Rumour has it that the decrepit Arkham Knight port beat a retreat on account of Steam refunds. After all, what better way to get a dastardly developer to blush and shuffle its hooves than to reverse its cash flow? Until June, when no-questions-asked refunds came into force, such a feat was impossible. Perhaps, after years of pro-consumer jabs at Microsoft and other corporates, Valve sought to make a material gesture that player interests are truly the heart of the Steam empire. Or perhaps they dislike being sued. Hint: they are currently being sued.
By now, you’ve likely encountered a shop and have a reasonable feeling about how refunds should work: if it doesn’t do what it’s meant to, you take it back. Nothing could be simpler. Refunds for digital products – or, as is often the case, licenses for digital products – are a legal hellscape of false assertions and misinformation, in large part a product of outdated legislation that no one is keen to test in court. To sift through the muck, I got in touch with Ryan Morrison, founder of the New York law firm by the same name (and no relation of mine this side of the 17th century). Whether you’re European, Stateside or in the wrong hemisphere altogether, here’s the plain English version of where and through which service your purchases are best protected and why some retailers still risk refusing refunds.
Steam And The Legal Landscape
Valve issue refunds for any reason so long as the purchase was made less than 14 days prior and it has been played for less than two hours. That includes DLC – provided that the underlying game is under the two-hour threshold – and cash added to your Steam Wallet. With one sweeping policy change, Steam refunds are sticking it to shady publishers; a silent guardian against dodgy ports and false advertising.
The official line is that “refunds are designed to remove the risk from purchasing titles”, but after ten years of hosting third-party games on Steam, such altruism seems odd, particularly as Valve’s interpretation of EU law had been gaining attention of late, while legal proceedings by the Australian competition regulator rumble on in the background.
In the EU, we’ve had the ‘right to withdraw’ from (unused) online purchases since summer 2014: a 14-day window to change your mind for any reason, such as having enjoyed a few beers before deciding that sword-handle umbrella was a must-have. Confusion arises with the distinct subcategory of ‘digital content’. The legislation states that once you start downloading or streaming the content, the right to withdraw is void provided that “the trader has complied with his obligations”. ‘Obligations’ means obtaining your agreement to the download and your acknowledgement that you’re going to lose the right to withdraw. There is also the two-year EU warranty: if the goods are faulty or don’t work as advertised, you have the right to a minimum two-year refund period. From the European Union website, bold and all:
“The trader is always liable for remedying the defect and in some EU countries you also have the right to request a remedy from the producer.”
Valve’s previous set-up was different – subtly different to the point it became a legal haze. Users in the EU were asked to waive their right to withdraw, by means of a checkbox, on purchase, not on download. Imagine having a game on pre-order, undownloaded, when some scoundrel ups the system specs the night before launch. According to Valve, the right to withdraw was gone, even though the product was unactivated. In addition, they absolved themselves of responsibility for the quality of Steam’s products (and given the state of Early Access, you can see why they’d want to try). How is it they were never pulled up on this creative interpretation of the waiver?
“Few people are going to want to sue Steam, and even fewer attorneys would be willing to try,” Morrison tells me. “The law was ambiguous as to ‘how’ consumers could waive their right to withdraw; it only said they could. The top law firms in the world were unsure whether or not it could be done ‘secretly’ in the terms of service or had to be an active check mark. Steam went the safe route and did the check mark.”
Blood had clearly rushed to some heads Down Under, because the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) went looking for a fight. Proceedings began in August 2014 and continue to date, the ACCC alleging that Valve’s old policy denied statutory consumer rights under the Australian Consumer Law. Intriguingly, the ACCC acknowledge the former policy’s clause that refunds might be provided if required by local law, but are pursuing Valve on the grounds that the disclaimer was not enough to offset claims elsewhere in the policy that customers were not entitled to refunds and that Valve bore no responsibility for the quality of goods bought through Steam.
If you’re familiar with Steam customer service and Valve’s reticence to engage with their customers individually, the changes that the ACCC are requesting might cause a wry smile: an email address, phone number, PO box and designated representative to deal solely with consumer refund requests and queries. Ouch.
While Australia may have its watchful protector, the US is Gotham’s underbelly. “The actual laws will vary state by state,” Morrison says. “However, the Federal Trade Commission does enforce laws meant to prevent ‘fraudulent, deceptive, or unfair business practices such as false advertising’. Still, in most cases here in the states, you aren’t buying your digital goods, you are buying a license to display them and use them on your devices. As such, they can offer a ‘too bad’ policy with regards to refunds of games or in-app purchases.”
Three major jurisdictions means three approaches to refunds: a laissez-faire ‘sod off’ to consumers, a well-meaning but ambiguous attempt at legislation, and one barking, foaming, litigating watchdog.
What Steam’s change of heart appears to have given us is a blanket policy – a one-size-fits-all attempt at pleasing everyone with as little administration as possible. As players, we’re in a much better position than we were before, and for the majority, a 14-day, two-hours-played refund window on anything and everything will be all we will ever need, but it is undeniably crude. For one thing, Morrison doubts it will go far enough to assuage the ACCC.
“It will help, but won’t cure the main issue. The ACCC’s suit is to have Valve’s products (that are sold in Australia) include guarantees about the quality and fitness of the goods. If a consumer discovers a major fault in a 100-hour-long game three hours into play, then it would still violate Australian Consumer Law to prohibit that purchaser from seeking a full refund.”
Second, the new policy is unusual in not asking a reason for the refund. If you finish or plain don’t like an otherwise truthfully advertised, well-made game in two hours, you can still get money back, meaning that small developers making short games could be stung by the unscrupulous. The system will have to run for a few months to indicate whether there are dickheads enough to endanger honest devs, but it’s already a reasonable cause for concern.
For now, US residents can rejoice and Europeans will take what we can get while keeping one eye on the outcome of Valve’s tussle with the ACCC. If it goes against them, I’ll be keen to see whether they extend concessions to the rest of the world or adopt a two-speed system – admin they seem desperate to avoid.
On page two, we compare refund policies between EA/Origin, GOG, Green Man Gaming and UPlay. Who wins? Hint: not UPlay.