August 29, 2010

Your Elusive Game Collection – Or: Why You Should Think Twice about Trusting Steam

Posted in Commentary, Games at 4:21 pm by gloriouscomputing

I’ve been a fan of Steam for years. I love the convenience of going to virtually any PC and having my games install on them without needing to carry any disks with me. I’ve been buying more and more PC games on the service. Their sales are amazing too. Games whose entertainment value for me don’t justify their full price, do justify prices like 3 or 4 dollars.

I didn’t immediately like Steam. My first experience with the service was a bad one. I bought Red Orchestra in a physical store, but the Steam activation requirement prevented me from playing the game (due to a faulty internet configuration on my part). Years later, I gave Steam a second chance via my purchase of the Orange Box, and it’s been a love affair since then. That is, until June 2010.

By using, I determined that my Steam account is worth about $550 now. That’s not exactly how much money I have spent on Steam games, nor is it exactly how much I’d have to spend to obtain the same games today. Point is: it’s pretty close. Of course, saying the account is worth anything is a fun game to play in your head, but little more, since it’s against Steam TOS to sell your games or your account. But that’s another story.

I’m here to tell you about a policy that Steam is very adamant about, which should send shivers down your spine. I’ve been a user of Steam for years, and it never happened to me before, so of course I thought this would never effect me; And I was right until Steam contacted me to threaten me with stealing all my games. Stealing something that would cost over $500 to replace isn’t exactly a threat to ignore.

Here’s what happened. It was June 29th, and it was the middle of a Steam sale week. Steam holds these once in a while, and as usual, here Steam was offering high discounts on games in 24 hours periods. So 24 hours after a sale is introduced, it is removed again. Just as I have done with every single purchase I ever made on Steam over the years, I used my Paypal account. The same Paypal account every time. Nothing new or different… except that Paypal was feeling coy.

So on June 29th, I purchased the Commandos Pack for $3.75. This games collection never caught my eye before at the usual price, but at this price, a friend was able to convince me. The transaction appeared to go through; At least Steam seemed to think so, because Steam gave me the game. And well it should go through, because I actually had a Paypal balance of $15, which was enough to easily cover this payment without Paypal needing to get money from my credit card. However, shortly after, I receive an email from Paypal, explaining that my Paypal account has been put on hold as part of a routine check. Paypal had put the transaction on hold. Banks do this all the time when your account activity level changes, so this is nothing special, and should be no problem.

Here’s the issue: Steam already gave me the game*. Paypal has not actually given Steam the money for it (Paypal’s decision, not mine). Steam then decides to disable my account. This is already inappropriate. Yes, they didn’t get money for one of the games (The Commandos Pack) that I have on this account; So they should have removed that, pending payment. Remember, I have over $500 worth of other games on that account. There is no dispute that all payments for all of those other games were received by Steam. All those games are 100% verified and paid. To hold these games ransom is an outrage. But it’s a temporary inconvenience,right? All I need to do is make sure Steam somehow gets those $3.75 that I owe them, and everything is fine; right? Wrong! I contact Steam to ask why my account is disabled (they don’t bother to contact you), and this is their reply (emphasis mine):

Thank you for contacting Steam Support. The purchase of [Commandos Pack] has been disputed by Paypal. The Paypal account holder will need to close the dispute and have the funds returned to Steam. If the account holder is unable or unwilling to drop the dispute and let the PayPal know that the purchase is valid, and in turn have the funds returned to Steam, we will not be able to reactivate the account. All games on your account are locked to the account and can not be transferred to a different account. A different payment method can not be used for this game; the money must be returned by the PayPal account that made the original purchase. If the dispute is closed and the funds are released back to Steam, the account will be reactivated. However if PayPal closes the dispute by “Reversing the Payment”, meaning they send the funds for the purchase back to you, the Steam account will remain locked and you will lose access to all of the games on the account. There are no options to resolve a dispute once PayPal has closed the case, so we suggest that you contact them immediately. PayPal Help Center Please let us know if you have any further questions. We are not able to do anything further with your account while a PayPal dispute is still pending, please remedy this issue with PayPal before asking for the account to be reactivated.

Well, shit. Last time I checked, I didn’t own the company Paypal. I don’t have any say in what they do. So seriously, if Paypal decides at their whim to reverse the transaction, you will not accept payment from me in another form? You don’t want my stinking dirty money? No credit cards? Nothing? And seriously, you doubt that this Paypal account is mine, after I’ve been using it to buy every single one of the games that make up over $500 in purchases to your company for many years? You really think I stole this Paypal account, and slowly spent $500 over multiple years without the owner noticing?

So I was told that unless Paypal makes this very transaction go through, Steam will steal all my games. Well, I better talk to Paypal…

In trying to get the issue resolved from Paypal’s site, the best option that they seem to accept in my case involves them sending a physical letter to my physical address with a code I am to enter. Well, this takes around 2 weeks, and I end up figuring another way out that satisfies Paypal.

My account with Paypal is reactivated. Unfortunately, this happens a few days after the 10th of July. Since Paypal now re-verified that I am who I claimed to be and my Paypal account was fully activated again, I expected Paypal to have allowed the transaction to Steam to go through. Imagine my shock when I found out that Paypal had reversed the transaction on the 10th of July. Why would they do this? I called Paypal right away to find out.

I was transferred to lady who specialized in this sort of thing. I explained my peculiar situation to her; And let me pause to reiterate just how peculiar it is. Here I was calling Paypal and trying to get them to un-reverse my transaction. That’s right. I didn’t want to just transfer $3.75 to Steam from the same Paypal account. No, that is logical and reasonable. No, I wanted to transfer $3.75 to Steam with the exact same transaction that failed. Why am I so unreasonable? Because Steam had sworn to steal all my games if this insane requirement was not met. Right then.

The lady was very nice and did everything to understand my situation. She asked the obvious question: “So if this Steam company wants $3.75 from you… why don’t you just send them $3.75?” I felt brain cells dying as I had to recite Steam’s ridiculous policy. “They will take all the games I have purchased away from me if THAT old transaction doesn’t go through”, I said. So she looked into it and pulled up what had happened. When Paypal decided to investigate my account, they had sent an email to Steam also. Paypal had told Steam on June 29th that my payment was on hold, and they asked Steam if they had “shipped the goods” (generic email sent to all sellers in such cases, I assume). Lastly, Paypal had told Steam in this same email that if Steam did not reply to Paypal’s email, Paypal policy was to automatically reverse the transaction. The date Steam was told to reply by was the 10th of July. With other words, the reason Paypal reversed the transaction is because Steam failed to reply to Paypal’s email in a timely manner.

This is a very reasonable policy. Paypal held a transaction because an account was under investigation; Paypal tried to work something out with the seller; The seller didn’t care to reply to Paypal, so Paypal assumed the seller didn’t “ship the goods” and aborted the transaction. Any reasonable person would assume that if the buyer and seller want to do their transaction later, there is no logical reason why they couldn’t do it in a new transaction. If the seller did have an issue with it for some obscure reason, they should have replied.

“Transactions can not be un-reversed”, I was told. However, she did offer to send an email to Steam on my behalf, explaining that I had no part in reversing that transactions, that it was all at Paypal’s discretion due to Steam’s failure to reply to them. I thanked her profoundly and ended the call. Note that my tone throughout the entire conversation with the Paypal representatives was one of pleading and understanding towards their side. I place no blame on Paypal. They acted reasonably in all affairs and were as helpful as possible. I can’t say the same for Steam.

I replied to Steam:

I just got off the phone with PayPal.

On the 29th of June, they decided to investigate my account, which is why that transaction was put on hold. I provided them with proof of address, and they re-enabled my Paypal account today.

I was shocked to see the transaction had been reversed, which is why I called them today. They said that on the 29th they had sent you, Steam, an email: They had told you that my Paypal account was being investigated, and asked for your reply, saying that if they did not hear from you by the 10th of July, they would automatically reverse the payment. So it was your inaction that caused Paypal to reverse the transaction. I had no say in the matter.

I asked them if they could un-reverse the transaction, but they said it was impossible due to technical reasons. However, they said what they could do is email you, Steam, (to your Paypal email) explaining my situation and goodwill, and verifying that I did everything possible to make sure that the transaction went through ok, and that it was completely out of my power that the transaction was reversed. Additionally they will offer you to invoice me so that I can pay you the [$3.75] via a new transaction.

I have bought games via Steam with this same Paypal account for many years now. Paypal themselves have confirmed to you that I had nothing to do with that transaction being reversed. Please don’t keep my account disabled.

Reading what I wrote now, I read a sincere but stern tone with a hint of pleading. I intentionally wrote the email in such a way that I would have been able to release a hell storm of negative PR had Steam chosen to stick to their policy. Fortunately, their actions weren’t quite that insane, but still unreasonable. Their reply:

I have contacted PayPal directly on your behalf regarding your case. I needed to confirm with them that they have verified your account and that the PayPal account was not being used fraudulently. Our standard policy is to have PayPal reverse the chargeback before we reactivate your account. Since this is not an option in your case, I have reactivated your account with the expectation that you repurchase the chargedback title, Commandos Pack, within the next 5 days. If you do not complete the new purchase in that time, your account will be disabled again. Your account is now activated. You will need to use a payment method other than your PayPal account. When a chargeback happens, the PayPal account is banned automatically; since the chargeback has not been reversed the ban on the PayPal account hasn’t been reversed. Unfortunately, there is no way for me to do this manually. Please note, this is a one time exception to our policy, any future chargebacks or payment reversals will result in the account, and all the games therein, being permanently locked.

Yay, I got my account back. But wait! Of course, I did purchase the Commandos Pack, so I will honor our transaction, but there’s a huge problem here. I bought this game on sale. I only bought this game because it was on sale. Never would I have spent the full price on this game. This was a 24 hour sale. If I buy it now, I have to pay full price. Well, it’s a small bribe to pay vs. losing $500+ worth in games… So I do it, but this is not right. My reply to Steam:

Thank you for being reasonable in this matter. I have repurchased the Commandos Pack with another payment option as soon as I read your message as I sign of my goodwill. I would like to note though that I purchased the Commandos Pack on 29th of June, when it was on sale for $3.75. The only reason I bought it was because of this low price; I would not have purchased it for the full price of $14.99. But that’s what I had to do today. So I paid $11.24 extra that I wouldn’t have paid if these events, all of which were out of my control, had not transpired. It was a small fee to pay to get the threat of losing all the games that I purchased over years behind me. However, to make things right, I would appreciate something like a $11.24 store credit or a complimentary game of similar value.

Their reply:

Hello [MyName], I understand your frustration with the matter, however, it was not our fault that the chargeback was processed. You would need to contact PayPal for any compensation that you are seeking.

Here’s the problem with this logic. I made a decision to buy a game from Steam for the advertised price of $3.75. I want to honor that. In the ideal case, Steam gets the $3.75 and I get the game. If my money doesn’t go through, and the sale ends, then Steam doesn’t get my money, and I don’t get the game. That would be fine! I could be mad at Paypal if I had missed this sale, and I had made the decision to purchase the game regardless, for $14.99.

But I never made a decision to buy this game for $14.99. Steam held $500+ in my purchased games ransom. I only paid the $14.99 to get them to return my already purchased games to me. If I had been given a choice to either pay $14.99 for Commandos Pack or not buy it at all, I certainly would not have bought it! That’s why this argument of “Oh, you missed the sale, so of course you have to pay full price if you want to buy the game now” argument is bullshit. I don’t want to buy the game now, for $14.99!

The agreement we made was that I would pay $3.75 and Steam would give me the game. Paypal prevented that deal from occurring. Now another deal is available: Pay $14.99 and get the game. I’m not interested. It’s too much. It’s not worth it for me. But I have no choice. I must pay this, else Steam will steal all my other games that I purchased over the years. I basically had to bribe Steam with $11.24 to get them to safely return the hostages. Their quote from above [clarification mine]:

If you do not complete the new purchase [for $11.24 more than agreed upon originally] in that time [within 5 days], your account will be disabled again.

Does that sound like I’m making a decision based solely upon the game and its new price to anyone? Or does that sound like if I don’t pay up, something will be taken from me? Namely, $500+.

Steam has abused their power. There is an unwritten understanding when you trust a company with your games collection. The understanding with Steam is that all the games you pay them for are yours to play until the company goes bankrupt; Furthermore, there is an expectation that Steam will not abuse the power they hold over your purchased games.

You wouldn’t tolerate Gmail intentionally preventing you from accessing your email over a $4 dispute about a payment (to Google Adwords, maybe). By entrusting our game collection to Steam, we are trusting them not to abuse their power. Instead, Steam freely threatens to abuse their power by taking from us games that we paid for, for arbitrary reasons they decide at their leisure. In virtually every response from Steam, they boldly stated their policy of stealing all our games should a transaction fail (which, as in my case, can be completely out of the buyer’s control). Thankfully, that was not the result here, although I have heard from others that this has destroyed thousands of dollars worth of their games. Not as bad, but just as unreasonable for any legitimate company: I was threatened to have $500+ worth of games stolen from me lest I pay an extra $11.24 that I would never have agreed to pay had I not been threatened.

My enthusiasm with Steam has been curbed, to say the least. Steam owes me $11.24. I’m not saying I’m boycotting Steam, but my purchase rate has gone way down; I haven’t bought anything from the Steam Store since the Commandos Pack. I think way harder about the ramifications of giving Steam control over another game purchase of mine. I suggest you do the same.

*  Update: To clarify, when Steam gave me the game, I downloaded it, and launched it. I only went to the title screen before I closed it, because I didn’t have time to play that day. It was only after I exited the game that I saw the email from Paypal stating that the transaction was on hold.

So while I did get the slightest of tastes of the game, this changes nothing about my willingness to pay for it, it also changes nothing about Steam’s policies aimed at preventing payments in these situations, and it changes nothing about Steam’s threat to take games whose payments went through undisputed years ago away from me.