The View From the Bunker – How do I loath Steam? Let me count the ways!

By Jeff Ward 24 Jun 2015 0

I generally don’t write negative reviews because most serious wargaming efforts – board games, PC games, and magazines – are brought to us by small companies who truly endeavor to put their best foot forward. 

So the last thing any reasonable reviewer really wants to do is, on the basis of one or two marginal titles, demoralize a group to the point where that the phenomenal game they were about come out with never comes to pass. After all, isn’t this existence is nothing more than an extended learning process? 

But I have no such compunction when it comes to the mainstream companies! So you all are about to learn exactly why I was one of the more infamous Suburban Chicago Sun-Times Suburban columnists. Apparently it had something to do with me regularly speaking my mind.  So buckle your seatbelts because here we go. 

Steam sucks! And if we apply that grade school commutative property, that means that Valve sucks too. I truly hope I’m not being too subtle. 

My deep disdain for this abysmal enterprise starts with the not so subtle fact that this digital game delivery system is a de facto monopoly that stifles innovation and kills small game companies. When I got fed up with iTunes, I simply turned to Amazon for MP3s. It may be a Scylla and Charybdis kinda thing, but at least I had a choice. 

And if Taylor Swift can stand up to Apple then this is the least I can do. 

But if downloadable purchases are your thing (and they will soon be the only thing), there is no real Steam alternative. This, of course, forces developers to sell through that medium because they’d be missing out on a massive market and, thus, they have to abide by Steam’s stern margin requirements. 

You may have heard about the recent Skyrim mod kerfuffle where, under the guise of paying modders, Steam and Bethesda took a mere 75 percent off the top. That’s the kind of thing that makes loan sharks jealous. 

But the monopolistic tactic that frosts my cookies the most is, while I can sell a used car, book, CD, bicycle, lawnmower, console game, or perhaps even my children if they annoy me too much, you can’t sell a used Steam game.

To make matters so much worse, sometimes Steam stops you from selling a physical PC game which is pure unadulterated horse hockey. Please don’t throw their EULA in my face either. You can put any language you want into a contract, but that doesn’t make it legal or enforceable. 

At least with my beloved wargame developers like HPS, Lock n’ Load Publishing, Matrix, Shrapnel, and OBD Software, I can choose between a digital and physical copy and subsequently sell the CD if it doesn’t suit my needs. 

Why is it that only the console companies seem to understand that a rising secondary market tide lifts all boats? 

And I really don’t like Steam’s business practices either. 

Now, I’ll be the first one to complain about some PC wargame prices, but again, if we want the smaller developers to succeed, then we have to be willing to pay a higher price. But Steam is teaching gamers to wait for their insistent “sales” which means even slimmer margins for our favorite companies. 

Don’t get me wrong, companies like Matrix, Lock ‘n Load Publishing, and HPS Simulations all have sales or offer a discount on a new releases, but given Steam’s 500 pound gorilla status, they’re having a Wal-Mart-esque effect on the industry and we all know what Wal-Mart does to local business in small towns. 

Then there’s Steam’s bizarre, incoherent, and completely indecipherable enforcement of their end user agreement. Simply scan the Net and you’ll find torrents of tales of permanently frozen accounts with no real explanation and there ain’t no appeals process either. They are judge, jury, and executioner and, when they strike, there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. 

If it hasn’t been filed already, I’m shocked there isn’t a current class action lawsuit. 

But the worst thing about Steam is this. Much Like George Carlin’s favorite oxymorons; military intelligence, act naturally, clearly misunderstood, and airline food, Steam and Valve have rendered the term “customer service” completely meaningless. 

Their inability (or abject unwillingness) to resolve a plethora of persistent technical issues is legendary. There’s no method of phone contact and you stand about a 50-50 chance of getting an email response, which is a great for an NBA point guard, but not so good for a major corporation. But why listen to me when the Better Business Bureau said it all last March:

"On June 25, 2013, BBB recognized a pattern of complaints from consumers regarding product, service and customer service issues. Consumers allege the games they purchase from Valve Corporation or Steam malfunction, do not work or have an invalid CD key. Consumers also claim the company blocks users from accessing their library of games. Consumers further allege they attempt to contact the company for assistance, but Valve Corporation fails to correct the gaming issues, does not correct credit card charges or issue a refund, or does not respond at all.

On July 1, 2013, BBB notified the company of the complaint pattern. To date, the company has not responded to BBB's request to address the pattern."

Nice! 

Meanwhile when I had a silly bifocal and webpage downloads bad combination moment; Lock ‘n Load Publishing owner David Heath immediately called me back. 

But my final Steam straw was this! 

Perhaps you’re lucky enough to live in one of those areas where reliable Internet service is a given, but my western Chicago suburban hinterlands aren’t one of them. Comcast Cable may be better than AT&T DSL with their daily outages, but we still suffer some sort of monthly shutdown. 

So when the Net decided to crash at a rather inopportune in-game moment, Steam banned my son from a game – a game that he paid for – for a week which really is one heck of a bleeping business model. 

To quote the great Bill Burr on automated grocery checkout lanes, “Do you realize the balls of that? Yeah! I’m gonna have a store. You come in, you pick out what you want, you bring it up, you ring it up, you pay me, you put it in a bag, and they you get the bleep out of my store. Let’s go people! Step it up. I’m trying to run a bleepin’ business here” 

So here’s my plan – I’m done with Steam. Whatever bargain price they might come up with will not be enough. I will not purchase a game from them, I will not participate in any of their MMO offerings, nor will I buy any game that requires a Steam connection to play. And I would heartily encourage you to grab your pitchfork and torch and follow in my firm footsteps. 

Instead, I will buy my PC wargames directly from all those aforementioned publishers even if it means coming up with more money. I will keep backups and updates on an external hard drive, and I may even buy the CD game version if I feel so inclined. And then, though I rarely say this kind of thing, I will sit back and wait for the whole thing to come crashing down upon Valve which is as inevitable as the Earth revolving around the sun. 

And I promise not to laugh too hard – it wouldn’t be polite. 

 

Jeff Ward is a free-lance writer, radio show host, and former opinion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times Media Group. He got hooked on wargames immediately after he picked up that copy of Avalon Hill’s Midway from Hobbymodels in Evanston, Illinois in 1970. You can reach Jeff at jeffnward@comcast.net

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