Steam Refunds: One Game Designer's Opinion

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Earlier this week Valve announced a new, comprehensive program for issuing refunds. It is called Steam Refunds, and joins its buddies Steam Box and SteamOS in the pantheon of cleverly-named Valve products and initiatives. The basic idea behind it is simple and fairly comprehensive. The corporation will “issue a refund for any reason, if the request is made within fourteen days of purchase, and the title has been played for less than two hours.”

This policy is an unbelievable Good Thing. I have been using Steam for a few years, and I am a Consumer with Consumer Rights in regards to my purchases on that platform.

A few years ago there was a short sale on and I wanted to buy the videogame The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion during this sale. It was during my undergrad days before my illustrious career as someone who writes about videogames on the internet, and I had what you might call “no money.” I wasn’t really paying attention, and I added two games to my cart, and I deleted the wrong thing, and I ended up purchasing, ugh, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.

I knew the consumer travesty that is Steam refusing to offer refunds, but I sent an email into the black box anyway to attempt to get my $8.00 or whatever back so that I could put that $8.00 back into the machine so that I could play Oblivion. It was a gambit, but I’m the kind of guy who makes gambits like carrying three food items at one time, and it worked out for me.

When I received the refund, it came with something like a free threat. The text with the refund told me that this was a one-time thing and that I would not be granted a second refund. The implication was that I had used it up. By “it,” I mean the immortal patience of Valve. I nodded, made a giant gulping noise, and told them I would take this one-time deal with the Devil so I could buy the game I really wanted. I heard someone whisper “mediocre,” and when I got the refund, Oblivion wasn’t even on sale anymore.

In all seriousness, that process and the assertion that I could never make another mistake purchase again really did seem brutally oppressive and unfair, and so hearing that Valve is going to codify a much more explicit process for managing refunds is a great thing in the world.

At the same time, there’s a weird little voice in my head that worries. Beyond being someone who enjoys playing and writing about videogames, I am also someone who makes them. The games I make are art games. Some of them are free to the world, and some of them are commercial, and the commercial ones come in well under two hours long. I develop singular games that are about telling particular kinds of stories under particular, not-very-fun-to-play conditions. They are often alienating, and confusing, and don’t reward fifty hours of play because I think that kind of longform narrative just doesn’t match up to the kinds of things I want to make.

I don’t think that many people will scam me or any of the other developers of small narrative games. I think it will be an edge case scenario.

I am more concerned that this signals something about the way that we think of games and the amount of time we put into them. The two weeks since time of purchase is shorter than most other stores and platforms, which generally offer thirty days from purchase. In this formulation, in the conservative calculus that Steam has set here, two hours is nothing. It is not a substantial amount of time. From their calculations, two hours is fundamentally as if you had not played the game at all.

It isn’t about scammers, or at least it isn’t majorly about them. It’s about devaluing anything that happens in under two hours. It’s about denying that someone could be satisfied in less than two hours.

If it seems like a minor thing, that’s because it is. But it’s yet one more building block in the edifice of gaming that pushes out particular kinds of experiences as not being “games” in line with the field of production. It is a subtle decision that produces an effect of nonrecognition, where small games that deserve to “compete” in the grand field of the videogame marketplace cannot even meet the bare minimum standards created by a community that is fundamentally educated by PR companies and the decisions of corporate marketplaces.

Steam sales irrevocably changed the world of digital distribution by driving down prices across the board. Humble bundles and their Steam keys added to this effect, devaluing almost all digital game production by inculcating the public with the mindset of “anything I want will predictably be on sale or bundled,” and the tracking websites that allow you to see the lowest price a game has ever been at have exacerbated this effect.

Of course, like always, this becomes part of a calculation of time to money, and it is a calculation that only serves the largest companies and the platform holders. Valve wants you to buy as many things as possible, and whether they are on sale or not matters very little to them. They operate on a scale so large that they care more about volume than they ever would in pure product-by-product revenue. And so the sales come regularly, the weekly deals appear predictably, and the publishers push sales during the in-between times.

All of that has had a profound effect on who gets to make games, what kind of games they can make and sell, and at what personal cost.

I make games less than two hours long. I don’t think that I will be scammed due to the refund policy, but I do think Steam’s refund policy is the further consolidation of a particular view of games that accidentally forces me, and others making games like mine, even further away from any kind of prosperity on that platform.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.