I don’t think anyone understood how important the Steam games service would become when it was released in 2003. The general mood, as I recall it, was skepticism. Valve was a great game developer, but opening a digital game store was an entirely different business with different challenges.
Steam is now approaching 10 years old. Its impact has been undeniable. Millions of gamers enjoy the service’s seamless community services, low prices and excellent selection. I have been one of them – until now. While I will be keeping my current Steam games (of course) I will no longer be buying products there. If a game is released only through Steam, I will not play it. Here’s why.
The Turning Point
Valve recently released new terms of service that deny users the right to a class action lawsuit. This is, at least in the United States, entirely legal. The only way to resolve a dispute is through binding arbitration with Valve.
That’s a bad thing to do, but it’s also understandable. Every company has moved to exclude class action lawsuits ever since the United States Supreme Court struck down a California law that forbids companies from excluding class action suits in their terms of service.
What really struck me, however, was Valve’s response to those curious about what would happen if they denied the updated terms of service.
Thank you for contacting Steam Support.
We can permanently deactivate your account for you, remove any stored payment information and clear your Steam games profile.
Disabling your account will not result in a refund, as explained in the Steam Subscriber Agreement.
The games in your account will not be accessible for future use. It is impossible to make your games available once your account has been deactivated and your information deleted or archived. Once we have permanently deactivated the account, we will not be able to reactivate the account upon a future request.
Yep. If you don’t want to accept the new terms of service you have the right to have all the games you purchased deactivated. Forever.
A Problem Of Precedent
This is troublesome not just because of the class-action issue. It’s troublesome because Valve is saying it has the right to changes the terms of service at any time. If the user choses to reject the new terms, Valve will not give the user the chance to continue using games purchased under the earlier terms. Those games will simply vanish, along with the user’s account.
I’m not a legal expert, but as far as I’m aware, there’s no precedent in law that prevents Valve from doing this. You could sue, but there’s no guarantee you’ll win. Companies change their terms of service all the time, in fact, and this is okay as long as users are notified.
I’ve heard fellow gamers speak in horrified whispers about this exact problem, but most assumed it would happen only after Steam was bought out by another company. They haven’t been bought out, but those worst nightmares are coming true.
If Valve thinks it is okay to hold games hostage in order to force users to accept terms of service that deny their right to a class action lawsuit, what else might they do?
We’re In Deep
In 2010 I wrote an article for The Escapist titled Steam: A Monopoly In The Making, in which I shared my concerns about Steam. I was troubled because Steam had such a large share of the digital distribution market, and that share seemed to be growing. This puts gamers in a position where Steam is sometimes the only choice or, because of the success of Steam sales, the only logical one.
The fact I’ve purchased titles through Steam since I wrote that article is a testament to the service’s strength. In many cases, I had no choice – the games were not available without a Steam account. If I were to leave Steam by disputing their new terms of service I would be giving up access to about 100 games that I have paid for.
Most of us are in deep with Steam, and we’ll only get in deeper as time goes on. This gives Steam additional leverage to use against us when they change the terms of service. The situation reminds me of the Penny Arcade cartoon that made fun of Microsoft’s subscription music service. Yeah, you can leave any time you want. So long as you don’t mind killing all your favorite games.
What Can You Do?
Leaving Steam isn’t really an option, and wouldn’t do anything besides destroy access to some of my favorite titles. I will, however, stop buying games from the service.
What are the alternatives? Well, there’s GOG. Formerly known as Good Old Games, the service changed its title because it no longer restricts itself to old games. They’re 100% DRM free. You need to log in to your account to download, but that’s it.
The Humble Indie Bundle and similar offers provide another solution. They can deck you out with numerous games for one affordable price (which you get to choose). Again, it’s DRM free.
And then there are the rare developers that release games entirely on their own. One example is 2×2 Games, whose recent strategy game Unity Of Command can be purchased directly from the developers.
I’m not saying this will be easy. There are a lot of games that I’ll miss out on because I don’t want to purchase from Steam any longer. But I think that, in the long run, it will be the better choice. I don’t want to have 100 more games tied to my account when Steam inevitably takes some other disruptive action that I don’t agree with.
What do you think of Steam games? Will you be walking away from Steam? Or are you sticking with them? Tell us your opinion in the comments below.