Valve Corporation announced today that their digital distribution behemoth, Steam, would begin accepting refund requests "for nearly any purchase on Steam—for any reason." The company elaborates:
Maybe your PC doesn't meet the hardware requirements; maybe you bought a game by mistake; maybe you played the title for an hour and just didn't like it.
It doesn't matter. Valve will, upon request via help.steampowered.com, issue a refund for any reason, if the request is made within fourteen days of purchase, and the title has been played for less than two hours. There are more details below, but even if you fall outside of the refund rules we’ve described, you can ask for a refund anyway and we’ll take a look.
The full announcement lays out the new policy in detail, covering how refunds will be handled in the cases of DLC, in-game items purchased with real money, bundles, and other special cases. The long and the short of it is that you can file for a full refund of any game or software in the two weeks following its purchase–so long as you haven't used it for more than two hours, that is.
Valve has offered refunds before, but the process has always been labyrinthine and uncertain. By outlining a clear policy, the company has given Steam users a reliable process for claiming a refund and a promise of some response (even if that response is "Nah.")
In fact, Christopher Floyd, COO of Indie Megabooth, told me that he believes that this is just a clarification of Valve's established policy. "This whole deal strikes me as them basically wanting some wording out there to explain their stance on refunds. In past experience, they refunded if you had a decent reason. This page looks like them hammering out what they define as 'decent reason.'"
Whether it's old or new, the refund policy is definitely a pro-consumer gesture. But it also reflects the changing realities of Valve's digital marketplace. Over the last few years, Steam has let more and more games onto its virtual shelves. But as rad it is to see the rise of independent development, the increased quantity of games for sale has naturally increased the chances of buying a game that doesn't work on your hardware (or at all). Couple that with the rollout of Early Access titles, and toss in the ever present risk of a game just being bad, and it's easy to understand this as a necessary response to the changing conditions of a marketplace.
For all of its clarity, I still have some lingering questions about this new policy. As written, this policy doesn't offer any special terms for games in Early Access. What happens with a game that I've had for a month but that now seems abandoned?
I also want to know whether Valve or the developer (or publisher) pays back the refund, and if there is any way for a developer to appeal a refund request. These might seem like little things if you're thinking about major publishers, but even a handful or refunds can impact the lives of small, independent developers.
I'm also wondering how refunds will work for short, narrative driven games like Three Fourths Home or Sunset, which can be completed in just a couple of hours of play. What happens if I beat one of these games, then file for a refund? Thankfully, I was able to get the opinions of a few developers on this new policy. Will O'Neill, whose own game, Actual Sunlight, can be beaten in about 90 minutes, told me that he is "confident that this initial policy will be refined to meet the needs of games that can clearly demonstrate a full play-through of less than two hours."
While I was concerned with short, narrative games, developer Rusty Moyher was thinking about even shorter, non-narrative ones. "It seems to me that two hours might be too generous? How many games of Super Hexagon could play in an hour?" He makes a good point, which should remind us that it's incredibly hard to craft a "one size fits all" policy for anything.
Thankfully, Moyher also told me that Valve is asking developers for feedback on refunds. Hopefully, with feedback from devs, they'll be able to sort out a policy that works for games (and game makers) of different sizes.
I reached out to Valve for clarification on this policy but haven't heard back.