Steam’s Automated Refund System Is Far From Perfect

By | February 14, 2016

Last June, Valve released its automated refunds system, which utilizes a strict criteria for determining if you’re eligible for a refund. The basic criteria is as follows:

  • You must refund within 14 days of purchase(or 14 days of launch if it’s a pre-purchase).
  • You cannot refund a title if you’ve played for more than 2 hours.
  • DLC and in-game purchases(also called microtransactions) are up to the developer if they wish to provide refunds.

Steam’s full refund policy can be viewed here

This marked an improvement, as previously, the only time Valve provided refunds is when a game is so terrible that the entire community complains. In theory, their new criteria seems like it will cover anything, and is completely fair. However, there are many circumstances that the refund system does not consider, such as:

  • Games might contain their own ‘patcher’, and may take hours to update, depending on the size of the patch and the quality of the user’s connection. Not all games fully update through Steam’s downloader. The time spent patching and updating is still counted as play time, as Steam’s play time counter doesn’t recognize the difference between leaving a patcher open and actually playing the game. Valve could potentially fix this by checking if a window is in focus when counting game time, and allowing developers to specify which executables are associated with patching, and not the game itself.
  • Some games fail to terminate their processes upon closing the game, and continue counting time spent in game. I’ve noticed that some games leave a few background processes running, or keep the app running in the system tray upon exiting. The mighty quest for epic loot is notorious for this- I personally have over 1500 hours played on it because I forget that it hides in the notification bar. My friends think I’m addicted to it, but the reality is that I  actually only play it a few minutes a day.
  • Online games, especially MMORPGS, often encounter server issues or queue times on release day. Time spent waiting in queue is logged as game time. It’s not abnormal to see queue times as high as 10 hours in popular MMORPGs. I personally have experienced queue times of this length in Wildstar, Archeage, and Blade & Soul. It’s understandable to have queue times in an online game during launch, but Valve’s system needs to account for this.
  • Games often come bundled with in app purchases, making the game non-refundable. Rockstar Games received a lot of criticism for this, by creating a bundle of Grand Theft Auto V that came with in game items, then launching a “sale” of the bundle, which cost the exact same as the game normally costs, without the items. By selling it as a bundle with in games items, the game itself could not be refunded.

No Humans, Only Robots

Steam’s refund policy states “even if you fall outside of the refund rules we’ve described, you can ask for a refund anyway and we’ll take a look.”

This sounds promising, but is far from the truth. The reality is that the entire system of contacting them for an exception is a placebo effect. The system attempts to lead the user to believe that someone actually took the information they provided into consideration, which is absolutely not true.

 I personally requested a refund on a title that I only played for 30 minutes, that counted as 3-4 hours according to Steam due to some of the reason’s stated above. I made it very clear in my request that I had only played for 30 minutes, even linking a Stream VoD as picture proof  that the vast majority of the time was spent waiting in queue. Despite this proof and information, my request was denied every time.


Some of my attempts at a refund


Every time I requested a refund, I received this same automated response.

A Bizarre Pattern

When requesting refunds, I noticed a particular pattern. I would first get a notification saying the refund request was received, then 1-2 hours later, seemingly a psuedo-random amount of time after the request, I would receive a scripted response saying that I could not get a refund because I played over 2 hours, even they I entirely proved within my request that I did not. Thinking I received a customer support agent that either had poor reading comprehension or that did not fully understand their policy, I tried at different times in the day to get a different person, to see if it would be dealt with properly.

I also noticed the time of day did not matter. I could request a refund at 3 am Seattle time, where Valve is located, and it would still take roughly the same amount of time as if I requested it on a weekday during normal work hours. Some may think this just means that Valve goes above and beyond to provide reliable, 24/7 customer support. This would seem believable, if it wasn’t for the fact that Valve’s customer support in other departments that aren’t fully automated(such as billing and account support), often takes weeks or months to provide a response.

Overall, Steam’s refund system fraudulently provides false expectations for it’s users regarding the ability to have their case looked at and reviewed. The system carefully waits to provide a response by a set amount of time to mimic the process of a human reviewing the case, then sends its automated reply 1-2 hours later. If you’re within their specified criteria, you’re guaranteed a refund, however if you’re outside the criteria, don’t expect to have an actual employee read your ticket.

If Valve would admit that they don’t review refund requests manually, it wouldn’t be a problem. It’s incredibly frustrating for them to offer a text box that allows you to clarify exactly what happened in your ticket, only for that input to be completely thrown out or ignored. The text box only creates false expectations, and the system would be better out without it. It’s understandable that Valve would want to automate everything to reduce costs and increase profits, however they should not be falsely stating that refund requests are manually reviewed on a “case by case basis”.

If Valve wishes to comment on the issue, please contact us at

One thought on “Steam’s Automated Refund System Is Far From Perfect

  1. TataLebuj

    I got screwed over by Steam as well, and you seem to be missing my circumstance so I wanted to provide you that.

    I purchased three games at one time. Two of the games I loved (pretty sure it was Pillars of Eternity) and played for more than 3 hours. The third game was a flying sim (IL2 Sturmovik) that my HOTAS setup didn’t work with very well. I tried it for about 20 minutes and didn’t like it. The game is super realistic, and I’m sure I could spend a few hours to make it work for me, but I really wasn’t interested. I looked up how to do a refund, as this was my first one ever, and waited for the money to come back to me.

    Unfortunately I received an automated reply that informed me that I had played more than 2 hours of the game and I was not eligible. I wrote back and explained that I had played more of Pillars, not IL2 Sturmovik, so there shouldn’t be a problem ( I just checked and even now, looking at the game, it shows 22 minutes played). Again I received an automated response.

    I have over 250+ games, been a member since 2004, and this was my first attempt at every refunding a game. It was a horrible experience and I’ve seriously slowed down my purchasing on Steam games because of it. I’ve been a great customer and the first time I asked for help I was screwed over and their system offers no ability to talk to a human who might look into the situation and try to help.

    I gave up after a few emails, I have the income so I’m not dying for the money. It was the principle that mattered to me. I used to support and love Steam. Now I look at them like any other company, if I can use someone else I will – but they do sort of own me because I have 250+ games on their system that I don’t want to lose access to.

    Anyway, thought you might like to know that it’s not just the scenarios you presented above. It’s also when people purchase multiple games at one time, they put ALL of the purchases on the same clock – which is really stupid.

    Good luck and good article!

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