Steam Refunds

Valve just added refunds to Steam. CD Projekt’s Gog and Electronic Arts’ Origin already had similar policies.

If you’ve played a game for two or fewer hours, and want your money back within the first two weeks of your purchase? You can get your money back. It’s great.

Got an incomplete game in Steam’s Early Access program that isn’t what you expected or maybe just a game that is completely broken? Get your money back.

Where it falls apart is for developers who must have questions that mostly have bad answers.

What if a game takes less than two hours to complete and players ask for refunds?

What if a player buys the game, plays it offline and completes it in less than two weeks and asks for a refund?

Right now, it seems like developers are screwed in those situation. The game is done. The player gets their money back.

Valve has said the rules are flexible for users who have played more than two hours or who have had the game in their Steam library for more than two weeks. They’ll still be able to get refunds.

What if that flexibility extended to developers who could specify a length of time their game takes to complete, and then the refund system could factor in a percentage of that time to allow for refunds? A two hour game could give you 25 minutes to decide if it’s good or not.

Having a standard policy for customer service agents to apply to every piece of software and refund situation on the service makes it easier for players as well as Valve’s customer service agents to apply that policy but Valve should be flexible enough in their technology as well as their application of this policy to not ruin the experience for developers who want to take risks by making shorter games that don’t require you to be online in Steam to play them.

It’s always better for a policy and system to focus on benefits for the people that use them, even over the needs of the people who feed these systems with software. Doing the right thing for their customers is why companies like Valve and Apple succeed where so many others fail. Overall, this policy is great. I’m just not sure about the two-hours.

Skyrim Mods

In the past, for Skyrim and many other computer games, mods were almost universally grafted on by players who loved whatever game they’re working on so much that they were willing to work for free to see their vision through. Just by working on these mods the players who did so were turned into amateur developers, artists, sound designers, level designers, and game designers.

If the mod developer was interested, and had the opportunity, they could use their work as an amateur in a portfolio to use when applying for work as a professional game developer. Most of the people I know who get paid to make video games today got their start over a decade ago making mods for computer games. According to one of Valve’s founders, Gabe Newell, about half of Valve got their start making mods.

Last Thursday Valve and Bethesda added paid mod sales to the Steam Workshop storefront for Skyrim. Mods are any kind of additional items, maps, levels, art, or sounds added to a game. The modifications to Skyrim could range from a new sword or a new companion character to a full, professional quality, series of missions that rival what the professionals who get paid for their work at Bethesda have added on to the game. In this new system it was still possible to distribute a mod for free if the mod developer chose to do so.

There were all kinds of problems with the technical and business implementation for the Skyrim mods being sold through the Steam Workshop. Some level of curation should have been implemented by Valve to monitor the system when people were copying work from other mods and putting it up for sale. The most egregious part of the whole thing was the cut the actual mod developer received, which at 25% of the price charged to the player was completely ludicrous.

I’m writing in the past tense because Valve and Bethesda’s work to reward the people who had spent hours making additional content for Skyrim, a game that had been otherwise abandoned by its developer (Skyrim hasn’t been patched since 2013), when the paid mod sales were killed yesterday after positive feedback from mod developers and almost universally negative feedback from users who seemed to hate it for all of the wrong reasons.

While there were a few well reasoned arguments against paid mod sales, most of the player feedback on public forums consisted of a zero-tolerance policy on paying for anything outside of the original game and whatever horse armor the original developer wanted to sell.

If the only way to distribute mods for Skyrim were for pay and through the Steam Workshop, then the argument against paid mods would make sense. In that scenario you would never have ridiculous licensing nightmares where the dragons are replaced with Thomas the Tank Engine or Macho Man Randy Savage. Instead, all we had was choice. We could have kept downloading most mods for free and paid for the ones we liked. Now the mod developers will continue to get nothing for their labor except pitiful amounts of donations in the few cases where they’re popular enough to receive any at all.

Elite: Dangerous Finally on Steam

Crowdfunded space trucking simulator and long-time hold-out, Elite: Dangerousis now available on Steam

Cashed in the remaining money I’d made from selling trading-cards to get it.

At this time Frontier’s (Elite’s developer) Elite: Dangerous doesn’t have any Steam-specific features, and like some games you’re only downloading the initial launcher through Steam. All updates appear to be through the game-specific launcher.

Because it was previously available only direct from the developer, the Elite: Dangerous players (a comedy troupe touring in your locality!) are rightfully upset that they haven’t received Steam keys for the game. People always want to consolidate their gaming libraries into one place, and a decade in it’s still surprising that some game developers don’t get it.

On the second page of the relevant forum thread, a Frontier community manager had this to say in response to a player’s request:

Hi Macro, thanks for the question. We don’t have any plans to do this at the moment, but we’ll be listening to player feedback and looking to see how much demand there is.

Just an FYI – there’s no functional difference between the Steam and our website version of the game. You can add the game to your existing Steam library. See the instructions below:

We have no plans to do so but we will of course listen to player feedback and assess demand.

Click Games > Add a non-Steam game to my library and add EDLaunch.exe, ordinarily located in C:\Program Files (x86)\Frontier\EDLaunch\ on a PC.

Cue 25 more pages of players demanding their Steam keys.

Valve provides developers as many keys as they would like for their games to be sold on the developers’ own store, so the only cost to Frontier would be in developing the infrastructure to hand out the Steam keys.

Steam Machines Aren’t Here to Challenge Consoles

Valve recently put up an early list of Steam Machines coming this November from various gaming computer makers. Paul Tassi of Forbes is here predicting doom and gloom in an article comparing the chances for Valve’s success against traditional gaming consoles:

So if Steam Machines aren’t for console players, will existing PC gamers bite? I really don’t see a reason for them to do so. PC gamers like their mouse and keyboard, their ability to sit close to their monitor, and the probably multi-thousand-dollar rig they already have. The avid PC gamers I’ve seen look at Steam Machines as “good for people who want to check out PC gaming,” but almost none of them seem to be considering it for themselves. And why would they? It’s just a pre-built gaming rig that hooks up to their TV and runs Steam Big Picture, something all the do-it-yourself-ers out there could have made themselves for years now if they really wanted to. With the release of the new store, many veterans of the scene are looking over some of the machines and laughing about the price, knowing they could get the exact same level of performance for much, much cheaper if they did it on their own. Other than the ability to express their endless love and devotion for Valve’s Gabe Newell, patron saint of PC gaming, I don’t know what PC gamers get out of Steam Machines.

This is but one of the many arguments Paul Tassi has that they won’t find their market.

It’s a bit early to predict the death of Steam Machines, eight months before they ship. Among Paul Tassi’s other arguments is this one:

Why? Before I flood your screen with a deluge of reasons, first and foremost what the new store page shows is a huge range of prices, ranging from slightly above asking price for the PS4 and One ($460 for iBuyPower’s box) to typically absurd gaming PC levels (as high as $5,000 for top-of-the-line units from Falcon Northwest and Origin). Across the fifteen(!) different machines on the page, only two are around the $500 mark, while the rest probably average between $700-$900, if I’m being generous.

There is definitely a large selection and I can see how it might steer some people away and back to their consoles. It makes sense to have a small selection of products that people can choose from. A good machine, a better machine, a best machine.

That is the one valid criticism in Paul Tassi’s article. The others are ridiculous. PC gamers aren’t going to buy these? If some weren’t already buying pre-built gaming machines these companies wouldn’t be in business to now sell Steam Machines.

There are other, more valid, criticisms that Paul Tassi misses.

These machines run Steam OS, and although you could replace that and install Windows at your own expense there will be a more limited selection of games available for the default Linux-based operating system.

Though he does point out that they’re more expensive than consoles, the reason why is extremely important. Consoles are subsidized and initially sold at a loss to be later offset by software sales with a cut going back to the manufacturer. Valve isn’t selling these directly and can’t do that. Subsidies are the one way that Valve could really improve the initial turnout on Steam Machines but then they would have to produce their own and be competing with these third parties.

The advantage to Valve in the current Steam Machine situation is that they lose almost nothing if Steam Machines fail to find users.

The one thing Valve loses if Steam Machines fail is their edge against Microsoft. Steam Machines (and SteamOS) exist as a hedge against the possibility of a strong Windows App Store in future versions of Windows where customers won’t or can’t choose Valve’s Steam marketplace.

The computer manufactures have something to lose too. With Steam Machines they don’t have to deal with Microsoft and pay for copies of Windows. As far as we know, Valve charges them nothing to include SteamOS.

This is the reason why Steam Machines aren’t really here to challenge consoles. They’re here to take on Windows.