The major players tend to be tight-lipped about the numbers, so there’s no way to know for sure. In all likelihood, though, no other digital distribution platform has as much sway over the videogame market as Steam. So it was a certified Big Deal when, earlier this week, its owner Valve announced a new policy that would allow the service’s users to collect refunds, for any reason, within 14 days of purchase.
That’s been hailed as a victory for consumers; less so for independent developers. As Cameron Kunzelman explains over at Paste, the reason is Valve’s condition that only games that have been played for less than two hours are eligible for refund. Developer Andrew Pellarano has suggested that, since “it suddenly makes sense to change your early game progression in order to incentivize a 2 hour binge,” the policy might influence the way developers design their games.
An adjustment to the policy seems fair, and if Steam is important enough to the market that its policies have the potential to influence design culture, why not look for a policy that influences it for the better?
My preference would be for a cap calculated as a percentage of the minimum advertised playtime. If a publisher promises 50+ hours of playtime, and the cap is 10%, then the game would be eligible for refund so long as the buyer has logged no more than 5 hours of play. To prevent publishers from gaming that system, Steam could altogether waive the restriction on games where the publisher has provided no estimates—in other words, consumers have a full 2 weeks to refund—and set the minimum cap at 30 minutes of logged play.
Apart from being more equitable to indie developers, what I like about a percentage-based system is the economic pressure it would exert against one of videogaming’s more self-destructive tendencies. For decades now, the market has made a fetish of game length. That’s resulted in a lot of exaggerated claims about estimated playtime, as well as consumer-oriented countermeasures, like the site How Long To Beat. More critically, it’s encouraged design that artificially pads the minimum playtime, so that players end up spending much of their time crossing and recrossing empty landscapes or “grinding” through tedious chores, rather than having the sort of experiences that drew them to a game in the first place.
By pegging the refund eligibility period to advertised playtime, Steam would give publishers one incentive for curbing those practices. After all, the more extravagant the claims a publisher makes for a game, the longer Steam users would have to change their mind about their purchase. At the same time, so long as a significant proportion of players continue to associate value with the amount of time they spend playing a game, it’s unlikely that the mere possibility of additional returns would drive publishers to seriously underestimate playtime.
At least in theory, then, the tension between competing incentives would nudge publishers toward better design and more accuracy in advertising. In the long run, that would make a percentage-based system better not only for indie devs, but also for consumers.