Valve updates Steam Subscriber Agreement: Will pay for arbitration, but no more class actions

Valve has made some major changes to the Steam Subscriber Agreement, changing the way it handles customer disputes and banning any class action lawsuits over the service. In both cases, it informs us, this is for everyone's own good - ours as customers, and Valve's as a company. But is the trust it's built up over the years with gamers going to be enough to pay for this sudden unilateral decision?

Let's take a look at both halves. First up, the new dispute process. The basic shift is that instead of you - as a Steam user with a problem - simply dealing with Valve or deciding you Better Call Saul, disputes will now go through arbitration/small claims court. In theory, this seems like a good shift - a neutral third party offering the best chance of a fair verdict, while still giving Steam representatives the ability to say "The DRM broke your game? Have a refund...." before things escalate to that point.

The interesting part is that Valve will cover the cost of this process itself regardless of whether you win or lose, provided that "the arbitrator does not determine the claim to be frivolous or the costs unreasonable". With that bit in place, this seems fair enough - a chance of dispute resolution method, but not an attempt to squash reasonable claims or make it more complicated to seek justice.

(By comparison, EA Origin's current offer is more like a supermarket price check deal - that "[if] you are awarded a sum at arbitration greater than EA's last settlement offer to you (if any), EA will pay you 150% of your arbitration award, up to $5000 over and above your arbitration award." That's certainly not a bad bonus if you win, but it does make that initial complaint more of a gamble.)

The class action lawsuit side of things is trickier. To Valve's credit, it's not tried to hide the policy decision - even if most people will likely have skipped right past it when it popped up on their screen yesterday. It's also not an unusual clause - Origin, Sony and many other large companies have added the same rules to try and cut off these legal headaches before they start. (The ones that start in the US, at least. In the UK and other regions, local laws could make this unenforceable anyway.)

The specific reasoning however is likely to ruffle a few feathers, being based on "We've looked into it and decided it's better for you not to have this choice." This is particularly strange, given that the paragraph explaining this fact starts with "It's clear to us that in some situations, class actions have real benefits to customers," before rolling into a "However" about how it's mostly the class action lawyers who benefit from such things. The specific paragraph from its blog post goes like this.

"It's clear to us that in some situations, class actions have real benefits to customers. In far too many cases however, class actions don't provide any real benefit to users and instead impose unnecessary expense and delay, and are often designed to benefit the class action lawyers who craft and litigate these claims. Class actions like these do not benefit us or our communities. We think this new dispute resolution process is faster and better for you and Valve while avoiding unnecessary costs, and that it will therefore benefit the community as a whole."

Is this fair? There's little doubt that gaming doesn't typically get into the areas that the more famous class action lawsuits have helped build an outcry about - environmental damage for example - and you have little chance of even getting your money back after one, never mind getting rich. Those who joined the high-profile Hot Coffee lawsuit for instance were originally looking at $35 each. A more recent one, involving EA's control of the football market, aimed for $1.95 to $6.79 per game. You can be fairly sure the lawyers involved on both sides are taking home a rather bigger cheque than that.

Still, with even Valve acknowledging that such things aren't always bad, and factoring in that complaints might not always be personal or about the money - DRM schemes for instance - this probably wasn't the time to pull a 'for your own good' argument on something that's obviously more of a hassle for the target of a class action suit than the individual users who say "Yeah, sure, whatever" when asked to join in. There are other factors of course, such as the likelihood of a complaint fizzling into a trivial settlement rather than getting anything actually changed. Even if Valve is genuinely doing this for the greater good though, the same can't necessarily be said for the majority of similar clauses elsewhere - and we won't be able to see how effective it is until someone actually steps up to test it out in court.