First Click: How much is an hour of entertainment worth?

February 18th, 2016

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How much is an hour of entertainment worth? If you could break the value of entertainment down by media type, then is an hour with a good book inherently less valuable than two episodes of a great TV show because the latter has moving pictures? Are movies seen at the theater worth more than video games because you watch the former on a much bigger screen?

Firewatch, a first-person story-based video game developed by Campo Santo and released this month, takes about four hours to finish if you adopt a leisurely pace. More impatient players could finish it in two, skipping the conversations you're meant to be listening to, and sprinting through the pastel-colored wilderness you should be luxuriating in. Presumably that second approach was one taken by Firewatch player [RG] Undercover Fish, who posted on the game's forums shortly after finishing it, pondering whether to request a refund on PC download platform Steam.

In the post, Undercover Fish admitted that they enjoyed the game "way more than a healthy amount," admiring its "awesome narration and storytelling," and praised Campo Santo's staff for interacting with players through various channels. But despite these positive points, Undercover Fish was troubled by the fact the game "only" lasted 2 to 3 hours, coming to the conclusion that there was "so much more" they could have purchased with the $18 the game costs.

Undercover Fish enjoyed Firewatch but still wanted a refund

While Firewatch has been critically lauded, a number of tweets, forum posts, and reviews on the game's Steam page directly reference its length as a reason to claim a refund. Undercover Fish wasn't the only PC player who questioned whether to get their money back, but their message elicited a response from one of Campo Santo's staffers. Artist Jane Ng made a case for her game in a reply to Undercover's Fish's post, laying out the difficulties of independent development, explaining how a small team turned down better-paying jobs at major studios to work in a tiny office, and took a leap of faith to make a game that had "the potential to be something special."

Firewatch is part of a growing genre of walking simulators that includes Gone Home, Dear Esther, and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. All are quiet and considered games with heavy focuses on dialogue, exploration, and story, and the majority are made by small development teams. These independent groups — often veterans of the mainstream games industry — can afford to take risks with their subject matter, telling smaller stories that wouldn't ever be supported by major publishers in games that last just a few hours.

Smaller games can be made quicker, enjoyed faster, and sold cheaper. But as well as a blessing, the logistics of selling a PC game through Steam is also a curse. Last year, Valve's service adopted a no-questions-asked policy for anyone that wanted to return a game, as long as they claimed their cash back within 14 days, and hadn't played more than two hours of the game in question. In the process, it opened up a way for players to buy a game, bleed it dry, and then yank the money out of the hand of the people who just gave them a movie's worth of entertainment for the price of a movie ticket.

If I were Campo Santo, I'd be upset about the situation — as Ng's post explains, if money is refunded, then her and her colleagues' years of hard work in uncertain conditions would have amounted to nothing. But from Valve's perspective, with Steam in its current state, what else can you do?

Firewatch

As Steam has welcomed walking simulators, it's also thrown open its doors to other smaller projects. Some, like Firewatch, of rare quality. Others, like the assortment of Minecraft-"inspired" survival sims that barely function, are less welcome. The Greenlight system, introduced in 2012, allows developers to get their games on Valve's digital distribution service by popularity, with players voting for the in-development titles they want to see on the service. Greenlight was conceived as a way to cut down on busywork for Valve — the company previously tested each game sent in before including it on Steam — but also as a way to reflect the burgeoning indie gaming scene on the PC.

It partially succeeded. Steam's digital storefront now more accurately represents the gloriously anarchic, messy, and beautiful state of PC video gaming, but it's given the service a discovery problem. People coming back to PC gaming, or coming to it for the first time through the same Steam Machines that Valve is pushing, will see a jumble of a storefront, full of half-broken and gimmick games. Valve could also argue that its efforts to democratize Steam through the Greenlight system have made it more of an open platform, but in reality the door is only ajar, still partially chained by the cost and uncertainty of putting a game through Greenlight.

But the biggest problem is one of quality. Greenlight's version of democracy has enabled the success of style over substance, demanding that developers pay $100 for the privilege of maybe getting their game sold. Restricting refunds means Campo Santo cuts down on people trying to get something substantial, interesting, and experimental for nothing, but it would mean thousands are unable to return truly terrible video games, purchased off the back of a Greenlight campaign that promised something and delivered nothing.

Perhaps, then, the best idea in the meantime is the personal touch. Ng's message of triumph against adversity apparently got through in this case — in a follow-up message, Undercover Fish abandoned the idea of a refund, pledging to keep the game and forgo the $18. "Campo Santo had more balls than Donald Trump on steroids to make this game," Fish wrote. "They deserve the money."

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