Steam’s Customer Service Crisis
I’m a big fan of Steam, Valve’s digital delivery platform. For a whole bunch of reasons, it’s probably the best thing to come to PC gaming, well, ever. However there are a lot of things it does terribly poorly for a vendor of its size – things that are easier to construe as an underlying malice toward its customers. Steam pioneered digital delivery of games in a meaningful way and had to find its way as it went along. Now, however, it is the market leader with competitors like D2D and Impulse looking to it for direction. It is utterly unacceptable at this point to be clumsy, rigid or have anything but the best customer service but, I think, Steam fails shockingly on all these counts.
It starts and ends with customer service. For many people Steam Support is not something they have to often if ever deal with. And lucky them. Consensus is that Steam Support sucks. Minimum wait time for a response to a query of any kind is 24 hours. Often this response will not be helpful in the slightest, instead asking for more details or requesting you take diagnostic measures that if you wouldn’t have resorted to support if you hadn’t tried. The wait for the next reply is another day or so. Apparently this is prioritised by the nature of the query but I’ve found these timings pretty standard. However if a game isn’t allowing you to play because ‘The Steam server is not available’ or if Steam Cloud cannot sync and you’ve lost access to your game saves, this is really too long to wait.
Registration of retail CD keys is also a surprisingly flawed process. In my 3 or so years of experience with the service, I’ve had to register retail purchases with Steam because the games themselves are integrated with the service. FEAR 2, Dawn of War 2 and Aliens vs. Predator come to mind. The first two of those randomly disappeared from my account one day. On contacting support I was first told that my account had been hacked and that my password was being reset. However the login details given to me by support were for the wrong account! After I sorted that out with them (another 2 days of back and forth) I was asked to verify I owned the games by writing my name and ticket number on the actual game manual next to the CD key, photographing it and sending it through. I did that. After that though I needed retail receipts showing a purchase in the last 90 days to be scanned and sent over. I didn’t have these, and FEAR was bought a lot longer than 3 months prior. Since I couldn’t supply this, they couldn’t restore my games and I was left with the uncertain prospect of re-buying things I already owned only to wonder if this would happen again. I ended up repurchasing the titles later during a sale but the ordeal has left a sour taste in my mouth and an uncertainly in my mind about the reliability of the service.
Reliability is also called into question by regional pricing and release dates. These change almost whimsically- prices can double for a given game overnight and releases can be pushed back days even up to the point where the unlock timer reads ‘1 hour left’. Fallout: New Vegas is a current example; until last week Australians were asked to pay $49USD for the game at which point the price jumped to $89USD. US residents still get the lower price. Apart from pacifying retailers, is there any incentive for publishers to do this? Price discrepancies across regions is as common as it is baffling. For the same product with virtually no manufacturing or packaging overhead, there is no fair reason why one person in one place should pay more than any other. Although this discrimination can be blamed on the publisher, Valve is responsible for what is represented in their storefront. Surely a little consistency is in order; who wants to buy the game for almost double what it was a few days ago? Who will think that’s fair? In recent memory, as an Australian, I’ve seen this happen to Borderlands, Alien vs. Predator, Bioshock 2, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Darksiders, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and more- it’s not cool.
Release dates are just as finicky. I cite Fallout: New Vegas again but that game was really the last straw for this long overdue tirade. It was meant to come out last weekend. Instead, even though the pre-load is finished, it will only unlock this coming Friday. Almost a week after the same game files have unlocked for playing for Americans and a whole week after it was meant to unlock. You can always look to the publisher but couldn’t Steam admins have got the date right from the beginning? Or at least couldn’t they have noticed and made that change more than an hour before the due date? Borderlands gave me the same trouble. People are always talking about VPNs to unlock early but given Steam accounts are bannable – and with them all your games – over things like that it’s hardly worth the risk. Either way, another area in which Steam fails.
The topic of refunds and resale of your Steam property made the news this week and, although a more fundamental complaint of the service, is also a genuine problem for the prospect of Steam moving forward. Amassing a bunch of ‘licenses’ for games is great and all, but after a while the question seemingly raises itself; ‘what do I actually own’? Very little tangible, unfortunately, and that is a major turnoff about the system as it grows. A brilliant idea to immediately attach worth to that collection is the opportunity to sell it. Or at least trade it in for credit as Michael Pachter suggested with Steam taking a cut each time. Valve quickly put down these rumours but come on. How much would it have really cost them for the amount of value it’d add to customers?
These concerns niggle at all of Steam’s users and the more they use the service the more these apparently minor issues begin to matter. I haven’t extolled the reasons why Steam is a great service, and there are many. Its user base is now mostly comprised techy, savvy enthusiasts who are willing to negotiate their way around Steam’s quirks for the sake of the its strengths, but that won’t always be the case. Digital delivery will become commonplace and newcomers expecting the level of service offered elsewhere will be sorely disappointed with rust around Steam’s edges. Valve is on to a good thing, but they really need to lift their game lest these dismissible yet all-too-common grievances eventually escalate into real deal-breakers.