On Steam, Valve, and Indie Developers

For the past year-and-a-half, ThinkBoxly has been exclusively a devblog of my progress on developing original commercial content like VNgen. If you've followed me during that time, you've probably gotten used to the absence of editorial and feature-style posts (if you were ever aware they existed around here at all). But this is my blog, dang it, and I get to write what I want*. And as you can probably guess from the title, today's topic is hardly unrelated.

Valve, it's time we developers had a little talk about Steam.

(*Also, VNgen is out now and I don't have anything newsworthy related to post about its development at the moment—because it's done! If you're a developer, you should totally check it out.)

Unless you've been living under a USB pet rock, you're probably aware of the sharp decline of Steam over the past couple of years. Once the darling of every PC gamer and every maker of PC games, at the hesitant hands of Valve the storefront has accrued a growing list of grievances while controversial policies and secondary services have taken priority over improving the service itself.

It hasn't been all bad, of course. For example, Steam Link for Android (and eventually, iOS? Maybe?) is an excellent PC alternative to the sort of remote play features consoles have had this entire generation. And I shouldn't need to tell you that by the numbers Steam is more popular and raking in more cash than ever.

Instead, the breakdown comes in Valve's perpetual paranoia of corporate governance—laudable for the small company that made Half-Life, perhaps, but woefully irresponsible for the gatekeepers of a multi-billion dollar industry. As a company, Valve operates as a flat hierarchy, and it would seem their customers are expected to hold equal responsibility themselves (without the paycheck, I might add).

First there was Greenlight, a program which allowed indie game developers to submit their content to be voted into the store by the community. Except, the system was wildly game-able and voting scams were rampant while legitimate content often sat in limbo for months at a time. Then came Steam Direct, a pay-to-publish program that pulled the rug out from under common Greenlight issues but opened the floodgates for exactly the sorts of other horrors you'd expect instead. "Asset flips," or games made almost entirely from premade code and assets solely to act as hosts for monetized trading cards, got so bad that Valve had to rework the way said trading cards are awarded in the first place.

And yet, it's not products like these with actual malicious intent that have done the worst damage. It's the sheer volume of shovelware that has—from the consumer's standpoint, at least—completely obliterated any brand image Steam once had. Indeed, it wasn't enough to stop at mere low-effort, low-quality content. No, the natural devolution in this downward spiral is of course to appeal to the lowest common denominator of all and test Valve's tolerances in a rather different way. "How adult is too adult for Steam?" (The name could not be more ironic.) It's a question that slowly eroded Valve's attempts to turn a blind eye until, for unknown reasons, one day they didn't and threatened to remove a number of more mature titles from the store, spawning great internet drama in the process. Granted, these were titles which Valve had allowed onto Steam quite some time ago, and if they took issue with the content in them, they should have been rejected from the start, not months (or even years) later. Unsurprisingly, the threats were eventually withdrawn.

With repeated policy failures such as these, Valve has continuously distanced themselves from the task of managing their own platform. And now the death blow has finally been dealt. After months of seemingly refusing to commit to any particular stance on the matter, Valve has made their decision:

From now on, they will do... nothing.

That's not sensationalism. Per an official statement posted on the Steam blog Wednesday, this is precisely the non-standard by which Valve means to operate.

“We've decided that the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling,” writes Valve's Erik Johnson.

Now, let's be clear, here: I completely sympathize with the position Valve is in. It's true that art is subjective enough that a niche may find value in something the mainstream largely ignores. It's also worth mentioning that Valve is not the only one taking a complete hands-off approach to content submissions on their storefront. Ironically, the very place many developers are turning to as a Steam alternative, the up-and-coming indie darling, has much the same policy. Anyone can upload anything, and it's up to developers to differentiate and users to discover. The cream of the crop will rise to the top and all that, right?

There's just three problems with that:

One, while is a great platform for sellers, it's starving for buyers. If you want a case for proving the model, this isn't it.

Two, is a file host with benefits, while Steam is effectively a publisher. It absolutely is Valve's responsibility to differentiate submissions and help users discover them. Otherwise, why bother with a publisher program like Steam Direct at all? And indeed, at this point it would seem the final step down is the abolition of publisher programs entirely. What's left?

Three, let's not kid ourselves: simply getting a game onto Steam is no recipe for success. Those days ended years ago. If titles have the earmarks of low-effort content and are selling like molasses or are appealing to a certain group of people exclusively for reasons other than gaming, it's proof in the pudding that curation of these titles would mean nothing lost (except more noise for Steam's algorithms to filter out).

No, it's not censorship, and it's not banning (as if Valve owned the internet). It's brand imaging. If Steam becomes a storefront for anything and everything, it has lost its purpose, and the very indie developers Valve is supposedly catering to will be the ones to pay the price. Brand image is an incredibly helpful tool for creators with small marketing budgets because consumers already know what to expect of a product by virtue of who's selling it. GOG has achieved this to a certain extent. Origin and Uplay have as well, although perhaps in a negative sense. And Steam is not beyond joining them.

It is absolutely true that, as the latest Steam blog post describes, whatever decision Valve makes is going to upset someone and please someone else. That being the case, Valve desperately needs to lay down some house rules to save their own brand image, and in doing so, help save the developers who are going to make Steam a better place. I applaud the proposed idea of requiring developers to openly state the nature of their own products and cease doing business with any who answer dishonestly (why wasn't this the procedure in the first place?) but without actual guidelines to compare against, it's a relatively empty exercise.

Valve's latest policies are symptomatic of a much deeper identity crisis for Steam, and from the sound of it, Valve itself. It's not abundantly clear where it will lead and what the cost will be for the developers caught in its wake. But one thing's for certain: the Steam of tomorrow will either be fundamentally different from the Steam of today, or for better or worse, a more committed brand with a more consistent image will rise to take its place—and take developers along with it.