on sale significantly, try buying it again and see if they fixed the issues I was having.

Anonymous Coward says:

Who is paying for the credit card refund fees?

My subject line says it all. If it is the publisher/developer then even if the have a great product those CC fees are actual cost. Most likely the developer is footing this bill, I would be high shocked if Steam is taking the hit.

BTW, Rust is an awesome game. If you even just causally game, check it out.

Arthur Moore (profile) says:

Re: Who is paying for the credit card refund fees?

Probably the developer.

With that said, it’s a cost of doing business. You can think of it in two ways:

First, the fees are less than a marketing campaign. The safety net factor means more people will try the game.

Second, a refund policy means if something horrible goes wrong there’s less likely to be a public backlash. People can still be unhappy with the game, but if they get there money back, they’re less likely to cause as large of a firestorm. Think about No Man’s Sky. While it would still have been a horrid game, if players could have gotten refunds they wouldn’t have been nearly as upset.

Daniel Audy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Who is paying for the credit card refund fees?

Based on how the system appears to work no one actual pays any additional fees for the refunds. Refunds go back into the users ‘Steam Wallet’ which will then almost always be used buying other games since most users aren’t entering the Steam ecosystem just for a single game and cashing out is a pain. That just means Valve needs to track refunds and adjust their periodic payouts to account for them since it is quite unlikely that a game will ever generate negative revenue over a moderate period and they would have to get money back from the developer (something generally akin to getting blood from a stone).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Who is paying for the credit card refund fees?

You can also refund to the original payment method, I believe:

“You will be issued a full refund of your purchase within a week of approval. You will receive the refund in Steam Wallet funds or through the same payment method you used to make the purchase. If, for any reason, Steam is unable to issue a refund via your initial payment method, your Steam Wallet will be credited the full amount.”

Anonymous Coward says:

he's right...

I bought this game before the refund policy was a thing- took me 2+ frustrating and fruitless hours to realize I utterly hated it… even with the refund policy I might not have figured it out in time…

Left a very negative review- still have a bad opinion of the company. Still feel cheated. -This statement from them greatly improves my opinion though; from absolute boycott to being open to consider anything new they might do. Rust had decent graphics/physics/menus/ui and such- it was the gameplay design that I felt was awful.

The game was (this was well over a year ago- may have changed) like living in “negans” world from walking dead- only negan doesn’t need/want more people, so you’re just fodder; periodically killed for your resources- all of which you lose when you die. Every server I tried, same thing- you end up with a hatchet, killed by a guy(s) with a gun- or with a gun, killed by a guy(s) with a machine gun- never a fair fight- no way to avoid the fight. The servers where ruled by people who obviously had major time to build their character during times when no one else was on server (middle of night and such), or ran in large groups. For anyone else, the experience was nothing but fruitless grinding- rinse, repeat- no opportunity for advancement.

Of course the devs have nothing to do with other players actions… Still- hard to understand how anyone would enjoy that sort of experience; or why enabling that sort of behavior with no counter defense would seam like a good idea. Maybe they’ve changed it for the better by now somehow?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: he's right...

Game is still like that, just very much improved. Everything is better, graphics, animations, crafting systems etc from a year ago.

With all that said, the game is still full of “negans” as you put it, and that is what makes it wonderful in a sea of handholding babysitting games that make everything safe for you. Rust is awesome.

David says:

Refunds are really part of the business model.

Counting refunds as losses due to piracy or whatnot makes as much sense as counting having to give back change as robbery.

People don’t like buying the cat in the bag. Not offering refunds on software people might not like or need is making buying so inconvenient that many will just refrain.

Kendra (profile) says:

I agree

I think Newmann has a valid point. If you’re confident that your game is good, then people will purchase and keep it. The people who return it might have had a negative effect on your game if they were forced to keep it. Plus, like he said, the return policy gives the consumer a sense of security with their wallet, meaning they are more likely to feel better about spending that $7 to $15 on your game.

Daniel Audy (profile) says:

Re: I agree

It is also particularly valuable for games that offer a unique, but not universally enjoyable, experience – like Rust. For these games there is a huge amount of risk for an informed player going in because they know it is quirky and potentially unfriendly and that is part of the appeal for some players but many players won’t risk spending $15 for something with high odds that they won’t enjoy. If they can try the acclaimed but unusual game without risk the ones that DO enjoy it will stay while the rest will churn and the developer has a significant net increase in sales.

McGyver (profile) says:

Once upon a time there were these things called demo disks… You could play a level or two…
If a game sucked you knew it and didn’t buy it.
In some cases games that you thought you had no interest in proved to be worth buying.
What probably killed that was the idea you could trade it in if it sucked (yeah, but for pennies on the dollar)…
Over the years how many games felt like you were doing the beta testing for the developers?
Refunds make for better, more complete and thought out games.

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