Video Game Refunds Are Not a Crime

Players should be able to return games with ease

No Man's Sky
Screenshot of No Man's Sky. Hello Games

The topic of video game refunds remains a hot topic in the gaming industry. The Google Play refund policy has seen tweaks over the years, for example: what was once a 24-hour refund window has since been adjusted to two hours. This refund policy ensures that an app will work and deliver on what it promises to users. But what about for refunds beyond the typical "if it breaks early on" scenario, in particular for games? What happens if a game isn't worth the money, and the player has already sunk a large amount of time into it? This is the question raised by the No Man's Sky refund imbroglio. ​People that put 50 hours into the game were requesting and getting refunds from Steam and even Sony.  Granted, some refund requests were due to technical issues that kept popping up. But many others are seeking refunds due to being dissatisfied or felt mislead by the features No Man's Sky was said to include. So many Steam users claimed to get refunds outside that Valve put up a warning saying the standard refund policy still applies.

Developers have been wary of this refund scenario – one former Sony employee referred to people who refunded games after 50 hours as thieves

But are they? Why shouldn't a refund policy protect people in even rather egregious circumstances such as this? 

Refund Criticisms Aren't New

The reality is that we've seen developers take issue with refunds before, and some have claimed higher percentages of refunds after the establishment of refund policies on Steam. Yet,  others claimed to see increases in sales, and that it solved more problems than it created. Easy refund policies have the potential for abuse, but also for greater player satisfaction. While refunds didn't help every developer, if it was putting anybody out of business, odds are we would know by now. Few games fit into the window where players can get the totality of the experience within the hour or two limits that many services provided. In fact, it's quite possible that people are more likely to buy games on platforms with more generous return policies because they know that their money is safe. 

One example is Street Fighter 5 on PC. We bought the game through a third-party retailer to save a few dollars, but we wish we had bought through Steam. We grew frustrated with the game's lack of singleplayer content and poor multiplayer functionality. We wish we had bought on Steam, paying a few more dollars to get the right to a refund. But our frustrations mounted up after more than just 2 hours of play. If we could have gotten our money back, we would have. Even though our frustrations mounted up over 2 hours of play, it's convinced me of why flexible return policies are great. Sometimes 2 hours are not enough to make a good decision, and not all games are the same.

Why Video Games Should be Returnable

Perhaps 50-hour playtimes are excessive when it comes to refund requests. But there is something deeper to the concept of long-term players of games being dissatisfied with the experience to the point of sharing bad reviews or demanding refunds. In particular, video games and their creators tend to be bad about hyping up games and all sorts of features, before perhaps the final product can feel lackluster. No Man's Sky is an extreme example of this – the game was hyped as the next big thing, before getting mediocre reviews that only appeared after launch. Why get mad at the players for giving a game an extend shake and not liking it? Doesn't the industry that hyped up the game to no end deserve some blame?

The crazy thing is that in retail, this circumstance of people returning products after a while isn't all that uncommon. An REI-style unlimited refund policy is too much to ask for from marketplaces. And video games have only recently offered players the option to return games they dislike. But think about why places have liberal return policies – it's because they want people to be confident in buying things. While people may abuse these policies, plenty of people just want the satisfaction of knowing that they can change their mind. Consider that games are both art and a technical product. Sometimes the technical product doesn't work as intended to the point where it affects the user's enjoyment. Why shouldn't users have recourse for satisfaction?

The attitude I mostly see from players about refunds is that there's a fear of being ripped off. And both critics and developers need to accept that with the ability for practically anybody to sell games, the risk for consumers is higher. We even live in an era of early access games and crowdfunding where a game may never come to fruition. Players take on the risk that a game could not work on their system – and it could happen well past the point where many refund policies kick in. Some games are short experiences, others have the intent for players to spend dozens and hundreds of hours in them. The point of no return should vary based on the game. 

While I think the criticism of No Man's Sky and Sean Murray as a "liar" is excessive if a desired feature is missing, why can't users get recourse? Digital distribution makes it so that transactions can be reversed with ease. Returning a physically opened package is one issue, removing a game from a user's account is another.

Potential Abuse is a Lesser Concern Compared to Making Users Happy

This is especially a problem on platforms like Android. Even the biggest developers have issues with testing because of the many Android devices that exist. Refunds thus serve as a bonus for digital distribution. Users, in ceding physical rights to games, get greater protections. And developers, in recognition that testing is a difficult task, know that users can get relief for bearing some of the testing burdens. The balance has been unfair for too long, and now consumers are getting some rights.

Yes, liberal refund policies have a high potential for abuse. More extreme cases like the 50-hour users deserve scrutiny, not outright accusations of theft. Consider if someone plays a game for 50 hours and wants a refund. Perhaps they're trying to scam the system to get free games. But the rationale for some users is that if they knew the experience would be buggy and not up to their expectations, they wouldn't have bought the game. This is where customer service departments must do their job to identify potential issues. Basic refund guidelines are smart, but they should not be rigid and unchanging since games are not.

This is Why Free-to-Play Exists

It's worth noting that there is a solution to this problem, and it's called free-to-play. Games where users only pay when they want to pay alleviate any concerns of No Man's Sky and other long-term play games. Users have the first-hand experience with the game and whether they want to spend money on it. There are fewer needs for refunds when users decide when to spend. If No Man's Sky was free-to-play, fewer people would be up in arms about spending money on it because only the people that wanted to pay would have paid.

As well, paid games that are long-term experiences are a risk for players. One attitude I see is of critics and developers saying that players who give games on Steam bad reviews after playing for long periods of time are being ridiculous. Perhaps, they don't know what they want. Such an attitude feels cynical and belittling. So many games nowadays are long-term experiences that may have issues that don't arise until later on. Or perhaps something that seems promising early on never comes to fruition. User reviews are often over-dramatic, sure. Yet doesn't it say something about a game that the peak, most dedicated players, might regret the experience this sort of long-term reality does speak to a major concern about free-to-play games? These games are open-ended, and often players don't stop when they can't play anymore, but because the experience stops being satisfying.

But yet, it's that desire to have happy, satisfied players, that should be the ultimate goal for game developers and the industry as a whole. It's why a liberal refund policy is a good thing – it keeps people happy and willing to support games. Players have surrendered the right to physical ownership of games, have to bear a bigger burden of quality assurance, and sometimes have to spend large amounts of time on a game before it gets satisfying. In return, they should have the right to seek satisfaction for games that fail them, within reason. As well, lest we forget that the best antidote to piracy is ease of access to content, the choice seems clear to me. Liberal refund policies are good for players, and for the video game industry as a whole.