Desura Demise, Steam Refunds

David Stark / Zarkonnen
2015-06-07 20:03

Two major events have happened in the world of indie game distribution this past week: Steam announced their new refund policy, and Bad Juju Games, operators of Desura, have declared bankruptcy. What do these shifts in the landscape mean for Airships, and for other indie games?

Desura's bankruptcy comes as no big surprise. It changed hands twice within as many years, and there's been repeated problems with them missing payouts to developers. Still, it's a shame to see them go - IndieDB, its sister site, is where Airships really got its first audience. Maybe they will be bought up yet again and given another lease on life.

Practically, Desura's fall is no big problem for me. After Airships became available on Steam, sales on Desura pretty much stopped. And they owe me only a modest amount of money that I can just write off.

For players who have a large game library on Desura, things are more dire. In the case of Airships, I heavily suggest you get your Steam key off the site now, to be on the safe side. Note that I have no list of individual purchases, so if the Desura site goes down, I have no way to verify your purchase!

The new Steam refund policy did come as a surprise. A lot of words have been written about this already, but here's my take on it:

Fundamentally, I'm really pleased that Steam now has a refund policy, and a clearly-defined and generous one too. Previously, the official policy was no refunds, but in practice, if you asked nicely and had a good reason, you could often get one. I've definitely bought a few games through Steam that turned out to be unplayable due to major graphics glitches, and a straightforward way to refund them would have been fantastic.

And as a developer, I am also pleased: an easy refund mechanism means fewer unhappy customers and reduced support costs. Computers are complicated, and occasionally my game just does not work on a particular machine despite all the care and testing that went into it. Undoing the sale is a much more profitable outcome for me than spending a lot of time trying to diagnose the unique quirks of the customer's setup, or having an upset customer.

In fact, I used to offer an even more generous refund policy than Steam's: a refund at any time, no questions asked. With a platform like itch.io, Desura, or Steam, I had no ability to invoke a refund, so I was only able to offer this policy in the case of a direct sale. Since I sold all of about five copies directly, with all other sales going through platforms, I eventually decided direct sales were not worth the administrative effort and shut them down. Still, the policy is grandfathered in, so if you're one of the five people who did buy the game directly, and you want a refund, get in touch!

Moreover, it looks like the new policy may be having a positive effect on my sales: I've been selling about twice the number of copies in the past week than the previous one. There's a more likely reason, which is Lathrix' new YT series on the game. So it's possible that the new policy has dampened the sales spike I'm getting from YT, but even so, it's certainly not ruined things! As for the refund rate, so far it's about 8%, which sounds like a reasonable figure to me.

But a lot of indie developers on Steam are reporting rather less pleasant experiences.

British developer Puppy Games tweeted a graph of their sales dropping precipitously after the refunds announcement:

Nina Freeman pointed out that for small games, two hours may be most or all of the play time:

(This got a fair amount of backlash of the form that "two hours is too short for a game", but really, if it's a high-quality experience and not super-expensive, two hours or less can be just fine.)

Finally, developer Qwiboo stated yesterday that they were seeing a 72% refund rate on their purchases:

So what's the difference? Well, the refund policy is based on assumptions about games that Airships pretty much satisfies, but other games don't. Games that are very short and ones that have a third-party activation system are hardest hit. The latter is particularly awful: you can buy a game on Steam, get the third party key or account, and then refund the game while keeping the third-party activation. Steam provides no detailed information about who has bought or refunded your game, so there's no way to revoke the third-party activation when a refund happens.

There's this idea out there that any developer complaining about the new refund system is doing so because they make bad games and have to trick people into buying them. Now, this definitely exists - there's been a bunch of high-profile cash-grab abandoned early access titles, and this new policy will hopefully put a stop to them. But a lot of developers are upset because the policy's one-size-fits-all approach simply does not work with their game.

At this point, we don't have hard data on whether the policy is being widely abused. We've got individual anecdotes, but there's a lot of confounding factors. People might be saving up for the Steam summer sale predicted to start sometime soon. Refunds might be an interesting novelty that is temporarily seeing a lot of use. Or - the new policy is being widely abused by customers or by scammers.

And, well:

Steam have promised that they are monitoring things and will clamp down on any abuse of the new refund system. What exact form this monitoring will take is not clear, though.

And here's the clincher: this new policy was announced with no forewarning or consultation with developers. We found out at the same time everyone else did. So you can see why the reaction was pretty panicked.

As luck would have it, this new policy works well for Airships. But what worries me is that the next time Steam introduce some new policy, they might make some assumption that does not apply to my game at all. And I will have zero time to prepare for mitigating the damage caused, and I will have very little leverage. What am I going to do? Pull my game from Steam? Where 95% of my sales happen?

Ultimately, Steam is in a near-monopoly position right now where it comes to game distribution - a fact underlined by Desura's demise. It means they can pretty much dictate terms to developers. This new refund policy is clearly well-intentioned, but might cause a great deal of harm to indie devs nevertheless.