Dollars to Design Ratio — The Refunding Game Debate

It’s time for another big debate between designers and consumers. The option to refund digital games has been a major topic over the last few years. When Valve introduced their refund policy in 2015, indie developers started to see doom and gloom. Microsoft is planning on doing a policy for the Xbox One and Windows Store. Refunding games is a polarizing topic between fans and makers.

refunding games

The Policy:

To start with, let’s quickly define the policy for refunding games. On Steam, you may refund any game purchase off the store with the following stipulations. You must do it before two weeks have passed and you must not have more than two hours of total playtime.

The idea is to give someone enough time to make a call on a game purchase. Weeks before the policy was put into play, Indie developers complained that the system would be abused. This came from developers of smaller titles, such as art or visual novel games.

Their reasoning was that two hours was more than enough time for someone to beat their game and return it. Despite the calls for concern, things have been going well on Steam.  The refund policy is a major step up from their previous hidden one.

When it comes to refunding games, the debate comes down to the consumers and the developers.

The Consumer’s Side:

A few weeks ago we talked about the importance of the used game or second-hand market. If you want consumers to spend money, then they need to have options to either recoup some of their investment or get rid of a bad buy.

refunding games

If a game doesn’t meet the consumer’s expectations, then there must be protection in place.

In today’s flooded game market, it’s becoming harder for people to keep up with new game releases. Then there is the problem of running into technical problems when playing a game. For retail copies, if they can’t get the game to work, they can take it back.

Before Steam’s refund policy, buying a game on Steam was like a slot machine; you never knew what you were going to get. While it’s important for developers to get paid, consumers still need protection.

With Arkham Knight, the game was in such a poor state on the PC that most people couldn’t play it. While they did eventually patch it to some extent, without a refund policy, many consumers would have been stuck with a $60 game they couldn’t play.

In No Man’s Sky’s case, while the developers did put out patches to the game over months, it still left a lot of people with a game that they felt wasn’t what was advertised. It’s not fair to the consumer to ask them to pay for a product and hold it until a certain time has passed.

For developers, they feel that a blanket policy doesn’t work for games.

The Developer’s Side:

As we’ve talked about, video games are not defined by a set quantity. Just as there are short games built on a single play, we have grand strategy titles that can take hours to simply understand what’s going on. A “one size fits all” policy is hard when there are no standards for a game.

The big point that we mentioned already is about short games. Titles like Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter and so on, have short gameplay loops. The point about these games is following the story. Because of the focus on narrative over gameplay, you’re not going to get the same quantity as you would other titles.

refunding games

Narrative driven games are built on the value of their story, not the gameplay

Instead of returning a game because you didn’t like it, it then becomes a race to see if you can see the entire game before time is up. The consumer essentially gets a free game, while the developer is out a sale.

One suggestion was to turn the two hour limit into a percentage completion, but that’s not going to work.

Refund Reviewing:

A refund policy is vital for providing protection to the consumer. If the consumer doesn’t have the means to return a game they don’t want, then they’re not going to try new games on the threat of being stuck with something they hate. Despite not having a set standard for games, a percentage system will not work.

Time after time we’ve seen that Valve wants an automated system to handle these issues. They’re not going to want a system that needs to be monitored for each case. Then there is the problem of communicating that to the player. How exactly do you tell someone what’s 25% of a game?

Price to Game:

The final point and could be the hardest to talk about is putting a price on a video game. There are a lot of factors that go into this, and we’ve previously discussed that “appraising” game design is most likely not going to happen.

Many narrative-driven games are still priced fairly high compared to their peers. We have a market where Outlast 2 is only $10 less than Crusader Kings 2; a game with a lot more replay value. The more money someone ties up in a single game, the more they expect to get out of it.

Now I know that some people will argue that the narrative of these games is a part of the price, but this again goes back to the problems of appraising a game. One thing’s for sure, if someone spends $20 on a game that only has a few hours of content, they may not feel like they’re getting their money’s worth.

Your thoughts on this matter can be determined by answering one simple question: Do you think $20 or more is fair for games like Gone Home or Outlast 2?

Policy Making:

As the world continues to embrace digital sales, the argument of consumer rights and refunds are not going to go away. Ideally, this shouldn’t impact the majority of games being released, with exception to games that turn out badly.

For titles that are aimed as shorter experiences, it may be time to have a discussion of just how much value you are able to provide with your game.

For you reading this, what do you think about game refunding?