from the predictable dept
It has now been over six years since Valve finally put in a refund policy for video games purchased on its Steam platform. At the time of its announcement, I was very much in favor of this move by Valve, given how previously the prospect of buying games on the platform was laughably tilted in favor of publishers and developers. On top of that, a whole bunch of the outcry from publishers and developers over the policy seemed to mostly center around it existing at all, meaning such concerns were mostly just requests to go back to the one-sided policies that favored them. Some developers even saw large numbers of refunds as a good thing, arguing that those refunds were likely largely from people that never would have tried their games out if a potential refund weren’t in place.
But going way back to that first post over its announcement, one concern brought up by developers seemed legit. Given that the refund policy required the buyer to have bought the game within the past two calendar weeks and to have not played more than two hours of it, well, what about very short games that can be completed well within that timeframe?
That exact scenario has now impacted one indie developer such that it is quitting the game development industry altogether.
Summer of ’58 is the latest first-person horror title from indie developer Emika Games, which was released in July and features a video blogger investigating an abandoned and supposedly haunted Russian children’s camp – which of course goes very badly indeed. At £6.19/$6.92 on Steam it’s a cheap purchase even full-price, and it’s currently 23% off.
The game’s Steam page makes it very clear that Summer of ’58 only has an average play-time of around 90 minutes. However, according to Emika Games, Summer of ’58 has received “a huge number of returns” – despite being rated ‘very positive’. The developer blames this on the fact that its game “does not reach two hours of playing time” – under Steam’s return policy, any game under two hours can be refunded.
As a result, Emika Games announced on Twitter that it is leaving the games industry entirely for an “indefinite time”.
Now, we could have a discussion about whether this is an overreaction or not. We could talk about how Steam’s refund policy is completely public, meaning that Emika Games knew what it was getting into when it put its 2 hour game on the platform. We could talk about business models and all the other ways the game could have been sold to the public other than via Steam, or other ways the developer could have made money from it.
But whatever side of those arguments you’d want to come down on, it wouldn’t change the simple fact that this is an obvious flaw within Steam’s refund policy. And, frankly, it’s one that developers and industry commentators saw coming a mile away. Hell, in my first post on the announcement, I managed to come up with a simple solution to this myself.
It might be an even better solution to simply allow game-makers to have options on the game-time of their refund policy. Say, two hours, five hours, or thirty minutes. Then consumers could decide for themselves if less game-time was worth the risk of purchase. I imagine that would create more administrative work on Steam’s end, but it ought to keep the indies happy.
It seems Steam decided not to keep the indies happy. And now one of them is leaving not just Steam, but the entire industry. Why? Because Steam caters primarily to the AAA publishers? That’s probably part of it. Because Steam didn’t want to give up that kind of control over its policies and platform to developers? Probably another part of it. Because this would have created work for Steam that it didn’t want to do? Likely yet another part of it.
But whether it is one of those explanations or the trifecta, a good indie gaming scene means this policy has to be altered to make it workable for those making shorter games.