Steam Refunds: The Advantages to Developers
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
1) More pleasant forums
It's always been said that Steam forums are unpleasant hostile places. We've never experienced this really, as the Project Zomboid Steam forums have always been a pretty pleasant place to be, but we've certainly experienced extremely hostile forums in the past (when we lost a month of code due to a burglary of our home, delayed a version, and were discovered to have had (now much improved) sub par backup procedures. Unfair and horrible as it felt given what we were going through, we HAD demonstrably ****** up. The hostility was not from a vacuum, and it rarely if ever is.). People are hostile because they are angry, and they are angry rightly or wrongly because they paid money for a game and are unhappy for whatever reason. That reason might not be our fault as developers, but the reason will be there all the same and now that person only has one recourse: To complain, to vent, and perhaps turn others away from making the same regretful purchase they did. Now these people can scoot off with their refund, and will be a lot less angry and will certainly be a lot less present. Crucially, they may not be around (or feel the moral need), souring the forums and dissuading the next customer that comes along.
2) More adventurous purchases
This is for all us with games on Steam that may have some hurdle for prospective players to dive in. First off Early Access games. Early Access developers may see a few more people prepared to risk a purchase, since they can properly access the quality of what is available already. As well as this, games with a more niche appeal, or with retro graphics, may get a few more experimental purchases now that refunds are an option for the consumer.
3) Less turds in the punchbowl
This is particularly important to any Early Access developer out there, or every developer of whatever the latest genre trend is (see survival games atm, or voxel builder games last week) as it will pretty much deprive oxygen to every one of those 'me too' hastily put together and exploitative games that try and capitalize on current genre trends. You know the ones. They erode customer faith in the system we all share together, make many a 'Early Access: never again' customer. In this new environment there are less risks for customers, and less residual suspicion and bitterness about unwise purchases. Those types of games will now shrivel and die before they can do any damage. Where the games that actually try to expand on the genre, improve it, push it forward, do something different, and are actually fun and well put together will still be able to sail high. Furthermore may even do better, as...
4) Extra money in the pockets of customers
So you're obsessing about what sales you lose due to refunds? Or because this money will likely end up in a Steam wallet and thus Valve doesn't really lose out anything? Well surely it should be a two way street? Presumably that money in that Steam wallet is going to be spent on something the customer will like more. Why can't that be your game? And if it's not your game, and you are the one losing money to other games via refunds, is that not on your head and something you need to improve? No one owes any of us a living. If customers have freedom to make sure their Steam spent money ends up on something they want the most, and it's not our game, then that's on us, not on them or on Valve. Simple as that. Strive to be the game that people are buying with their refunded money, not the game being refunded. It only stands to reason that this will mean better games.
5) Are We Not Gamers?
As well as a developer, I'm also a consumer. I gleefully wait for the day when the quality of releases on Steam starts to be like a bit closer to what it was in the good old days. The margin on shovel-ware has just shrunk significantly.
6) It's almost certainly not as bad as it looks
I would put good money on our game having more Greenlight votes than every other game that's been on Greenlight since, combined. Why? It's simple. We put our game on Greenlight in the first day it was available. We were in the first batch of Greenlighted games (though we waited an ENTIRE year before putting the game up). We got a ton of votes because Greenlight was a new thing everyone was talking about.
Don't judge your refund rates in the first week, when everyone and their dog are talking about Steam refunds all over the internet (just shy of a summer sale into the bargain) . I doubt the true refund figures will be even close to what they are like currently. If we'd have made assumptions about our future success due to our Greenlight campaign, we'd be assuming we'd have sold about 100 million copies by now. Extrapolating anything at all from week one of a new system is madness.
Because it was just not right that people who bought games from us did not have the same consumer protections that most people in capitalist countries have enjoyed for years. If we were making extra money because of this fact, then that at the end of the day feels shady to me. My conscience, at least, will be clearer from here-on-in. If we had a 75% reduction on sales, then that would be bad. It would however be just, as clearly there were more people out there dissatisfied then we knew about.
But how has this affected us?
As it so happens we've barely noticed a significant drop in sales at all. I should point out I've spoken in favour of refunds quite passionately well before we had any evidence of the impact it would have on us. Yet still there feels to be this bit of me that feels guilty for speaking in favour of refunds when it hasn't affected us adversely, when it has affected others so.
However this is something specifically we've worked very hard at since we've been on Steam, we priced the game as low as we could justify, despite every single bit of evidence pointing at making it more expensive resulting in more revenues, we've tried to provide as many hours entertainment as possible for as low a price as we could justify, we prioritized modding support, we made every move we could to extend the time people can play our game, we made every move we could to prioritize customer satisfaction where possible even if it were against any immediate benefits, and that's paid off. That's why despite us being extremely delayed with a few game features, our steam forums continue to be on the whole nice and friendly, and that's why when the refund system came in most people seem to have decided to stick around.
...and if they hadn't, then it would be up to us to determine why, and fix that. Not to start assuming that everyone who buys our game is being dishonest and abusing the system. If that's your first and only assumption, then maybe that's the actual root of the whole problem?