Opinion PC

Is Valve shafting themselves and game developers with Steam Refunds?

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Valve has implemented the ability for consumers to get refunds for digital goods purchased on Steam. The long awaited feature will make consumers happy, praising Gabe Newell and his digital distribution platform. Here is how Steam Refunds could positively affect the consumer and how it could negatively affect Valve and game developers through user abuse.

Positive effects - They see my refund, they be “Hating”

A prime example of how refunds will positively affect the Steam consumer base is in regards to Hatred. The Steam Refunds feature comes one day after the release of Hatred on Steam. Although the game is “selling more than GTA V and The Witcher 3 on Steam at the moment”, as my colleague Han Cilliers points out, our review roundup suggests that the game is terrible. Consumers who bought into the “Hatred” hype can now get a full refund for the game.

Valve explains how Steam Refunds work:

You can request a refund for nearly any purchase on Steam - for any reason. Maybe your PC doesn't meet the hardware requirements; maybe you bought a game by mistake; maybe you played the title for an hour and just didn't like it.

It doesn't matter. Valve will, upon request via help.steampowered.com, 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. There are more details below, but even if you fall outside of the refund rules we’ve described, you can ask for a refund anyway and we’ll take a look.” - Source

People make mistakes when purchasing products; it’s just the way the world works. False advertising, over-hyped titles or bugs and crashes lead to disgruntled customers. With Steam Refunds, consumers can now rest easy when making a purchase, knowing that the refund option is there if they do not enjoy the product. You can check out the payment methods supported by Steam Refunds.

Playing a game for less than two hours and then requesting a refund within the first two weeks of purchase is a fair amount of time to test out a product. The result could increase purchases on Steam, as it removes the risk of buying a terrible game by mistake. Although I can not fathom a negative effect on the consumer, there are some potential opportunities for abuse of the system that can cause damage to Valve and game developers.

Potential consumer abuse can negatively impact Valve and game developers

There will always be people who try to abuse a newly implemented system. So far, there are four ways consumers can abuse the Steam Refunds policy, less than 24 hours after the system went live. Possible negative implications include “review bombs”, DRM-free game concerns, the Stream offline-mode loophole and affects of the policy on short games.

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Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker notes his concerns over DRM-free games:

Games that have opted not to use Steam’s DRM, which of course is usually perceived as a customer-friendly decision, can now be purchased, copied over into a different directory, and then a refund requested. With the new no-quibble policy, they’ll get their money back, and have a working copy of the game remaining on their hard drive. It is, essentially, the same shady antics that were possible when brick-n-shelving game stores would provide refunds on DRM-free boxed PC games. It was, in fact, a huge reason why boxed PC games had DRM.” - Source

There is no easy solution for DRM-free games. The only way I can think of to avoid what Mr. Walker mentions is for gaming companies to use Steam’s DRM, which in itself is not foolproof.

Steam User reviews could lead to “review bombs” by disgruntled customers. Craig Stern, the man behind Sinister Design and IndieRPGs notes his concern on Twitter: “Concern about the Steam refund policy I just saw: will this allow people to "review bomb" games by buying them, downvoting, then refunding?” - Source

Review bombs have an easy fix. If you review a game and ask for a refund, Valve should remove the review.

What about smaller games that players can complete or come close to completing in two hours time? Epanalepsis creator Cameron Kunzelman points out the issue via Twitter, stating that: “Steam Refunds really screws you over if you make games that are less than 2 hours long”- Source

Kunzelman further explains to Kotaku:

The Steam policy is actively giving us a world where certain kinds of shorter experiences don’t even figure in to the economic ecology that we imagine around games. It’s actively destructive to anyone wanting to make something smaller and content-driven, like concise narrative games.” - Source

A way to protect game developers and Valve from users buying short games, completing them and then asking for a refund is easy. Limit maximum playtime for short games to one hour or even 30 minutes; with the ability to request a refund removed after for example 30 minutes of play.

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Abusing the system via offline mode count hurt Valve’s bottom line. Steam has an offline mode, where users do not require an internet connection to play. Could consumers buy a game, download it and then go into offline mode, thereby avoiding the two hour counter limit altogether? If an offline counter is in place, users can just log onto another PC already authorized on their Steam account where the game is not installed and ask for a refund. To fix this type of abuse is not easy. One suggestion is that for the first two hours of play the user’s offline mode can be disabled, which will in turn negatively impact consumers with poor or unstable internet connections.

Valve talks about refund abuse:

Refunds are designed to remove the risk from purchasing titles on Steam—not as a way to get free games. If it appears to us that you are abusing refunds, 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.” – Source

Hopefully Valve will implement ways to stop the forms of abuse listed above. At the time of writing, there are no details on how Valve will prevent abuse of the system or what the company classifies as abuse.

Do you think people will abuse the Steam Refund policy? How will the refund policy’s safety net affect your purchases on Steam? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

Sources: Steam Store, Twitter, RPS, Kotaku  

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