Friday, 3 August 2012

Steam Subscribers and Lawsuits

Valve Corporation are widely regarded as one of the world leaders in games design. Consumer focused, respectful, innovative and above all genuinely interested in you as a customer or potential employee, it's hard to see why some people find fault with Valve. They're a company that have brought us superb games and superb support for those games.

While I'm clearly biased it's not without good cause. However, Valve have pulled a move that has a lot of subscribers to their service, Steam, up in arms. Reported on the PC Gamer website is the news that they've created an in-house judiciary system that allows them to resolve subscriber complaints more easily and fairly, but prevents class action lawsuits. Check out the official blog post.

The bone of contention is that prevention of class-action lawsuits. A class-action lawsuit is an agreement between a large number of consumers to sue as one unit. This creates an incredibly powerful and well-funded endeavour that companies obviously fear; Steam regularly peaks at 3-4 million subscribers each day. Just 1% of those banding together to take Valve to court would be 30,000 people.

So the question is, why does this matter? As the PCG commenters note, Sony and EA have points in their user agreements that block class-action lawsuits. While inapplicable in the EU where these agreements are overridden, in the US this is a bone of contention. Often, the only way the consumer can really be heard against the monetary might of a company is as a collective. Block that ability, and the people lose their voice. With Valve's agreement, only individuals can take Valve to court.

On the other hand, Valve are widely regarded, as mentioned, as a successful yet personable company whose support has very rarely let people down. This is the tension in the point - are Valve preparing to bend us all over, or just trying to focus on individual customer service to provide the very best they can? I can sympathise with Valve's fear of cash-mongering lawyers; consider the recent case of Charles Carreon, a lawyer gone mad. Imagine a profit-focused lawyer with a vast number of disgruntled consumers behind them. The question is whether the price of the ability to be heard is worth the damage that could be done to Valve to line the pockets of a lawyer, backed by people who might not be thinking straight.

In my opinion, companies such as EA that have repeatedly demonstrated some questionable practices preventing class-action lawsuits are the real problem. Valve? A company where the founder flew to Australia to settle a dispute over L4D2? Where the founder reads every email sent to him? Where they send merchandise to subscribers out of sheer philanthropy? Where they launch a campaign that profits and helps indie game developers? A company where you are able to do what you like with the backing of your colleagues?

And these aren't isolated cases - this is what makes Valve what they are. Call me a fanboy, but haters gonna hate. Class-action lawsuits blocked? I think it's because they trust you to do the right thing, and you should trust them. I understand the threat in such an agreement, but hey, it's Gaben.

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