A tale of Steam, Australian gaming consumers, and a disillusioned girl

eJust when I thought I would have a blissful week, free to garrulously wax lyrical about another video game of yore, or rather, my idolatry of particular titles, Valve have stolen the wind out of my sails, and are using it to fart back in my face. Consequently, I’ll have to be verbose on this particular matter instead, although there’s a certain jouissance to be had in analysing the way a particular company keeps cocking up. Alas, there never used to be.

But I digress. Steam have made an announcement that, as of July, a 10% Goods and Services tax (GST) will now be added to purchases made from the store, because, apparently, Valve seeks retribution towards Australians over the results of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) lawsuit. In less facetious matters, although the Australian Government is looking at blocking online retailers who don’t charge GST, Australia won’t be alone in effectively having their prices go up on the Steam store. New Zealand, Switzerland, South Korea, Japan, Iceland, South Africa, and India all look set to have a similar tax implemented. Although there is some reprieve to be had in that the tax will be part of the advertised price by default and not calculated later upon checkout, there is one irrefutably deleterious fact prevalent; Steam’s already extortionate prices on Triple-A software will increase.

I haven’t used Steam for months, nor have I ever used it to purchase a new release mainstream title. Other companies with their own user clients offer far more competitive prices and easier access, and this, astonishingly, also extends to retailers selling physical copies. Take the recently released Ubisoft Title For Honor. Steam currently lists the standard edition for $60.95 USD ($79.40 AUD as of writing), and the physical PC copy currently retails for $79 AUD at JB HIFI. The difference may appear negligible, but not considering slightly older titles such as Fallout 4, currently on sale on Steam for $39.97 USD ($52.05 AUD), in comparison to EB Games’ current price of $36 AUD. That’s not to mention that the latter retailers will offer trade-ins, considerably more generous guarantees on faulty products, and will almost always issue a refund within a reasonable period as applicable. Steam didn’t even offer refunds until June 2015, and even then, there’s a two-week period in which to request one.

Australian gamers are the constant butt monkeys of gaming culture, in response to what is perceived as an overzealous policy on games classification, amongst numerous other government policies and contemptuous regard of the scene in general (I’m looking at you, ABC). However, whilst people have every right to mock what remains a farcical R18+ system, where Australian gamers win is in regards to consumer rights. To see the reaction of the world in response to Valve and Steam’s refund policy first being implemented was incredulous, as many received the news with misplaced hostility and bewilderment.  As it was no doubt instigated by the ongoing legal battle between Valve and the ACCC over charges that the former was breaching Australian Consumer Law by refusing refunds to consumers, some perceived that it was all the Australian Government being too precautionary, as usual.

In reality, Consumer Law in Australia is an extremely beneficial policy for all. In summation, it stipulates that any goods and services sold must function as intended. For instance, a retailer advertising Hiking shoes as being waterproof must be provide waterproof hiking shoes. If they sell what is tantamount to a sneaker instead, or the product ends up being about as waterproof as a sponge, or if it pretty quickly deteriorates, the consumer is entitled to a refund. It’s as simple as that. However, it’s not all weighted in favour of the consumer, as retailers may endeavour to refuse a refund if the product is still perfectly functional and the consumer simply changed their mind, or if it is apparent that the consumer misused their product. As a general principle, though, this ensures peace of mind for the customer, as well as assurance for the retailer in that they are selling a good-quality product that performs as it should.

Games can be tempestuously fickle sometimes. The odd glitch may be amusing and inevitable, but game-breaking bugs are what discerns them as being unfit for purpose. Despite the advent of Greenlight and a risible lack of quality control, customers on Steam have every prerogative to believe that what they are purchasing is a functional product.

Why do I orate so on Steam and its refund policies?

To remind people that Steam’s sale policies are already weighted heavily in their favour, and that whilst price rises and the volatile conversion rate are absolutes, at Valve’s nucleus is rapacity for consumer money. To bring the recollection that, unless you’re a US customer, odds are that your Steam Vouchers and store prices aren’t in your native currency, and you have to convert how much money you’re losing yourself. Even now, Valve are lodging an appeal against the well-warranted $3 million dollar fine handed down by the Australian Federal court for breaching Australian Consumer Law, and that’s not even $3 million USD. Valve still evidently maintain the delusion that the sole “beneficiaries” of their practices reside in the United States , when, in reality, only 16.07%[1] of their users are from there. The very basis of their defence against the ACCC was that they argued that they technically didn’t conduct business in Australia, and, by default, apparently anywhere else for that matter.

The reality is that Steam do conduct business in other countries, and in spite of all my grievances with how expensive digital goods are in Australia, it’s almost certainly a lot worse in other countries. However, unless Steam looks set to revamp more than just Steam Greenlight (and it’s contentious to say whether that’s been ameliorated or not), I don’t see it enjoying the predominance over digital distribution platforms that it once did.

Which is such a shame. To paraphrase Stephen Fry on his sojourn away from Twitter:

Oh goodness, what fun [it] was in the early days, a secret bathing-pool in a magical glade in an enchanted forest…We frolicked and water-bombed and sometimes, in the moonlight, skinny-dipped. We chattered and laughed and put the world to rights and shared thoughts sacred, silly and profane. But now the pool is stagnant. It is frothy with scum, clogged with weeds and littered with broken glass, sharp rocks and slimy rubbish…Even if you negotiate the sharp rocks you’ll soon feel that too many people have peed in the pool for you to want to swim there any more.

Maybe something can turn the stagnant and debris-strewn Steam into something magical, worthy of adulation, once more.

[1] Sourced from: http://steamspy.com/country/

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