Steam’s refund policy is restrictive, incoherent and in urgent need of change

3 Dec 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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Over the weekend, Steam broke its own concurrent user record with seven million PC players playing DOTA 2 various games on Valve’s digital platform. After a ropey launch in 2003, the desktop client now dominates the PC world. Other digital game stores are still out there doing business, but these tend to either be backed by a major publisher (Uplay, Origin,) exist in a prosperous niche (GOG.com) or simply act as a third party to sell Steam keys (GreenManGaming.)

For the most part Valve seems to use its position of digital supremacy in a benevolent fashion. The platform is stable, appears to provide solid download rates and even manages to function in Offline Mode these days. Meanwhile, regular Steam sales keep the players happy and keep the cash rolling in for platform, publishers and developers alike.

But there’s one area where Valve and Steam show baffling contempt for their customers. Refunds.

x rebirth (3)

X Rebirth, a game with an abysmal launch deserving of refunds.

Here’s Steam’s refund policy. It says you have no recourse to a refund, except under some very specific circumstances.

As with most software products, we do not offer refunds or exchanges on games, DLC or in-game items purchased on our website or through the Steam Client … An exception is made for games purchased during a pre-order period if the request is received prior to the games’ release date.

Valve has even attempted to weasel out of the Distance Selling regulations (which apply in EU territories and the UK) by adding this segment to its (mandatory) End User License Agreement (EULA):

IF YOU ARE AN EU SUBSCRIBER YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO WITHDRAW FROM A PURCHASE TRANSACTION FOR DIGITAL CONTENT WITHOUT CHARGE AND WITHOUT GIVING ANY REASON UNTIL DELIVERY OF SUCH CONTENT HAS STARTED OR PERFORMANCE OF THE SERVICE HAS COMMENCED. YOU DO NOT HAVE A RIGHT TO WITHDRAW FROM A TRANSACTION OR OBTAIN A REFUND ONCE DELIVERY OF THE CONTENT HAS STARTED OR THE PERFORMANCE OF THE SERVICE HAS COMMENCED, AT WHICH POINT YOUR TRANSACTION IS FINAL.

I say “attempted,” because I’m not a legal professional and the validity of Steam’s EULA vs European Union legislation has, to my knowledge, never been tested in court. Probably because the majority of PC players don’t fancy opening up complex legal proceedings over a £15 GBP purchase of The War Z.

Anyway, according to Steam’s legal semantics, you can’t invoke the Distance Selling legislation once you’ve started playing the game. Or once “performance of the service has commenced” to put it in their own shark-eyed terms.

Aliens: Colonial Marines

Aliens: Colonial Marines, a game advertised at trade events with falsified footage. Worth a refund, I’d say.

It’s a strangely Draconian stance from a company with an otherwise friendly, inclusive face. For the vast majority of purchased items, you need to actually use them for a bit before you can figure out whether they’re broken. I’d argue that the same is true of games. It takes a good few hours to figure out whether a title is a bugged piece of shit, just as it might take a while for stitching to come out of a pair of boots or a dishwasher to explode.

In Valve’s world, you should know before you play a game whether it’s going to function as advertised.

There are some ways to stay informed about a game’s release quality, it’s true. People can read about it on forums or through previews, for example. But the former is only an option if the game is already out, and the latter is subject to both the integrity of the journalist writing about the title and the ‘reach’ his or her publication may have.

When IncGamers ran a less than stellar (yet eerily prescient) preview of Total War: Rome II we found ourselves curiously absent from the ‘Preview Round-up’ forum posting by Creative Assembly’s community staff, and missing from the twitterverse promotions about glowing write-ups from other outlets. The public weren’t being informed about the possible bugs at launch because the coverage was being massaged from the very beginning. That’s how marketing operates.

So who could blame the average game buyer, even one who has tried to stay informed, for taking the plunge on Rome II? For that matter, why are videogame customers being expected to adhere to this higher standard of transaction research in the first place?

total war rome 2 (4)

Rome 2. Another disastrous launch deserving of a refund option.

Total War: Rome II, X Rebirth and Aliens: Colonial Marines are just three examples of games released this year which did not functioned as advertised. They all “worked” in the sense that they booted up, but the reality of their launch did not match the pre-release marketing hype. But if you’d fired any of the games up for even five minutes on launch day to discover, yep, they’re a bit crap, you’d have voided your right to request a refund under Steam’s crazy policy terms.

Except, the weird part is people sometimes do get refunds on Steam in these and similar circumstances. It’s just that nobody knows precisely how to do it. There are no definitive guidelines and no objective methods, just guesswork and hearsay. Steam’s customer support staff seem to handle things on a case by case basis, where in some (rare and mysterious) cases the official refund policy can be over-ruled.

For those with time and dedication enough to poke and prod and maintain an air of politeness (perhaps combined with a robust knowledge of local sales laws,) a refund through Steam is a possibility. There are persistent rumours that Valve will only ever allow you one refund per account, but these are also pretty difficult to verify.

This kind of inconstancy and incoherence is maddening, unbecoming of PC gaming’s most popular digital platform and could be easily resolved with the implementation of a sensible, straightforward refund policy. Instead of forcing customers to share whispered, arcane tips online about how to get their money back, maybe it would be better to just have a clear set of rules to follow. Man, if only there were somewhere in the digital PC sales market we could look for such a th … holy shit, Origin has one.

Yes, Valve’s attitude to refunds is so pathetic that even nasty old EA has them trumped.

Ashes Cricket 2013 was so bad that Valve pulled it from Steam and everybody did get refunds. From publisher 505 Games.

Here’s the ‘Great Game Guarantee,’ active since August of this year:

Origin PC digital download refund: The Great Game Guarantee allows you to return EA digital game downloads (PC/Mac) purchased on Origin for a full refund within 24 hours after you first launch the game, within seven days from your date of purchase or within seven days from the game’s release date if you pre-purchased/pre-ordered, whichever comes first.

It’s not perfect. It only applies to games published by EA or EA partners at present, and doesn’t extend to DLC. But it’s leagues ahead of Steam’s bumbling, confused, ‘deny all refunds, oh except when we don’t’ approach. You could use it on, say, Battlefield 4 after it crashes for the 500th time.

With this simple policy, EA accounts for people who’ve been misled by dubious marketing or found that the game isn’t compatible with their rig, or just went mad and accidentally bought and booted up a game for some inexplicable reason (hey, I don’t know, it could happen.) If you’ve tried the game within a week of purchase and found that it’s utter dreck, you have a 24 hour window in which to get a refund. Splendid.

Battlefield 4 - 09

Battlefield 4, seen here in a rare moment before a server crash.

There’s really no excuse for Steam to keep avoiding the implementation of a similar policy. I understand that they want to prevent frivolous refunds, or people trying to get money back after already finishing the game, but there are ways to prevent those situations without resorting to anti-customer practices. The vast majority of players would probably even accept store credit as recompense, which would cost Valve next to nothing in the long run (unless people kept that cash in their Steam wallets out of spite or something.)

Customers can help themselves by avoiding pre-orders and waiting for reviews and opinions to trickle out about a game, but it’s also important to hold sellers to some level of responsibility. Currently, Valve is reaping the benefits of being a digital middle-man, while abdicating any kind of obligation towards the quality of what is being sold. When a company like EA already has you beaten on that score, it’s time to consider an urgent change of heart.

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