Dif­fi­culty Switch

Hard game crit­i­cism

EDGE - - SECTIONS - IAN BO­GOST Ian Bo­gost is an au­thor and game de­signer. His award­win­ning A Slow Year is avail­able at www.bit.ly/1eQalad

Shut up and give me back my money, says Ian Bo­gost

Games are still more like niche goods than they are like gen­eral re­tail prod­ucts. And a lit­tle thing like the way we ex­change money for them – and vice versa – helps to show us why.

When the idea was first in­tro­duced, much ink was spilled over Steam re­funds and its im­pact on de­vel­op­ers. Com­par­a­tively lit­tle was said about the pol­icy’s im­pact on play­ers, be­yond a gen­eral nod to the pro-con­sumer ef­fects of re­turn poli­cies. But re­ac­tions over time show that play­ers’ ex­pec­ta­tions for com­merce are un­usual at best, naïve at worst.

First, re­turns are seg­re­gated from the con­text of pur­chase, cre­at­ing an in­vis­i­ble hur­dle for the cus­tomer. Ti­tles can be pur­chased, man­aged and played in the Steam app, but re­turn­ing one re­quires a dif­fer­ent process on the ser­vice’s web­site. Not a huge bur­den – un­til you re­alise you’ve for­got­ten your pass­word or en­gage the oner­ous Steam Guard ver­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem. Small ob­sta­cles cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties for aban­don­ing a re­turn, which al­ways ben­e­fits the seller.

Sec­ond, or­di­nary re­tail chan­nels ex­plic­itly dis­tin­guish ex­changes from re­funds. Steam se­lects Steam Wal­let funds as the de­fault re­im­burse­ment op­tion. You can get a re­fund to your orig­i­nal method of pay­ment, but you’ll have to no­tice and then make the change de­lib­er­ately to get your money back.

The dif­fer­ence is sub­stan­tial: tak­ing store credit en­sures that your cap­i­tal stays on a re­tailer’s books, while re­turn­ing it to your ac­count gives it far less lim­ited po­ten­tial. De­faults may seem in­nocu­ous, but they have a strong ef­fect on how con­sumers be­have, even if we don’t re­alise it. Just think of all the Face­book fea­tures that ac­ti­vate un­less you de­lib­er­ately opt out of them.

Third, even if you choose a Wal­let re­fund, your credit will still be de­layed by up to a week. No elec­tronic pay­ment sys­tems or bank gate­ways are in­volved, so Valve could make the funds avail­able im­me­di­ately if it wanted – just as a cashier would hand you a gift card af­ter a re­tail ex­change.

You’d think Valve would want you to have im­me­di­ate ac­cess to these funds so you could buy another game, but the com­pany knows it has locked them in any­way. De­lay­ing their use makes them feel fresh when they’re avail­able. It also gives you rea­son to check on your ac­count to see if the funds have cleared, thereby in­creas­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties to buy some­thing else in the mean­time.

As it turns out, play­ers don’t see any­thing star­tling or weird in the prac­tice of of­fer­ing a store credit as an un­spo­ken de­fault. “Doesn’t re­tail do the same thing?” one jus­ti­fied. “Usu­ally you can only get credit, not cash.” Another sen­ti­ment I heard: “Just be­cause it’s given to you as store credit doesn’t mean it hasn’t been re­funded.” Ex­cept, yes, it does! A re­fund re­turns the pur­chase’s value to liq­uid in or­der that the buyer can use those funds else­where – not just on games.

Play­ers may have lost sight of this dis­tinc­tion en­tirely. Per­haps the frag­mented world of online com­merce has re­placed re­tail re­fund prac­tice with the as­sump­tion that money spent is money sunk, and that any ac­com­mo­da­tion what­so­ever rep­re­sents lav­ish mag­na­nim­ity on the part of the seller.

The at­ti­tude isn’t en­tirely sur­pris­ing. For years, games have been un­re­turn­able at re­tail, save de­fec­tives. It’s eas­ier to re­turn a £2,000 hand­bag than a £50 game. Pre­owned sales helped dampen the risk of these pur­chases. At the very least, you knew you could get trade credit for a game. Game re­tail­ers cre­ated the ex­pec­ta­tion that your gam­ing bud­get would be es­sen­tially non-liq­uid: tied up in new games or trade cred­its, all sit­ting pretty on Game’s (or Valve’s) bal­ance sheets while you al­lo­cated new funds for gro­ceries.

Or – don’t laugh – to buy movies or books or mu­seum passes or tacos or any­thing that doesn’t have to do with games. That’s no de­tail. The more we al­low the com­merce of games to be­come its own weird, self-con­tained world with its own logic, the more the whole medium of games re­cedes into the dark al­leys of grey mar­kets.

Ro­bust and eq­ui­table re­fund poli­cies are good for games be­cause they pro­mote a more di­verse com­mer­cial ecosys­tem, one in which play­ers’ lim­ited dis­cre­tionary in­come is al­lowed to cir­cu­late among a va­ri­ety of media. But even more than that, the more that game re­tail­ers par­take of or­di­nary re­tail prac­tices, rather than hol­ing up in­side of shadow mar­kets, the more they fa­cil­i­tate the diver­si­fi­ca­tion of games, play­ers and cre­ators that we’ve all been cel­e­brat­ing – per­haps pre­ma­turely.

For years, games have been un­re­turn­able at re­tail. It’s eas­ier to re­turn a £2,000 hand­bag than a £50 game

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