Returning Steam

By Shamus Posted Wednesday Feb 14, 2007

Filed under: Video Games 37 comments

In a comment on my tirade on Steam, I think SteveDJ has the right idea:

Here is a work-around so you can return software (or DVD movies, which I have done before) after you have opened it. Take it back to the store, and say “It doesn't work. My computer (or DVD player) cannot read the disk. It is defective”. They will gladly exchange it for a brand new copy â€" unopened even!

Now, a day later, you take that unopened copy back to the store and return it for a refund.

Normally I take a dim view of return-policy shenanigans. If I get the short end of the stick, I’ll take the loss but also carry a grudge.

But when it comes to something like Steam I would classify the exploitation of return-policy loopholes as basic self-defense. They took advantage of me first, and I would have liked to be able to escape the deal without taking a loss. The fact that they would take a loss (the opened package is now considered damaged goods) is their problem. They are the ones with the pushy software and the senseless return policy.

If I’d thought of this, I would have done it.


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37 thoughts on “Returning Steam

  1. Teague says:

    A lot of stores will mark your receipt now, thanks to this type of dishonesty. I know the current return policies screw a lot of people because a few were jerks, but let’s face it, most rules/laws of any kind are like that.

  2. Teague says:

    To finish my thought: Be angry/frustrated with the jerks that caused the policy change, not the company that is trying to protect itself from them.

  3. Teague says:

    Oh, one more thing:

    “They are the ones with the pushy software and the senseless return policy.”

    When did EB and Wal-Mart start producing games?

  4. Daktylo says:

    You have to watch out though, most companies (I aim my sights at Best Buy) have a policy that if you return something you will get a brand new copy with a requirement of opening the said item in front of you.

    This happened when I returned a DVD once. The clerk opened it, and when I asked why she did that, she stated it was store policy.

  5. Shamus says:

    “When did EB and Wal-Mart start producing games?”

    I was using “they” to include both parties, since I believe both will share in the loss. So Valve (the publisher, actually, who I can’t be bothered to look up) and Wal-Mart both lose money on the deal. This seems fitting, since screwing me was kind of a team effort.

  6. Teague says:

    “when I asked why she did that, she stated it was store policy.”

    Give a big company a need for a policy to protect themselves from thieves/lawsuits, and watch the hyjinks ensue……You should see the signs my company just put up around our (previously lovely) landscape ponds to keep somebody from trying to go out on the ice, breaking though and drowning. (I’m in Columbus, Ohio. Yay, snow!)

    “screwing me was kind of a team effort.”

    I hear ya. I used to run a Babbage’s (extra points on the Geek test if you know why a “game store” would be called that, and/or ever went to one) back in the ’90s when other retailers started this type of return policy but “we” hadn’t yet. It went a long way towards offsetting “our” higher pricing. (You can get it cheaper at Best Buy, but you better hope you like it) Now, though, it’s pretty much everywhere. (sigh)

  7. This is, of course, why all well-equipped scam artists own a shrink wrap machine.

    If you only need to wrap a few items, I think all you need is tubular wrap of the appropriate dimensions and a heat gun to shrink it.

    You, too, can be getting refunds on boxes that’re actually full of old AOL CDs!

    (The big stores are probably wise to this stunt by now. It’ll still work for getting you a deserved refund on something that you’re returning all honest-like, though.)

  8. Teague says:

    At said Babbage’s, we used that method to re-sell the returned stuff, too. (Except for the stuff that obviously WAS defective)

  9. Andre says:

    Am I the only one who LIKES Steam? I haven’t had a problem with it yet, and I’ve even considered rebuying games that I already own, when they come out on Steam, so that I can have them available on Steam and throw out the old game CDs.

    It has its flaws, certainly, but I prefer the Steam distribution model to the CD (with 300-digit authentication key) model. All signs point to digital distribution being the method of the future. Bill Gates has gone on record to state his belief that HD-DVD and BluRay will be the last generation of wide-scale physical media, and that the future will be digital downloads. This isn’t to say that I believe everything Bill Gates and Microsoft say, or even that they have a spotless track record (“Heh, Internet Explorer? We don’t need no stinkin’ upgrades to Internet Explorer!”), but I happen to agree with Mr. Gates on this one. I think that the future is going to shy away from CDs, DVDs, HD-DVDs, and so on, and focus more on digital.

    And if that’s the case, let’s face it: no one’s going to be offering unguarded copies of their stuff for download. I hate DRM, spyware, and bloat as much as the next tech nerd who follows up on news, and I’d love to see a world that’s DRM-free, but I don’t see that happening. In the meantime, I’m going to support the systems that offer the most freedom within the limitations.

    I haven’t had a single show-stopping problem with Steam yet. Yes, it’s big, it’s clunky, it’s slow to load, and it’s a pain in the ass having to download your game every time you want to reinstall. And the constant updates can be a headache, too. But here’s what counts for me: when I want to play, assuming I have the game fully installed already, I don’t really have a problem playing. The Steam application improves with every update, and the newest version is quicker and less prone to crashing than its predecessors.

    I have 6 full retail games or expansions on Steam, and I’d willingly buy more. That’s 6 gajillion-digit CD keys I don’t have to keep track off in case I want to reinstall. That’s about 36 CDs I don’t have to swap out of my CD-drive when I’m installing. That’s 6 games I don’t have to worry about having compatibility issues with in ten years, assuming Steam is still around then. And if it isn’t? Well, I’m not a whole lot worse off than I would be otherwise; I’ve thrown out dozens of my favorite game CDs, some that were less than 10 years old, because support for said games were no longer available and I couldn’t get them to work with the latest version of Windows. Bye bye Warcraft I and II, SpaceQuest, Quake, Dune 2000, Command and Conquer, Red Alert, and friends.

    And let me share with you a horror story about the more common method of game distribution: I own two copies of Diablo 2, one copy of its expansion, and one copy of Warcraft 3, all from Blizzard. All of those games use CD keys in their installation. Due to storage and moving issues, I’ve lost the CD keys to all of those games, and I can no longer play them without searching out some hacked CD key, and feeling bad in the process. The same would have happened with Neverwinter Nights and its myriad expansions, too, if I hadn’t stored those CD keys online at I’d rather have a username and password, linked to a small amount of personally identifiable info (that could be used to authenticate me in case I lose my username or password over the years), and have access to all of my games that way, than to have to keep track of all the physical crap that comes along with gaming.

    Sorry about the rant. I just wanted to point out that not everyone hates Steam. Some people prefer it.

  10. Selki says:


    Re your first response: what dishonesty? No warning labels on the outside of the package: the game doesn’t work as implied by the packaging. Shamus isn’t talking about slipping an AOL disk in; he’s talking about returning the defective goods the store took his money for.

    Re your fourth response, I know who Babbage was and I happily shopped at the Babbage’s in my area and attended a couple of author lectures there before they closed.

  11. Kadnod says:

    “Am I the only one who LIKES Steam? ”

    No. If STEAM didn’t have an off-line mode, I’d have a problem with it. But since it does, a one-time on-line registration is worth all the other services it provides.

  12. Lebkin says:

    “I've even considered rebuying games that I already own, when they come out on Steam, so that I can have them available on Steam and throw out the old game CDs.”

    With many games (such as the original Half-Life and its expansions), you can register the CD-key and thus add the game to your Steam account. You don’t even need the CDs; the game will download from Steam for you.

    As for authorizing software in general, I prefer Steam’s method to other systems. Most authorization requires you to activate it for the computer you install it on. Moving that copy to another computer can be a major headache. With Steam, it is simply a matter of logging into Steam and activating your account on the new computer. Not that activating games is something I will ever promote (I believe it hurts legitimate buyers more than pirates). But Steam does a lot of things right. It could be a lot worse.

  13. Teague says:


    “what dishonesty?”

    Bad choice of words, there, I guess. Shadiness might be better. I guess its more of an “exploit” than a “cheat”. But, then maybe I’m just being uptight. It’s been hard to divorce myself from the perspective of the Babbage’s store manager.

  14. Teague says:

    BTW Shamus,

    I keep getting an Error 403 when I submit a comment. Your site comes up fine with my post listed after a refresh, but it’s annoying. Could it be something with some Big Brother settings on my work computer?

  15. Shamus says:

    Steven had the same problem yesterday, and his comment showed up as well. I’m not sure what the issue is here.

  16. Alex says:

    I have to agree with the Pro-Steam crowd. I just upgraded to a new Computer, and I had a hankering to play me some Half-Life 2, which I hadn’t played in years. My CD binder had gone AWOL, so just popping in the disks was out of the question. With Steam I just entered my username and password, and bam, no further questions asked, it let me download and play.

  17. bkw says:

    (off-topic)Charles Babbage, who was the first to conceptualize the idea of a programmable computer (most folks think it was Turing). His protoge/student, Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron (yes, that one))wrote the first computer program in 1843, almost a hundred years before electronic computers existed.

    There’s a programming language named after her that was designed specifically for the US DoD, and is an … interesting … language to program in (I had to take a course in it in college. Luckily my father is one of the nation’s top Ada programmers ^_^).

    (on-topic) I see all these policies and DRM machinations as being very similar to the security screenings at the airport. They don’t really accomplish very much, but they make the people who implement these things feel as if they’re doing something.

    There’s a certain part of the culture that prizes the appearance of activity more than the actual results, which goes a long way towards explaining a great many things …

  18. Rebecca says:

    Why don’t you rent games first?

  19. SteveDJ says:

    For the record, I only pulled that return trick once, also when I felt we had been mislead. We purchased what we thought was “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” — the animated classic that is shown on TV every year. But noooo! We had some cheap knock-off that was some other narrator reading the book while you watched a slide-show of stills from the book. I was so mad!

    So, I tried my trick, and was a bit surprised that it worked. This was a couple years ago, so it could be that policies have tightened since. Meanwhile, we then turned around and bought the correct version of the movie.

  20. SteveDJ says:

    P.S. Gee, I wonder what magic word(s) I used, such that my comment is “awaiting moderation”? (Gee, so I cannot even post a comment in the blog that started with my own comment…) :) :) :)

  21. Mel says:

    speaking as a former Tower Records employee, after getting scammed this way several times we checked the CDs and DVDs before doing an exchange. We’d first look at the condition of the disc, then attempt to play it if it looked okay. Store policy was to do the exchange immediately but over 50% of the defects were totally fine so we started the above method.

  22. Thad says:

    Policy over here (New Zealand) for one of our stores is that returns can only be made on defective discs, not for refunds or store credit. (Unless you whine really really annoyingly…)

    (There are signs dotted around that point this out, saying to be sure first, so it’s not like this is a secret “sod the customer” policy or anything.)

  23. AngiePen says:

    For Teague:

    Charles Babbage got things started
    Though he’s long dead and departed
    Left poor Ada brokenhearted
    Still he’s good enough for me.

    Triple geek points if you know the song that’s from, and what tune it’s to. ;)

    BKW, re: comparison with airport security — absolutely. [nod] They don’t care if it works, or if it actually stops the activity it’s aimed at, or whether it causes a lot of useless inconvenience to legitimate customers. So long as they can make it look like they’re taking action, that’s what counts. [sigh]


  24. “If STEAM didn't have an off-line mode, I'd have a problem with it.”

    My problem isn’t necessarily with STEAM as it exists today. My problem is with STEAM as it may not exist tomorrow.

    I have no guarantee that STEAM won’t go out of business tomorrow. Sure, I can continue Half-Life 2 in off-line mode after that happens… right up until the time my hard drive dies or I lose my computer in a fire or a thousand other things that might necessitate a reinstall. The game is then, effectively, gone forever.

    Or what if Valve decides it doesn’t like Half-Life 2 any more and uses STEAM to destroy it or revise it.

    It wasn’t that long ago that George Lucas was swearing that we’d never see the original versions of STAR WARS again. We can talk all we want to about the creator having a right to control his own intellectual property. But if I paid Lucas $20 for the original version of the trilogy back in the pre-Extra Special Edition days, then I should be able to watch what I bought — I shouldn’t be subject to Lucas’ whim.

    Nor should I be subject to Valve’s whim or Valve’s solvency.

    I also resent the fact the Valve makes a whole bunch of money by selling games directly through STEAM. And, as Shamus said in his earlier rant, they pass precisely $0.00 of that savings onto me as a consumer. This is the same reason I won’t buy music through iTunes: The music is being sold to me for the exact same price, but (a) I’m not getting the same value, and (b) I know I’m being ripped off.

    What does all of this boil down to?

    In reality, STEAM is just one example of the entertainment industry attempting to redefine it’s relationship with consumers: They no longer want to sell you physical products (books, DVDs, CDs); they want to give you a license. And they want to charge you as much for the license as they used to charge you for actually selling your something. And if they could figure out how to con you into paying the same price for license with a limited term that you were paying to actually OWN something, they’d do that, too (witness the failed attempt at Divx discs back when DVDs were first coming out).

    Why should you care? Well, take the simple act of loaning a book or a video game to somebody. “Hey, I’m done playing this. You should give it a try. It’s pretty cool.”

    You can’t do that with STEAM.

    Any consumer attempting to defend the entertainment industry in these abusive practices is, literally, bending over and letting themselves get screwed up the ass.

    And this technology, once you’ve put it in place, grants an insidious control to whoever you’re signing your rights of speech away to. The tools which allow Valve to redesign Half-Life 2 to include My Little Pony tie-ins and make it impossible for you to ever play the game without the My Little Pony tie-ins can just as easily be used by the government to achieve whatever agenda they want to achieve. And if you let the entire backbone of information distribution in society become subject to easy top-down control, your liberty is playing a game of Russian Roulette with time.

    Oh, sure, that bullet may not get chambered today or tomorrow or even in the next ten years. But you’ve put the gun to your head and you’re pulling the trigger.

  25. Ryan says:

    Any consumer attempting to defend the entertainment industry in these abusive practices is, literally, bending over and letting themselves get screwed up the ass.


  26. Andre says:

    Mr. Alexander:

    The fault with your logic is that Steam does often pass the savings on to the customer. The fact is that Steam games don’t work on the physical shelf-space store model. They may charge $50 for a new game initially, but often they’ll also bundle that new game with two $20 games for another $10. Often, on opening weekend, they’ll knock $10 or even $20 off a new game’s price, just as incentive to buy early. And then a few weeks after release, when most brick and mortar stores are still charging brand-new prices, they might have another special discount. Some are quick, “buy now and save $20!” sales, and others are bundles. Still more last longer. At their highest, prices are the same as in-store, but a lot of times they’re lower. Just about all of that money goes right to the developers, so they can continue making great games. And even when those prices are lower, the developers are seeing more money than if they were publishing in-store. How is that a bad thing?

    Let’s look at a few probabilities, too: first off, don’t you think developers who allowed their games to ALWAYS be lower on Steam might experience some grumblings from their traditional publishers? I know Sierra wasn’t too happy when Valve came up with the Steam concept.

    In the same spirit, mightn’t the “leasing, not buying” quality of games “purchased” through Steam be that way through necessity? What might you be liable for if you made a game with an on-line distribution method, but provided customers with the same rights as if they had purchased the game? You’d have to keep that on-line distribution perpetually, even after the obsolescence of the original gaming medium, because some retro-gamer still keeps his old-school system around specifically to play Half-Life 2. I see the different license as a way to guard against legal liability. Hey, it makes me uneasy too… WHAT IF Valve goes out of business tomorrow? But then, that’s a necessary risk. What if I lose my game CDs tomorrow? What if the world ends tomorrow? We can’t see into the future, you have to either accept the terms or not.

    I don’t see Steam as an exploitative tool. I think it’s something innovative, created by people who love games, and who also have a good business sense. Yes, there are aspects of it that I’d like to be changed, but I’m not a complete fan of physical distribution either.

    What’s that about bending over and letting myself get screwed up the ass? Don’t you think you’re going a little too far with your hyperbole?

  27. Phlux says:

    I’m indifferent towards Steam as a platform, especially since you can make backups of your games and play them offline (you only have to launch them online once to make that available).

    I really like from Stardock, but I don’t see it catching on in a huge-market kind of way due to the nature of titles sold there (indy titles, mostly).

    I LOVE the idea of digital distrubution. Why would I want to go to a store and buy a box and a CD that I’m going to lose, scratch or break, and have to keep track of that CD and some sort of CD key for as long as I want to be able to play the game (maybe years later).

    Buying a game in a store is to digital distrubution as carrying a bucket to a well is to having running water.

  28. Rich says:

    “…no one's going to be offering unguarded copies of their stuff for download.”

    You mean like Galactic Civilizations 2?

  29. Andre says:

    That’s a download?

  30. Ryan says:

    Phlux Said
    “I LOVE the idea of digital distrubution. Why would I want to go to a store and buy a box and a CD that I'm going to lose, scratch or break, and have to keep track of that CD and some sort of CD key for as long as I want to be able to play the game (maybe years later).”

    Maybe I’m just too materialistic, but I like owning things. I don’t use iTunes because I like getting CD and reading the little booklet. I don’t download games, because I like getting a little manual with my games that I can go sit on the couch to read. I like having a box of semi-organized game disc, complete with keys. I don’t really think that entering the 35 hex key for the game is that big of a pain, and since I try to keep stuff organized it’s not been difficult for me to keep the keys with the CDs. Switching CDs 3 or 4 times really isn’t too inconvenient either. I loose more time waiting at stop signs than I do switching CDs.

    I’m not against STEAM or like distro methods, so long as there exists the alternative (that I prefer) of buying a physical disc.

  31. Rich says:

    “That's a download?”

    Yeah. I downloaded it and ordered the boxed copy as well. No copy protection. But if you want the free upgrades you need a product key.

  32. Miral says:

    Of all the digital distribution methods that I’ve looked at, Steam is by far the least offensive. (For one, it actually supports backup and transfer to other computers, which is important if your HD dies and you need to reinstall, or if you’re upgrading to a newer PC.)

    The only thing which worries me is what happens if it vanishes. If that happens, you’ll still be able to play the games you’ve already got on your PC, but you won’t be able to set up your account on a new PC so you won’t be able to move the games around any more. I’m hoping that if that happens they’ll make a patch so it doesn’t require access to the server after all.

    But at least point it doesn’t seem too likely. With the amount of money Steam gets directly from sales of other games and through the number of people buying HL2, I think they’re getting enough money to stick around for quite a while.

  33. “Some are quick, “buy now and save $20!” sales, and others are bundles. Still more last longer.”

    You mean they offer bundled packages and occasionally put their products on sale? My god. You’re right. I’ve NEVER seen a brick-and-mortar store engage in such practices.

    Thank god STEAM came along. Without STEAM we, as consumers, might never have known what a sale or a bundle was.

    … pardon me while I roll my eyes at the absurdity of what you’re attempting to claim here.

    “Hey, it makes me uneasy too… WHAT IF Valve goes out of business tomorrow? But then, that's a necessary risk.”

    Don’t be ridiculous. I own dozens of games put out by companies which no longer exist. I own literally thousands of books which are no longer published (or no longer published by the company who produced the copy I own). And none of those game producers or authors or publishers have any ability to unilaterally deny me, or anyone else, the ability to play those games or read those books.

    “What if I lose my game CDs tomorrow?”

    That’s something that you control, not STEAM. And even if you lose your copy of the CDs, that doesn’t mean that everyone who has ever owned a copy of the game has lost their CDs. It doesn’t mean that the game no longer exists anywhere on the face of the planet.

    If you pay $60 for something and it breaks, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. If you pay $60 for something and then, the next day, the company can go out of business and your $60-whatever no longer works… Well, then you’ve been screwed.

  34. Attorney At Chaos says:

    Charles Babbage got things started
    Though he's long dead and departed
    Left poor Ada brokenhearted
    Still he's good enough for me.

    Triple geek points if you know the song that's from, and what tune it's to.

    That’s OLD TIME COMPUTING (set to the tune of OLD TIME RELIGION).

  35. CyberGorth says:

    If Valve goes under, then Eidos, Activision, or one of the other companies that’ve started using Steam to hawk their wares’ll probablly take up the yoke. Actually, I believe that it’s Vivendi Universal, the guys who did the distributing for Valve who actually run the thing.

  36. Cory says:

    I agree with Justin Alexander. The idea of having media that i can pull from the internet like games would be great. But if a producer goes down then what? Steam cant just sell the games? and the people that purchased the games, why would steam keep them on site for people to download?

    I prefer the idea to just download it but thats not the world we live in. I still would rather have the disk and install it whenever i damn please, even 15 yrs from now. Media will change I know, but least i have what i bought. that includes music. Itunes doesnt do it for me. lets pay for a lossy format audio file… mmm no. with the cd I can put it in lossless flac, or any lossy format that is compatible with the devices i have at home.

    my point here is that no garantee that our purchased software, audio, video is safe and is always avalible to us even years later… its not going to fly. And if I loose my software, audio, video..? well its my problem

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