Six months after Steam launched its divisive refund programme, Slitherine’s Olivier Georges examines how developers can overcome the platform’s ‘two-hour frontier’

Two hours and counting: How to keep gamers playing (and paying) beyond Steam’s refund barrier

“We hope this will give you more confidence in trying out titles that you’re less certain about.”

With these words, Steam launched its refund program last June.

For the first time on the platform, players were able to get their money back after a disappointing purchase. Technical issues, deceptive product page… any reason seemed to be valid as long as the customer made a refund request on a product played for under two hours.

On a store overcrowded by dozens of new releases every day, such a policy – combined with the user review system – certainly helped Steam to curate its catalog without wasting time to build a genuine editorial line. It also helped Steam retaining its users by showing them some love.

On the PC developer/publisher side, the benefits of this major update were not universally well-received.

Examining a SteamSpy chart published soon after the implementation of the refund programme, it looks like the introduction of the refund policy gave a boost to sales on the platform and slightly impacted customer behavior.

By reducing the level of risk for the buyer, Steam has been inviting people to try out games they would have not previously purchased at full price – or at all.

But it also transformed them into very demanding customers, not eager to search for solutions when faced with an issue with a product, and solved nothing about the lack of visibility and awareness that still hamper the majority of indie projects. Having the insurance of a refund when buying a product helps convince people to make a purchase, but it’s still useless if they do not know of the existence of such a product to begin with.

Regardless, Steam changed the rules of the game and developers were forced to adapt.

The two-hour frontier, while artificial, is now a critical stake for every new game. More than ever, the first contact with a game is crucial to establish a positive player perception and the success of the product.

Making sure the experience is smooth and enjoyable from the very first minute is a battle that every single developer is now forced to fight. Today’s Steam user is impatient and has hundreds of games waiting to be played in their backlog. With more than a third (35 per cent of games) of games in the average Steam library played for more than two hours, there is no second chance when the first impression is disappointing.

Unfortunately, tutorials and early game are often overlooked by developers and considered far too late during the development process. Players should be at the centre of the experience.

From the very beginning of the game, developers should ensure that players are given clear short- and long-term goals to achieve, simple tools to use and the right level of challenge to keep them focused and entertained. If for any reason they get bored, overwhelmed or lost after several minutes, they are likely to quit, post a bad review and launch a rival game.

Looking at user reviews on Steam, it’s common to see people rating a product they have played for less than two hours. They may give it a second chance, but won’t necessarily take the time to revise their review. So disappointing a customer can not only lead to a potential refund request, but can also result in damage to the product’s image among prospective buyers.

The thumb down that will drag a product from Steam’s ‘mostly positive’ status to the ‘mixed’ one is bound to have negative effects on sales and overall customer perception.

Avoiding such an issue means delivering the right marketing message from the very beginning – in other words, targeting customers properly and helping players to jump into the game in a quick, polished and entertaining way.

Because a lot of players with different backgrounds and skill levels are eager to test a game, involving everyone at the beginning is very challenging and requires a lot of iteration.

Teaching gameplay basics to a veteran of a genre is bound to be boring, while introducing advanced features to a newcomer too quickly can overwhelm them and cause panic. This is why it’s crucial to make a first version of a tutorial months before release and test it on people that know nothing about the game and have different past gaming experiences.

The sooner a player feels involved in a game, the more they will play it, recommend it to the community and boost its visibility and sales potential.

Complex games are arguably disadvantaged because the customer cannot assess the overall potential of the product in just two hours. Still, the goal is the same: making sure the player stays motivated, focused and eager to see more.

In any case, Steam has introduced this ‘two-hour rule’ – something that cannot be ignored by anyone developing on the PC platform.

For sure, a distribution platform selecting fewer products of better quality would benefit both talented developers and hardcore gamers – but this does not seem to be a trendy business model.

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