By many accounts, Before Your Eyes is a smart and affecting game, and the control system seems cool: It uses your webcam to determine when you blink. It's also a short game, and at least one player took advantage of that fact by completing it in under two hours and then refunding it on Steam.
Steam's refund policy allows users to return games "within two weeks of purchase and with less than two hours of playtime" for any reason. It doesn't matter whether or not they finished the game, or if they liked it. Before Your Eyes lead designer and programmer Bela Messex knew someone had refunded the game despite enjoying the whole thing because they left a Steam user review, calling Before Your Eyes "amazing" before getting their money back.
"Yep we made a short game," wrote Messex, responding to the review in a widely shared tweet. "I think there should be more short games. I think short games shouldn't get refunded for delivering an amazing experience."
yep we made a short game. I think there should be more short games. I think short games shouldn't get refunded for delivering an amazing experience pic.twitter.com/bdngjVUpBDApril 12, 2021
A day later, the reviewer, whose name is Travis, repurchased the game and added a new paragraph to the review.
"Yes, the game is short, but it has an underlying reason for this," wrote Travis in the edited review. "Life itself is short and can be gone in the blink of an eye, which kinda seems to be the point of making the game controlled by blinking in the first place. It's worth your $10 and even if you beat the game in enough time to do so, you shouldn't exploit Steam's system and refund it."
Separately, Travis apologized to Messex on Twitter, saying that it had been "scummy" to refund the game after finishing and enjoying it, despite being on "a bit of a budget."
The debate about refund policies
That was a nice ending (and we must cherish them when we see them), but the conflict between refund policies and short games is ongoing. Valve doesn't publish detailed data about refunds, so I can't say for sure whether or not short games are actually refunded more often than long ones, but it's been a concern since Steam introduced the policy in 2015.
"What bugs me is [it's] a one-size-fits-all return policy that's pretty clearly designed for 'big' games, the sort that are $60 on launch day," Glass Bottom Games founder Megan Fox told PC Gamer at the time. "Two weeks and two hours makes perfect sense if you're talking about Far Cry 4, but then look at something like The Stanley Parable. It's a game you can easily 'beat' in under two hours, the first time you sit down with it, and likely walk away feeling satisfied. Or something like [PS3 exploration game] Journey, where you literally have to beat it in one sitting, since there's no saving."
In part, Steam's refund policy exists to comply with regional regulations. In the EU, for example, consumers must be allowed to return online orders within two weeks of purchase "for any reason and without a justification." However, that EU "right of withdrawal" rule ends as soon as the buyer uses the product. For a shirt, that would include removing the tags or putting it in the washing machine. For software purchased online, downloading it is enough to end Valve's refund obligation.
That means Valve's refund policy is more permissive than EU law calls for, and the two hour rule isn't even a hard rule. If you've played a Steam game for more than two hours, you can still submit a refund request. It won't be approved automatically, but Valve will review it and may approve it.
The Epic Games Store's refund policy is almost identical to Steam's: Request a refund within 14 days of purchase and with under two hours played, and it's yours. GOG's refund policy is more generous than Steam and Epic's, giving players 30 days to request a refund and specifying no maximum playtime. However, GOG can't truly 'take back' a game anyway, as it only sells DRM-free software which is yours so long as you keep a copy of the data. Any stipulations about playtime would be based on the honor system.
None of the stores mention the length of the games being refunded, but they do put vague caveats on their policies. GOG says that it may deny refunds that it believes are being requested "to hurt the developers that put their time and heart into making great games." Steam and Epic say they may stop accepting refund requests from those found to be "abusing" them. Individual players have been criticized before for refunding a game after finishing it, but I haven't heard much about mass refund abuse over the past six years.
According to its support statistics page, Steam receives over 100,000 refund requests a day, and given that volume it's somewhat surprising that there hasn't been more controversy over refunds. It helps, perhaps, that they're very popular among Steam users: The ability to return games that don't work out has been great, especially because user-specific technical issues can render $60 purchases worthless.
For creators of short games, though, the system can be read as a suggestion that their work isn't worth anything. Two hours and under? That's a free game, for those willing to make it one.
A pitch for "Refund This Game"
When he tweeted about the Before Your Eyes review, Messex had wanted to defend short games, not bring on a mass scolding of Steam or Travis. In a couple of other lighthearted tweets, he also pitched an idea for a new Steam game, which I hope he actually makes.
The game would be called "Refund This Game," and would display a timer that counts out two hours in real time. If the player hit a button within five seconds of that timer reaching two hours, the game would exit and they'd get a Steam achievement. If they let the timer run past two hours, nothing would happen—except that they'd have a harder time getting a refund. Messex's proposed price for Refund This Game is $99.99.
Messex really could make Refund This Game, although I wonder whether Steam would allow its release. When Valve opened up Steam to all game submissions in 2018, it made two rules: nothing illegal, and no "trolling." Valve could classify Refund This Game as trolling, or make a new rule that metagames which involve Steam's policies and customer service systems aren't allowed (it'd be kind of hard to blame them).
I just submitted "Refund This Game" to Steam. Watch a timer count to 2 hours and quit within the last 5 seconds for an achievement. Proposed price $99.99. Release date TBA. pic.twitter.com/xaywcZ86mjApril 13, 2021
It's a funny idea, though, and I hope Messex tries to release it for real, if just to see if Valve reacts at all. For now, he's not too serious about it. "We've spent years making Before Your Eyes into the emotional journey that people finally got to experience last week, and I want that to be the focus of my energy right now," he said.
On that note, Before Your Eyes is $10 on Steam. Or, it's $10, and then $0 after you refund it, and then $10 again after you feel guilty about refunding it and repurchase it—however you want to go about it. At the time of writing, Before Your Eyes has 537 reviews with an "Overwhelmingly Positive" rating.