One of the biggest problems with digital-only releases is you frequently have no way to return those titles if the games don't live up to expectations. I had no issues with Ultra Street Fighter IV on PlayStation 4, but players who were less than satisfied were unable to return the game and get a refund. Xbox Live, the PlayStation Store, and the Nintendo eShop all have very limited return policies; in most cases, you're stuck with whatever you purchased. Valve started offering refunds on Steam for EU residents earlier this year, to comply with laws created for Europe's Directive on Consumer Rights, but that was only for one region.
Today, Valve has announced that Steam will have full refunds for everyone. Just head to Help > Steam Support and click on the game you want to return. You'll be given a number of options with which to request your refund. The only stipulations are that you've played the game less than 2 hours and you've made the return request within 14 days of purchase. According to Valve, players will be issued a full refund within a week of approval, with the amount being credited to the initial payment method or your Steam Wallet. You can even request a refund on recently-purchased Steam Wallet funds if you haven't used them within the time period.
There are other rules and stipulations, of course. If you pre-purchased a game, you can ask for a refund at any time prior to the release and the 14-day return period starts on release day. DLC is refundable, as long as you haven't played the base game for more than two hours after the DLC purchase. Valve is also not refunding certain DLC that irreversibly alters the game; those items will be clearly marked on the Steam store. In-game purchases on Valve games can be returned within 48 hours, as long as you haven't used the item or traded it away. Finally, third-party developers can decide if they want to offer returns on in-game purchases.
If you don't fall under these stipulations, Valve still wants you to request a refund if you feel dissatisfied. "Even if you fall outside of the refund rules we've described, you can ask for a refund anyway and we'll take a look," the announcement says.
There are questions that remain about the process and how it will affect the Steam store. Currently, you can only review a game on Steam if you've launched that title on Steam. That usually means that a reviewer has bought and paid for the game on Steam. This protects Steam Reviews from the review bombing phenomenon that happens on sites like Metacritic, where players angry with a developer or publisher write negative reviews en masse. If a person can purchase a game, drop a negative review, and get a refund, it could bring that problem to Steam. Valve can't even prevent users who get refunds from leaving reviews as a solution, as getting a refund for a technical issue is a valid reason to leave a negative review.
What about indie developers who offer short gaming experiences? If you can blast through that indie in under two hours and it was a satisfying experience, do you deserve to have your $1-5 refunded? At the very least, this may change the way certain games are developed and released on Steam. Early Access, for one, becomes less of a sure thing if players can simply ask for a return after skimming the early surface of your game. On the brighter side, refunds may allow for the return of paid mods, as users could simply get a refund on poorly-developed mods.
At the very least, this should be the way forward for other digital storefronts, offering strong return policies within limits. Give Valve a few months to work out all the kinks and then shamelessly steal their working practices, folks. Allowing refunds is just a great consumer measure, even if we don't yet understand all of the outcomes from this policy.