A few days ago, GOG announced it was changing its refund policy as part of a "declaration of trust" to consumers. Previously, refunds were given only if the game hadn't been downloaded and played, or if the game literally wouldn't run on a player's hardware: but now players will be able to request a refund at any point during a period of 30 days after purchase, no strings attached.
"Everyone at GOG believes in a 'gamers-first' approach," the blog post said. "The latest update to our voluntary Refund Policy adds another piece to this customer-friendly experience. And it all sums up in one sentence: starting now, you can get a full refund up to 30 days after purchasing a product, even if you downloaded, launched, and played it. That's it."
On the surface, it seems like a big win for consumers: you can test-drive any game, and if you're really not liking it for whatever reason, the refund process is painless and streamlined. The policy change also means GOG has effectively leapfrogged Steam's already-flexible refund policy, which allows players 14 days to request their money back - so long as they've played less than two hours of the game.
But in making it so consumer-friendly, does GOG's new refund policy risk hurting developers?
That's what many have been discussing on Twitter over the last few days, with devs expressing concerns over the extreme flexibility of the refund system, and highlighting it could be easily abused. More than anything, it seems there are still a lot of unknowns surrounding the new refund policy, and many are particularly annoyed that developers and publishers were unaware of the policy before it was publicly announced.
Well, I don't know about this one.— Rami Ismail (@tha_rami) February 27, 2020
30 days is a lot more than I feel is necessary to evaluate a game, and a lot more than almost all games take to complete if you play them for an hour daily.
Young me would definitely abuse the hell out of this. https://t.co/kKVnZpwboj
Something I will say about this GOG refund policy change (users being allowed to refund anything they buy up to 30 days later), is that GOG did not tell devs before they did it— Mike Rose (@RaveofRavendale) February 27, 2020
Which is pretty shitty, regardless of whether you think it's a good idea or not
Developers (at least most of us) are never consulted when Steam or GOG make fundamental changes to their services. They sell OUR games. They make money from OUR games. Why do we not get a say in how OUR games are sold? https://t.co/wWF4OLEKEV— Ragnar Tørnquist (@ragso) February 27, 2020
To dig into this in further detail, I got in touch with the devs to ask them about their concerns, and spoke to GOG to find out how it hopes to prevent refund abuse.
At first glance, the policy already seems quite lenient: but there's a further problem with the policy that stems from GOG's DRM-free focus, a major selling point for the storefront which is proving to be something of a double-edged sword. For those who haven't heard of it, DRM stands for digital rights management: a form of access control technology that prevents the sharing of copyrighted works, and video game piracy (although it often gets cracked rather quickly). Unfortunately, DRM systems have been known to hamper performance, or sometimes require players to connect to the internet even for single-player games - making it somewhat unpopular with consumers.
As such, GOG sells DRM-free games to give itself an edge in the market: but this is causing problems with the updated refund policy. A player could feasibly buy a DRM-free game, download and keep it, then request a refund - effectively getting the game for free. This also explains why GOG's refund eligibility previously ended at the point of download, but according to No More Robots founder Mike Rose (who contacted GOG about the policy change), GOG's reason for the new no-strings attached policy was because "users [had] been complaining about their previous policy... which was essentially 'no refunds'".
"It's a tricky one, because I do personally agree that places should have refund policies," Rose told me. "But because GOG is DRM-free (as they love to shout about), it does mean that whatever refund policy they put in place, anyone can abuse it by simply downloading the game, getting a refund, and then keeping the game. So whatever they choose to do, there's always going to be some who abuse that."
The DRM-free aspect could also make things tricky for GOG to find a middle ground akin to Steam's two hour playtime limit, as the lack of DRM means GOG likely "cannot see if a player is playing a game, which means they can't track anything other than downloads", Rose explained.
That's already quite a window for abuse: but developers also feel GOG's new 30-day refund period is excessive, with Rose describing it as "ridiculous".
"Who needs 30 days to decide whether they like a thing?" Rose said. "You could play through an entire game multiple times in 30 days." Vlambeer co-founder Rami Ismail agreed on this point, saying he didn't believe there's "any game that needs 30 days of evaluation out there".
Yet the most disturbing thing for developers, it seems, is that they were given no warning about the policy change - and only found out when the blog post went live. When I contacted GOG, the storefront did not address my question about why devs were not informed - but Rose said GOG apologised to him for not telling devs in advance, telling him it "was a difficult decision for us to make, but we were prepared to shield our partners from all negative effects this new policy might have". Which is somewhat vague, to say the least.
"Whenever GOG or Steam make changes to their storefronts, we're not consulted", Red Thread Games founder Ragnar Tørnquist told me. "We learn about it shortly before takes effect... but in this particular case, there was no heads-up from GOG. I learned about the new refund policy when the world learned about the new refund policy. Which is scary!"
Ismail noted this was particularly alarming for developers because most game stores aren't exactly "stores" in the traditional sense. "They don't take the risk by taking stock - they're sales platforms on which the game developers run their stores, and thus take the risk of refunds," he explained.
"Some communication with devs before announcing things would've been nice."
So, what does GOG have to say about this? How will it protect devs from customers who abuse the system? According to the refund policy FAQ, GOG is "monitoring the effects of the current update to make sure no one is using this policy to hurt the developers that put their time and heart into making great games", saying it "may refuse refunds in such individual cases". But does that mean automated moderation like Steam, or manual moderation?
To find out, I contacted GOG to ask them some questions about the policy, and received the following statement:
"The updated voluntary Refund Policy applies to all products available on GOG.COM. At the same time, it doesn't affect our existing agreements with partners and how the payments with them work.
"It's essential for us to make sure that all the hard work put into making the amazing games remains safe and the developers are being treated with the respect that they deserve. That's why with this update, we introduced additional measures to protect their games, including manual moderation of every refund request, the option to refuse refunds in individual cases, and more."
This means GOG is manually checking each and every refund request - which, frankly, sounds like a lot of work.
"I question how [much] time and effort that's going to cost them - [it] feels like out of everything, this would end up being the reason why they go back on the policy," Rose said.
It?s important for us to say that this update is possible thanks to your respect for all the time and hard work put into creating the games you buy on https://t.co/TiMFdAcy7Z and playing by the rules. We're grateful for that and encourage you to continue to do so.— GOG.COM (@GOGcom) February 26, 2020
With the refund system technically open to abuse, and GOG's refund moderation system as-yet unproven, much of the risk to devs comes down to the likelihood of customers abusing the refund policy.
Thoughts on this appear to be mixed, with Dusk creator David Szymanski explaining on Twitter that the refund policy might not be as bad as expected, based on his past experience with Steam. Despite making narrative-focused walking sims that could be completed in under two hours, "the refund rates for my games [on Steam] have remained pretty low", he wrote. "The thing I've observed since is that a lot of gamers genuinely do want to support games and creators they like, even if the option to cheat the system is available, or even if they've already cheated the system via piracy." Ismail also said Vlambeer expected "the overwhelming part of the audience to support their favourite developers", but that it also expected "many to 'try' a few games by finishing them completely".
"I know when I was younger, I definitely would have," Ismail added.
Others, however, are clearly worried about this - and there have indeed been past cases on Steam where the flexible refund policy ended up hurting indie developers (via DSOGaming). In 2016, Gamasutra consulted a number of indie devs and found one to seven per cent of their total Steam sales went to refunds, which is not an insignificant amount for small studios or indie developers.
"I don't know what the impact of this policy will be," Tørnquist told me. "It might not have a tangible impact on our business, although we make the kinds of games that are most heavily affected by return policies: short single-player games that can be completed in days, and once they're done, there's little reason to return to them.
"When Steam changed its return policy, we saw a huge uptick in refunds: up to three times what we saw before. That's something we have to build into our budgets, and our budgets are tight as it is. This makes it even worse.
"There's no question this policy affects smaller studios more than it does the bigger ones. Our margins are very tight. We make games that can be completed quicker. We don't have the wealth of content that keeps players engaged for months like the Assassin's Creeds of the world. If you played Draugen, our latest game, and finished it in a couple of evenings, and you felt like the game was a bit short or you didn't like the ending, what's stopping you from just asking for a refund? If the marketplaces open up for that, no questions asked, it may benefit the consumers, but it does not benefit the people who make games for a living."
According to Rose, GOG told him it wasn't too concerned about the policy change, informing him it had run internal tests in which the refund rate went up from 0.49 per cent to 0.51 per cent with the new policy. "There's a massive difference between doing a small test, and unleashing a new public policy on an entire storefront," Rose noted. "So that 0.51 per cent number is useless really - the coming weeks will tell whether it actually makes a difference."
So, as ever, we'll have to see how this refund policy pans out. In the meantime, the policy change is certainly causing developers some stress, and GOG's DRM-free pledge leaves the storefront without a middle ground solution for their refund policy.
"Our livelihoods [are] in the hands of two actors: Valve with Steam, and GOG," Tørnquist concluded. "I think it's fair to say at least 90 per cent of our business comes from Steam, which is why we're supportive of alternative marketplaces like GOG. But GOG's move makes it a less attractive storefront for us to work with, which means we're left with just Steam. Which is bad.
"To me the biggest issue is that we don't have a say in this. We don't get to vote. We make the games, we take the risks, and we put the games on these storefronts because we don't have a choice. Whatever happens next, we're in the dark. There's no way for us smaller developers to have a conversation with the marketplaces to discuss how our games are sold, marketed, featured, removed or abused. We're powerless. And that's super scary."