Legal Opinion: Could you make money by selling games on Steam?

Steamy Money

By on February 15, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Gamers are making half a million a year from selling game mods on the Steam Workshop. Not many, mind you, but just like the existence of aliens… it’s possible. Gabe Newell now wants to extend the concept to the Steam store itself.

Gabe sees Steam as just a boring old store, and wants to change it into a series of mini-stores, with games being sold in personal, individual stores created by gamers themselves. To be quite fair, he didn’t mention giving them any money, and right now, it’s just a pie in the sky.

But given the success of the Steam Workshop, could Steam actually become a store where gamers make money from selling games? “I’d buy stuff from Yahtzee”, says Gabe.

Making money with user content

Right now, there are two main ways gamers can make money with user content—the Steam Workshop, and YouTube.

The Steam Workshop allows you sell your own individual creations for moddable games like Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2. However, these must be your own creations—you can’t rip off anyone else, or risk being permanently banned from the Workshop.

Youtube lets its “partners” (which is anyone who’s signed up to be a partner) receive a (miniscule) portion of the ad revenue from those annoying YouTube ads shown at the start of videos. The more popular a video is, the more likely it is to have ads, and the more people these ads reach.

A YouTube partner example is FPSRussia, whose entertaining videos of blowing things up with no safety standards whatsoever are watched by millions around the world. FPSRussia occasionally references video games, such as dressing targets up as Far Cry 3 characters…

So given these are the existing models, could a Steam user store work in a similar way?

Ain’t no free lunch

What’s most important here is that there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. In both of these user content schemes, the user must bring substantial original effort, rather than just shoving random crap online and turning a profit.

This is because copyright gives the original maker a watertight right to exploit their work for profit. A game developer created their game, and so is entitled to decide who profits from the game, and how.

There’s a very good reason The Workshop only allows people to earn money from Valve games—those are the games Valve has full rights to as a developer and publisher. As the full copyright owner for both Team Fortress 2 and DOTA 2, Valve has the right to allow modders to profit from the games. Valve doesn’t, however, have the right to allow modders to profit from their Skyrim mods. That belongs to Zenimax.

In the FPSRussia video above, while snippets of Far Cry 3 were shown, most of the video was original content, and he was making money from the people viewing ads who came to watch him almost get himself blown up. That said, it’s clear he was trying to avoid copyright infringement, since the game footage shown is very short.

How a Steam store would work

This is a problem for any Steam user store. Presumably, any user revenue would be funded from sales of games. Copyright’s right to profit certainly includes the right to decide who can receive profits from the sale of the game, and so stands in the way of developing any user stores.

The only way I can see Steam user stores as working is with users posting pure, original content. The good ones will rise to the top, while the bad ones won’t make any money

The first thing Valve will need to do is to convince every publisher it deals with that they should assign this right to the individual Steam users. Currently, Steam’s distribution agreements only give Steam the right to sell games of other publishers. These agreements would have to be extended to every single Steam user.

Next, Valve would need to ensure there was at least some semblance of original content in the user stores. Steam doesn’t run any original advertising for games. It’s just a boring old store with shelf space for the screenshots and videos chosen by publishers.

The reason, of course, is that copyright in the screenshots and videos belongs to the publishers, not Steam or its users. While no one gets shirty if someone posts a gameplay video on YouTube, I highly doubt publishers would give away the right to decide how videos and screenshots of their own game were used for advertising. That just rocks the boat far too much.

And what would be the point of users just reposting the standard advertising trailers, without any of their own commentary? That’s not a user store—that’s a pyramid scheme. Ultimately, this means that the only way I can see Steam user stores as working is with users posting pure, original content. The good ones will rise to the top, while the bad ones won’t make any money. Best get working on those video skills.

Feature image courtesy The Great Jug on DeviantART.

4 comments (Leave your own)

Where have I seen that money image before… geez… I wonder.


People ARE making money from selling games on STEAM…. No idea why this question needs to be asked…. :P

Patrick Vuleta

Reselling old games is completely different to sharing in initial revenue. ;) In the store model you’re not actually outlaying any money at all.


I imagine the user store model would basically allow free market competition and development of how you categorise and make available the games.

I mean the steam store does a reasonable job for now. I suspect what they mean though, is they’ll open up the Steam CDN to people who pay a bit of money to set up a store. That store can then do some of the work in getting a game onto steam and ready to be purchased. it’ll be interesting to say the least.

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