On Steam Refunds and Antagonism Towards Customers

Valve’s video game digital distribution platform, Steam, recently implemented a digital returns policy. By all accounts this is fantastic news and a big win for customer rights. Video game returns – even for physical copies – have been difficult to come by for very long time. Usually the most you could do is get a new copy of a defective physical disc, at least where I live. GOG.com and EA’s Origin have only fairly recently implemented digital return policies.

Return policies when it comes to online media have been fickle for a long time, and Steam’s position as a digital distribution giant has great implications for the future. Steam’s return policy is effectively “no questions asked.” Coupled with Steam’s position as a digital distribution giant this may encourage the adoption of more customer-friendly return policies in order to compete and may encourage digital distribution channels to follow suit. Everyone’s happy, right?


Over the past week, some independent game developers’ reactions have ranged from being angry at Steam to being absolutely livid over this policy, claiming that people will abuse the policy to buy 2-3 hour games, complete them and immediately return them. It’s not just indie developers either; journalists have also been pointing out alleged problems with Steam’s refund policy. People upset with this policy felt vindicated by the publishing of an article claiming to show a major spike in digital returns of Beyond Gravity, a one hour indie game by developer Qwiboo.  This article has also been a source for much of the commentary suggesting indie devs are struggling with the policy.

The first and most obvious point about the graph on Dark Side of Gaming is that there’s no evidence of any actual abuse. This is a single developer comparing the rate of refunds now to the rate of refunds back when refunds were almost impossible to get on Steam. This is also a nine month old game from an obscure studio with the most highly rated reviews being negative. This isn’t even close to proof of gamers abusing the system or being greedy. We don’t know what those stats really say about the customers. Which leads me to the bigger issue that most of these indie developers and journalists haven’t noticed.

Maybe the people who return games didn’t just want to play them for free.

In all the rush to decry Steam users as freeloading jerks who abuse the system and who want everything for free, these indie developers aren’t pausing to consider any context or reason behind the returns. Maybe the players didn’t actually like the game? Maybe they were just testing the refund policy? Maybe they bought it by accident? Maybe their system had compatability issues? Maybe it was an impulse buy that they now regret? Maybe they saw negative reviews post-buy and had second thoughts? Maybe their graphics card fried and now they won’t be able to play games for the foreseeable future? Maybe returning week-old games was a given considering this policy was announced shortly before the now-ongoing Steam Summer Sale?

The confirmation bias of responses like this and the determination to see customers through the darkest tinted glasses get developers and journalists into trouble when you look at the other cited developer, Puppy Games. Puppy Games also allegedly shared a chart (their Tweets are now protected) that was cited by DSOG, but there’s a problem: Puppy Games is claiming the tweets were taken out of context. Their responding blog post has been resoundingly supportive of the policy:

“Big time 800lb gorilla monopoly stakeholder Valve announced a week ago a wonderful u-turn on their famously awful refunds policy, and frankly, about fucking time.”

The determination by some indie developers and game journalists to see their own potential audiences in the worst possible light is a troublesome indicator of how they conduct themselves as business owners and entrepreneurs (which is what they are). As a business, the way you treat your customers begets how they treat you. By asserting in advance that your possible audience is a bunch of freeloading thieves out to steal from you, you pre-emptively poison the well and made a terrible impression. Especially considering that for some of these very obscure indie developers, this may be the most public attention they’ve gotten yet.

More dangerously, antagonism begets antagonism. When you’re shouting down your audience as freeloaders, they’re going to take umbrage. Do you think this kind of behavior is going to make people more or less likely to go out of their way to buy and immediately return your game purely to spite you? I raised this question to Peter Moorhead on Twitter and it was brushed off, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it happening.

Meanwhile, Mike Bithell, developer of the awesome, highly recommended (and short!) Thomas Was Alone, also chimed in on Steam refunds in a good way. Amen:

He then went on to nail the problem of this stance perfectly:

This is my biggest problem with the assertion that this is bad for indie developers, and it’s also why developers and journalists upset with this policy are displaying a worrying degree of projection. If you rely on the inability of customers to return a product in order to create a sustainable stream of revenue and profit, maybe you’re the one with the problem. 

Treat your customers the way you want to be treated, and remember that nothing trumps a good product. Make something that people love and they’ll keep it and spread the word.