If you play games on PC, chances are you're intimately familiar with Steam, Valve's digital storefront for buying and downloading games. By the company's last public count, Steam had 125 million active accounts, and this weekend it broke its record of concurrent users with 13.5 million players logged in at the same time.
Most of those people are never going to have an issue with Steam. I've used the software since it launched in 2003 on an almost daily basis, and I've never had a problem. I am a very happy Steam customer.
However, when players do run into an issue with Steam, it can quickly turn into a nightmare because of Valve's notoriously bad customer service. Valve has an F grading from the Better Business Bureau, and while the company said it's working on improving its customer support, those improvements have yet to make themselves apparent.
If you're one of the many happy Steam users that has never had an issue, you might be wondering how Valve can ever be bad enough to get this terrible reputation. I did, which is why Motherboard filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to read the complaints made against Valve to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
We got 264 complaints from the FTC. I read through all of them and what I found was sad, funny, and at times disturbing.
The most common complaint against Valve, as you might imagine, is that it's hard or impossible to contact the company. Complaints say that requests for help go unanswered, ongoing email chains end abruptly, and that it always takes far too long to get a response of any kind. I counted 90 complaints where some form of communication problem was the main issue.
"Does that sound like normal customer support? What else can I possibly do? "
For example, if Valve locks you out of your Steam account for any reason, you won't be able to play any of the games you bought until it decides to unlock that account. So you can either wait to hear back, or open a new account and buy those games again. That might seem like an absurd option, but in one complaint a Steam user said he's been trying to contact Valve about a locked account for three years.
Sometimes, being locked out of your Steam account can have a cost greater than just the value of your games. In Valve's first-person shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, players are able to create and trade weapon skins, which change the appearance of a weapons in the game. In one complaint, a Steam user claimed that his account was banned because an item he bought from another player was previously scammed from its originally owner. I've see two other complaints that described that exact same situation, so this isn't an isolated incident. The person who filed the complaint claimed that he had over $1,500-worth of items in his account, which he could no longer access.
"The initial message, which displayed upfront upon logging into my account, was that my account 'may have been hijacked.' It seemed odd, so I submitted a Steam Support ticket. THREE whole weeks went by before I got a response. I was unable to use my account, message friends on that account, play any of my purchased games etc. . .The last support response I had stated, and I quote, 'You will receive no further correspondence regarding this matter.' Does that sound like normal customer support? What else can I possibly do? I REFUSE to just throw away $1,500 for no reason whatsoever."
Some people make their living now by streaming on Twitch or posting "Let's Play" videos to YouTube. Imagine if PewDiePie, for example, was locked out his Steam account for any period of time. That would be a major hassle, as one YouTuber explained to the FTC.
My account has been banned, reason: Hijacking. When I mentioned to the support provided as to why I was banned, she was quite rude. I'm a Youtuber with about 350,000 subscribers [this] hurts my channel and simultaneously them, because I advertise for them on my channel. The Support from Valve are not answering me they are ignoring me.
This user's account was most likely "hijacked" via one of the many bots, phishing, or malware that target Steam users. Overall, I counted 30 complaints where people couldn't get help from Valve after their account was hacked. When something like that happens, you don't want to wait a for a week on a support ticket or email. You want to pick up the phone and talk to someone immediately, which is probably the most common, specific complaint about how Valve's manages its customer service. Out of the 90 complaints about Valve's poor communication skills, 45 were incredulous that there was simply no one to call.
For example, a lot of complaints come from parents, some who found out their kids charged their credit card for thousands of dollars on Steam only after the fact, others who are desperately trying to resolve technical issues or hacked accounts. This is the one that tugged at heartstrings the most:
I am writing on behalf of my son who has Autism. He purchased a game and spent hours downloading it only to have it say 'unknown error'. I went through all of the troubleshooting steps and it still didn't work. There is no customer support phone number which should have been a red flag. Only email support-I sent the issue and got back a generic response saying to do what I had already done. I replied saying I had already done this and got another generic response . . .I just want the kids money refunded-he didn't know what he was doing.
I imagine that having no one to call is even more frustrating if you've never heard of Steam, as this all-caps FTC complaint makes clear:
THE COMPANY STEAM GAMES / VALVE HAS BEEN CHARCHING MY BUSINESS DEBIT CARD FOR THE PAST ONE YEAR WE ARE STILL TRYING TO FIND OUT THE FULL VALUE AMOUNT OF ALL THE CHARGES. THEY WHERE CHARGING ALMOST EVERY DAY OF EVERY WEEK FROM $5.00 TO $30.00 DOLLARS. THESE ARE ALL FRAUDULENT CHARGES MADE BY THERE COMPANY. MY BANK WILL ONLY GURANTEE ME UP TO 90 DAYS OF CHARGES. IT HAS BEEN 13 MONTHS OF CHARGES. PLEASE HELP.
Overall I counted 28 complaints about fraudulent charges from Steam. Incidentally, I found that these complaints were most likely to use all-caps:
I DO NOT DO ANYTHING WITH GAMING, YOUR COMPANY HACKED MY BUSINESS ACCOUNT AND HAS MADE A CHARGE ON MY ACCOUNT FOR $100.00. I WANT MY MONEY BACK I DO NOT HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH YOUR COMPANY AND HAVE NEVER PURCHASED ANY TYPE OF GAMES IN MY LIFE.
It's not that hard to file an FTC complaint. You just have to fill out an online form. It's like a suggestion box for any business, open to anyone on the internet, and as such, it's stuffed with a lot complaints that seem only tangentially related to Steam, like this user who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):
i use Steam, which is a online way to play games, i suffer from PTSD, so being able to play games is a big help, well i purchased a game which was stated to work in a certain manner, and it did not, instead of being able to relax, i was pretty much taken by my ptsd, so i went to the boards and was a bit rude about the game, however, never once did i personally attack anyone, i was just making it known how unhappy i was with this product, well they of course turned it around, blocked my posts, at the end of the post, talked about how i was banned for lying and spreading false information, when i did nothing of the sort, they banned me for harassment, then after the fact began harassing me, all the while refusing to offer a refund, anything i post about this on steam forums is removed, and steam has done nothing to intervene.
For some reason, a lot of Steam users thought that they deserved their money back because they didn't like a particular game, and that the FTC would be interested in reading their game reviews.
So here we have the great and honorable Valve Corporation, also known to the rest of the world (anyone who's moved on from the abysmal Half-Life series) as Steam. Well, Steam used to be a company that could stand on its morals, but no more. They seem to think that they're above the Consumer protection laws that exist in this country, and that if you purchase a game that you do not like and wish to return, they tell you to go fuck yourself. Dragonball Xenoverse is about the biggest piece of shit game I have ever played. If I had spent my $50 at Gamestop, or any other retailer that would have given me a physical copy to then install and enjoy as a digital medium; I could simply take the game back and get my money back, no harm no foul. Steam/Valve seems to think they don't need to follow the laws of this country when it comes to that well-established and time-proven facet of our country.
"I bought the following games some time ago and none of them are fun/as advertised. Amnesia: The Dark Descent, Bully: Scholarship Edition, Receiver, Stranded Deep, and Depth. I have submitted requests to have the games removed and refunded to my Steam Wallet. . .Amnesia and Receiver, are both idiotic and in no way fun. Bully, and Depth haven't aged well and are in no way fun after the first 30 minutes."
I purchased a Game, Assassins Creed Rogue and it simply is garbage. It will not run consistently on my PC and I receive ABSOLUTELY no help from Steam in regards to this issue…
This last category of complaints is the minority though. Most complaints are from normal people with legitimate gripes. Parents who are trying to help their kids play their favorite games, Steam's most dedicated users who have been wrongly locked out of their account, and people who have nothing to do with gaming trying to understand why they were charged $59.99 for something called Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Valve did not respond to a request for comment, but in October, the company told Kotaku that it plans to improve its customer support by hiring and training more people at a third-party company that specializes in customer support. However, Valve didn't indicate that it's planning to expand beyond its support ticket method, which after reading 264 FTC complaints, I think is the main issue.
As big and influential as Valve is, it's not very approachable, which doesn't have to be the case. If you're having an issue with Xbox One, PlayStation 4, or Origin (Electronic Arts' competitor to Steam on PC), you can call a live human being. When my Origin account was hacked earlier this year, I filed a ticket with Electronic Arts, sent an email, and used their chat support, but it wasn't until I called the company angrily that the issue was actually resolved. Sometimes, that's what it takes, and clearly the best thing Valve could do is just pick up the damn phone.
We've embedded the documents below. The FTC's spreadsheet is formatted quite poorly but if you download the file and open it in Excel or Google Docs and scroll to the right, you'll be able to read them.
Jason Koebler contributed reporting to this story.