Steam refunds: what's right and what needs to change

Buying a new PC game can be a perilous adventure at times, and although the development of PC gaming as an online community has done a lot to reduce the number of times a game is simply unplayable, it hasn't even come close to eradicating all of the hassle that can come from purchase to actual gameplay. Any PC gamer can tell you the feeling of dread, anger, and general discontent that can spawn at the mere possibility that we just spent $60 on a Steam game that doesn't even work. 

A fresh start

One of the top criticisms against Steam lies in its sorely lacking customer support. Any problems you might have completing a transaction or with a nonfunctional game often feel like they're never addressed, and if you do eventually hear back from Steam support it's rare that they actually seem to know what to do. The number of times I've been told to validate my game cache to fix unrelated issues is too dang high. It's become such an issue that the Better Business Bureau gave them an “F” as an overall rating, citing their poor customer service as the primary culprit. 

So what's a company to do? Well Valve has always been about change, so it's time to get moving and build a better service, and adding in a dedicated refund system is a nice first step. If you can't get a game working in 14 days or before you've hit two hours of playtime Steam will give you a full refund.

The dark side of a good cookie

Unfortunately, Valve may have rushed the process of refunds a little bit, which after the communal heart attack spawned by paid Skyrim mods is beginning to feel like a trend. Although 14 days leaves plenty of time for a player to accurately assess if they can get a game to work on their rig, two hours is a dangerously arbitrary limit to put on a service that hosts many smaller games that boast short running times. 

Steam can already be a dangerous place for the little guy. It's a big pool and not much is done to keep indie developers and smaller companies heads above water after a game gets greenlit, and although we see a lot of promotion for triple A titles there's really very little done to push forward games that might not have all the hype of a big developer behind them. Now Steam is throwing in the potential for people to play a game for two hours and then return to sender, which sets a dangerous precedent for smaller games.

The Stanley Parable can easily be played to extinction in only a few short hours -- there's even an achievement for completing it under four minutes. Additionally most of the episodic content produced by Telltale games can be sprinted through in under an hour if you don't agonize over your decisions for the six hours that I generally allocate. Many indie games or games that sit under the $15 price point are up the same alley, and currently there's no clear statute preventing anyone from abusing the system. Steam states on its refunds page that it'll refuse refunds to accounts that abuse the service, but it's a fine line to walk when ultimately all you need to create an account is an email and a password.

Then again, that doesn't mean there aren't ways to fix this issue. The simple ability for shorter games to opt out of the refund program if the two hour window compromises their content, or even the ability to cause certain mid to end game achievements to lock the refund option, would go a long way to making Steam's new system work as intended. Unfortunately these issues aren't as blatant nor as high-profile as those that marred Steam's paid mod service, so it could be a while until we see any changes make the circuit.

The light side of a good cookie

In the end, this service is undeniably a good thing. Steam's giving their audience more control over the content they purchase and opening up PC gaming as an even more user-friendly place, and as an added bonus it gives us the power to actually make sure we're getting the games that we pay for. The option to not get burned by poorly optimized ports or early access titles that promise mountains but deliver sand dunes is undeniably appealing.

Imagine how quickly issues would have been fixed in Assassin's Creed: Unity if users could have simply returned the product as unfinished or simply broken. As long as Steam works out the kinks in the system they'll have given us a way to communally manage game developers, to encourage them to produce completed, fully functional content day one -- or else see their games fall to ashes among the flames of legitimate refund requests.