Thursday, July 23, 2015

Indie Games, Refunds, Terror, and Taking “No” For an Answer

I, for one, welcome our new Washington overlords.
Two months ago, Steam, the imperial, dinosaur-sized seller of PC games online, announced that they would start offering refunds to unhappy customers. And about time, too.

We run Spiderweb Software, a small indie company who sells role-playing games to a tiny niche audience, and we could not be happier about this change. Our business has long had a policy of no-questions-asked refunds for people who bought games from us directly. Our policy is, simply, “If you aren’t happy with our game, we don’t want your money.”

So we were happy with Steam’s new policy even before we knew how much money we’d be losing. Running an ethical business means a lot to us. Of course, customers love it even more than we do.

Predictably, parts of the gaming press, ever eager to stoke controversy for easy clicks, used shaky evidence to make it seem like the refund policy was a big, objectionable thing for developers. Happily, the grumbling has died down, predictions of imminent indie destruction were groundless, and the policy looks like it’s here to stay.

On my end, our refund rate is about 5%. This is, from what I’ve heard, typical. Also, entirely acceptable. We can live with it. (Plus, refunds help to force swift, brutal justice on rushed, crappy PC ports.) 

But I don’t want to be blasé about it. For a small business, a loss of 5% of sales can sometimes be a catastrophe. Changes are scary, especially changes that cost you money.

I wanted to say a little bit about why generous refunds are not only a good idea, but a huge long-term benefit for small, fragile developers like me. And yet, at the same time, some indies are nervous about the change, and they should be.

Giving refunds does change how indies need to think about what we make and what we charge for it. I have a bunch of thoughts about that. Lucky you.

I was curious what the first Google Image Search hit for "indie game developer" would be. (Source article, which is worth reading.)
Why We Need Refunds

I can deal with this one pretty quickly. It’s something I’ve written about a lot in the past.

If you sell PC games, there are generally three ways people can get your game super-cheap: Piracy. Sales. Bundles. If your game is only acquired in these ways, you will go out of business.

To survive selling indie games, you need to convince a bunch of users to pay full price for it. You need to get them to pay more than they know they need to. This is difficult, as people like to keep their money.

The best way to get people to pay the full price is to get them to like you. To make your customers emotionally invested in your survival. This is the great weapon of the small indie: People like us. They think we’re cool. This must be preserved at all costs.

That is why, when I saw a few indies publicly complaining about this inevitable, hugely popular change, all I could think was, “What are you DOING!? Don’t you realize you’re hurting us all?”

Yet I understand. I really do see why they freaked out, and I sympathize. I’m in the same boat. Indie games are different from the big AAA product, and it’s worth asking how the change will affect us.

Indie developers tend to be afraid of two things: That customers will want refunds because the games are too short. Or, that customers will want refunds because the games are too artsy.

I totally want there to be a market for shorter works of art. Like this one, which is absolutely fantastic.
The Two Hour Barrier

Steam’s stated refund policy is that you can get one if you’ve played the game for less than two hours. This invites the question: What happens if your game is less than two hours? Games like The Stanley Parable, Gone Home, or Dear Esther. Won’t customers play the whole thing and then get a refund?

First, this fear shows a really dark and depressing attitude towards your customers. If you really think the people who buy your games are such monsters, why are you writing games for them in the first place?

More importantly, if your games are not providing enough entertainment for the price you are charging, do you really think denying refunds will save you? It will delay the demise of your business, sure. But if people feel ripped off buying one indie game, best of luck trying to get them to ever buy a second one.

I don’t want to entirely dismiss this problem. Suppose you really want to write 30 minute games. I think a game this short can be really cool, and, if it’s good, people will want to support you and won’t ask for refunds. I really think this will be the case, and I have not heard news of huge refund rates from authors of short games. I can be proven wrong, but I don’t think I will be.

Suppose refunds do become a problem for small games. Keeping the money of unhappy customers is still not the answer. Maybe the games need to be sold in bundles. Or maybe they need to be better. Or maybe, in the end, there won’t be much room in the market for smaller games, and they will just need to be longer.

I don’t currently see a big market for 3 minute games, no matter how clever. Similarly, the markets for short films and short stories are very small. Still, there is a market, and it might get bigger.

Let me be clear. I LOVE short, artistic stories, films, and games. I WANT them to have a market and be successful. Reality being otherwise frustrates me greatly, and I wish I could change it. Alas, I only get one vote.

In the long run, whether these markets develop will be up to the customer, refunds or not. No, calling gamers scummy or bigoted or entitled will not help.

Getting angry at capitalism won’t help either. I don’t know what alternate system you want to set up, but if it’s goal is to force people to buy things they don’t want, I’m not sure many will be on board.

If you can’t summon up enough trust or affection toward game buyers to convince them to surrender cash for your product, well, hobbyist game development is an old, beloved institution. Better people than you have fallen to the brutality of the free market.

Microsoft Stress Simulator 2013
Forcing Gamers To Eat Broccoli

I feel some indie devs have this attitude: Our job is to get people to play the artistic games we think they should, instead of the fun stuff they tend to prefer. Gamers shouldn’t be allowed to fill up on cake. They should be forced to buy our broccoli.

Consider one of the most discussed and successful games of the Great Indie Peak of 2013: Papers, Please! This is a game I loved, recommended, and wrote about. It combines story and gameplay in a truly unique and fascinating way. It’s cool beans.

However, Papers, Please! is also viscerally unpleasant to play. I don’t think this is a controversial statement. It is a game about quickly and perfectly doing mindless, repetitive tasks, with swift, merciless retaliation if you fail. It’s stressful, and it’s a bummer. That’s the whole point of the game. (Which, again, I loved.)

Papers, Please! takes about 5-6 hours for a playthrough, so it’s not too short for the 2 hour refund cutoff. To get a refund, players will have to give up on experiencing the whole story. So will they?

I hope they don’t get refunds. I hope Papers, Please! continues to make lots of money, so that more games like it are written. However, I don’t think most people want their limited video game relaxation time to be stressful and unpleasant. If someone buys this game and says, “This game is making me less happy, not more. I want my money back,” I don’t see how we can reasonably refuse.

A terrific sci-fi movie, AND it stars Scarlett Johansson? Who wouldn't go see that? (Answer: Everybody.)
Err In the Direction of Respect

I love indie games, and I love obscure foreign art films. I really wish I could share underwatched classics like Mr. Turner or Under the Skin with you. I just can’t force you.

Music, films, books, all have indie presses that sell obscure products for niche tastes. This is awesome. They are just smaller. They make less money. Someday, it might (will) be impossible to get rich writing artsy indie games. Following your dreams and making fulfilling work will have to be a large part of the reward. I’m in the same boat.

I say all this as someone who has skin in this game too. I write super-low-budget, old-school, turn-based, text-heavy RPGs. My product is more niche than any of the games listed above. I know every new game I release might be the one where gamers finally tire of what I sell.

It terrifies me, but I can take comfort in the way my fans want me to stay in business. They know they will be treated fairly when they buy my games, which makes them like me more.

And that, in the end, is how refunds help me to stay in business. Refunds are right ethically, and they’re good business. Maybe I will be proven wrong, but I doubt it.

98 comments:

  1. I was wondering if this would lead to the end of demos?

    I have a very niche tactics game, derived from the sort of highly complex and slow pasted strategy games I used to play back in the 80/90s. It comes with a demo showing the meat and substance of the game so that prospective customers can "try-before-they-buy" (and I know Jeff has extensive demos to showcase his games).

    Maybe this will end now and a <2 hours of play refund will replace demos entirely.

    Incidentally my refund rate is ~1%, but someone did say that Airship Dragoon is "hardly an impulse purchase" and that my Steam store is set up to "put people off rather than sell it". ;)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well now you made me curious. I believe I'll be purchasing Airship Dragoon and taking it out for a spin. :-)

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    2. I've seen many developers state that the thing that's already killing off demos as a thing in gaming is that the data/numbers support the idea that demos don't sell games nearly as well as trailers and other forms of publicity do. In some cases (think Crysis) they've been proven to actually hurt sales.

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  2. Thanks, Jeff. I've just added Under The Skin to my Amazon Instant watchlist. And yes, that's all I got out of your blog post....jk.

    I love your stance on ethics and hope that when the time comes I can share the same attitude. Thanks for the post!

    ReplyDelete
  3. As one of those customers that picks up your games, usually at full price (even when I don't have time to play it) I hope you are around as long as I am. It's worth the price to know that someone is around making those games that nobody else will anymore. I miss a lot of those old rpg game companies from the 80's and 90's and am glad you stick with it. Thank you, I appreciate your work.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You have convinced me to start only paying full price for Indie games that deserve it and I want to see them succeed. If your text-heavy RPGs are written as well as this blog post, I will be checking those out as well.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I might give 'Under My Skin' a watch, mostly because me and my girlfriend both think Scarlett Johansson is hot, and I like sci-fi.

    What sort of plots do you usually run with? Truth be told, I sort of miss OG turn-based RPGs, but I don't know how to gauge my interest in your games without knowing more, and I kind of don't know where to start on that front.

    I'm mostly a console gamer, because my computer sucks, but if your games aren't too demanding, I might be curious to give them a try. I may fall into the niche you try to cater to.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You can download whatever grabs your eye at Spiderweb's website and give it a try. You're restricted to about 10%-20% of the game's total content until you register (buy), but it's otherwise the same as the full game.

      I've never had a proper gaming PC and also never had much trouble running Spiderweb games, so I'd say the outlook is good there.

      Delete
  6. I agree and disagree about papers please, because while it's true that the game is overall miserable, people who dislike games like gone home and sunset tend to like paper's please. So there's something that a depressing game like pp has that attracts them to it that gone home and sunset seem to lack.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think 'fun' might be the wrong measure. Losing isn't fun either, and for most games, half of all players are on the losing side. For some, the ratio is worse.

      I think 'engagement' fits better with most players. That can incorporate fun, challenge, complex decision making, rapid decision making, reflex, strategy, loot, etc.. If 'fun' were the only standard, I'd hate Destiny raids, and I wouldn't have loved the Red Dead Redemption ending so much.

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  7. BASED JEFF VOGEL.
    This dude is the REAL DEAL. I've been playing Spidweb RPGs since I was a kid, I love pretty much everything they've put out, haven't really gotten into GeneForge much though.
    LITTLE STORY ABOUT Jeff Vogel: I bought Blades of Exile back when they'd ship you a CD-ROM for the game and a printed out manual. A year or two after I realized I had lost my game and e-mail Spidweb on a totally different e-mail I used to order the game the first time and Jeff Vogel, or someone signing the e-mail as him, sent me a brand new CD-key just based off of faith alone.
    Dudes a gem of developer.

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. I did not notice any changes in my bottom line after the Steam refund policy was implemented. Sure, developers will give back some money. However, buyers will have more confidence now. They may now try your game, since they feel protected by the refund policy.

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  12. We are getting like 5% refund rate and it's cool.
    (our game is Age of Fear: The Undead King)
    However, what I don't like is to allowing people to write negative review AND get a refund. That's very easy to exploit.

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  17. I did not notice any changes in my bottom line after the Steam refund policy was implemented. Sure, developers will give back some money. However, buyers will have more confidence now. They may now try your game, since they feel protected by the refund policy.
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  18. I really enjoyed Papers, Please! It's just like my real life job, but no real life consequences if I mess up.

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