If you haven’t heard Valve’s announcements regarding SteamOS and Steam Machines yet, I can only assume you live under a rock. The announcements have been met with much excitement from both fans and developers alike, and I can’t lie and say I’m not looking forward to this. While some outlets are still trying to get details on the device and OS, some are writing articles on how SteamOS and its devices are putting Sony on notice and endangering Microsoft’s very existence. Before we start the parade lauding Valve as the savior of gaming, there is an issue that exists right now that Valve needs to fix if they truly want to take over the living room: Steam support.
You don’t hear about Steam support so much these days. If you go to Reddit you will find more than a few posts regarding how terrible Origin support is, but usually complaints about Steam support stay in the confines of the Steam forums and eventually go away. I remember when Steam first started and the waves of complaints I heard about it all the time; that’s when Steam was the bad guy, kind of the way Origin is now. Eventually the volume of the complaints went away, and while Steam as a service got better, it appears the support didn’t move at the same pace.
For those who haven’t dealt with Steam support, to say that it is slow is an understatement. The last time I had to deal with Steam support was years ago, before Steam Guard was introduced. My account was hacked and I contacted Steam support to get it back. First off, it took them three days to get back to my initial support ticket. After providing proof that the account was mine, it then took seven days for me to get an account back. Please notice how I said “an” account because the account that was given to me wasn’t mine. After reporting this the initial response I got back was “this is your account now”, and it took some angry typing to get them to get my account back. That took another five days, BTW.
So we are talking 15 days for a matter that Steam support takes very seriously. But that was years ago, and I thought over time that Steam support would have gotten better. I recently discovered I was wrong, as one of my friends needed Steam support’s assistance getting to his account. He put a ticket in August 15th, and having read the FAQ on regaining access to your account he already provided the information needed to prove it was his account. As of August 24th he received no response from Steam support, and eventually he found a work around and was able to gain access to Steam on his own. I thought a 72 hour response time for a service I spend hundreds of dollars on yearly was long, but nine days with no response helped me realize how bad things can get. On the same note, my friend finding a workaround also shows why we don’t hear too much about Steam support.
As of now, Valve has really only dealt with PC gamers (sure, there was Orange Box for console and Portal 2, but who do you know that’s playing TF2 on the 360?), and that group of users are pretty savvy. The ultimate workaround to Steam support is the Steam community. When there is a problem with a game PC users are more likely to research and troubleshoot their own issues with drivers or poke around with game configs. I’ve had more than a few issues with games not launching on Steam or updates not downloading, but instead of contacting Steam support I was usually able to find answers provided by Steam users or by doing a bit of prodding on my own based on previous knowledge I gained by working on Steam issues. I’m not saying that Steam support is completely useless, as they do post solutions to some common problems with games, but most of the fixes I come across are from Steam users.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that Steam is a very stable platform at this point. The average user doesn’t have a problem with the service, and most people I know don’t even have Steam support accounts. Most of them don’t even know that their account is not the same as a Steam support account. Many problems you’ll run across are directly with the game and need to be handled at the developer/publisher level. I don’t expect for Valve to fix other developers’ stuff, but shouldn’t they at least acknowledge that they know there is an issue and work with the developer to try to fix the issue as fast as possible for their users? A good example of Steam support’s lack of communication is back in August when Splinter Cell: Blacklist released in several countries and users were unable to launch the game. And when I say several I mean at least South Africa, Bermuda, Kuwait, Indonesia, Egypt, Israel, the Philippines, Taiwan, Singapore, Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Jordan, Cyprus and Serbia; so this wasn’t a small problem.
Thus far, Steam has been able to get away with its lackluster support mainly on the strength of its users, however, if Valve truly wants SteamOS and Steam Machines to reach wider audiences, support is really going to need to step it up. First, let’s take a look at SteamOS. The positive of SteamOS is that it’s Linux based; so not only will it be free, it will also be very stable, incredibly open, and easily customizable and modable. On the same coin there are a lot of new problems that can come up when dealing with Linux, and due to the open nature of the system it’s actually pretty easy to brick the entire installation if you delete, overwrite, or alter the wrong files. Most savvy PC users will not have a problem using Linux even if they haven’t used it at some point already, and even if the users aren’t that knowledgeable, Linux is typically stable enough for the average user to use with no problem. The issue occurs when they start having some problems, though.
While some will go and look to fix problems on their own, there will definitely be some users that feel less comfortable poking around and finding fixes on their own. This will cut down on the pool of knowledge that the Steam forums typically have and users will rely more heavily on Steam support. Right now it feels like Steam either has terrible customer care or that they can’t support their current support case load. Can they handle the increased volume from users not familiar enough with the new OS?
And what do you think is going to happen when the Steam Machines start rolling out and some inevitably have issues? Sure, if it’s a hardware issue you can always go back to whoever manufactured yours, but what about account issues, game download issues, crashes, errors, Steam Cloud problems, Steam Workshop issues, etc.; you know, problems people have now but in Windows where they feel comfortable? Moving into the console space means Steam will have even more users to support that aren’t tech savvy, and being that they are used to being able to call XBox support or SCEA when they have an issue, it’s only fair that they expect to have the same level of support with Steam.
If Steam support stays the same or gets worse due to the increased user load not only will complaints of bad Steam support be louder, it will also put people off adopting SteamOS or Steam Machines. Will bad support completely kill SteamOS and Steam Machines? Absolutely not. Even with the current state of support I am looking forward to getting one in my home. At the same time, I dread anything going wrong since at that point I’d likely be dealing with Steam support, and if you didn’t get it from the last 1300 words, I don’t have much faith in Steam support at this time.
The good news is that this is Valve that we are talking about. They are a company very aware and responsive to their community (with the exception of support, of course), and if they see that Steam support is having a negative impact on the quality of their service/product then they would likely work to resolve whatever the problem is that’s keeping support from being good. Hopefully Valve is already aware that this could be a problem and is preparing accordingly. Steam’s push to the living room could very well change the landscape of gaming if it’s done right, and support is just one huge part of that. If Steam support can lower their response time and have faster resolutions I think they will be in a good position to support the new users they are trying to bring on.
Valve is moving out of their wheelhouse into a space where three goliaths are already fighting it out. They are going to have quite the uphill battle against the likes of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo (threw them in there just in case they do something smart sometime soon), and support doesn’t need be something that’s weighing them down.