Out of Steam: Why digital marketplaces aren’t keeping pace

Steam Logo Rusted

By on April 28, 2014 at 11:31 am

Steam’s marketplace is in complete disarray. Opening the front page of the store presents not a unifying message of quality, but instead a window into a ominous new paradigm.

Once upon a time, Valve’s revolutionary new service was hailed as a shining example of how to create and control a digital games store. But things weren’t perfect, especially pre-Greenlight — indie developers found the process confusing, mysterious and complex, with Valve rarely offering guidelines, and never officially. But confused developers plugged away anyway, because getting on the store was, and still is, an enormous boon to sales — during holiday specials, numbers can skyrocket for titles that have been on the store for months.

Things are changing, and right now the barrier to entry for a game on Steam is significantly less fraught with delays and concerns than they were even as little as two years ago. Most indie titles are submitted and approved through Greenlight, where the community is offered the chance to vote on potential titles and their inclusion into the system. But Greenlight itself has been the subject of its own controversies, mostly due to the original mess of garbageware that clogged up the system and drastically reduced the pool of players who were willing to curate it.

Even after Valve cleaned things up and added a barrier to entry (via a $100 contribution to charity), problems remained. Where once a team inside Valve pored over individual applications and sorted them based on their merit, Greenlight instead simply turns the process into little more than a popularity contest. Developers with little community presence are now forced to flood social networks, media contacts and forums with their Greenlight links, begging for the appropriate amount of support to be included.

Valve’s solution to this problem, apparently, is to wind down Greenlight entirely and instead merge Steam into more of an Amazon.com style self-publishing platform, where (presumably) things will become similar to how Apple’s App Store and Google’s Play Store currently operate. In those scenarios, developers pay a $99 fee to gain access to the marketplace and are then able to submit as many applications as they like.

While both Apple and Google say they vet every bit of software, this vetting process is mainly reduced to whether the application actually works, and whether it’s a portal for spyware or malware. But what if the game is simply a gateway to trick players into in-app purchases, or a platform for barraging them with enough advertising to make even the Mad Men feel overwhelmed? It doesn’t matter. Both vendors seem to be much more concerned about keeping (at least in Apple’s case) pornography or competing technologies away from their users, than they do preventing kids from spending hundreds if not thousands of their parents money on virtual trash.

But I digress. What is actually left over in this scenario is a seething mass of millions of applications, that drift in and out of the consciousness of people who are barely able to process what is available on the “Featured” tab. Doing a search for what may be considered a fairly benign game title brings up thousands of fake results, which buries the actual game in question under mounds of useless apps desperate to capitalise on its success. Some people may say this is simply an issue with search algorithms, but I disagree — this is what happens when marketplaces become regulation free, with so many new assets being added every minute that it now becomes impossible to stop the flow of junk that floods into the shop. And I’m not just talking about the spam. Going down this path is genuinely worse than Greenlight could ever hope to be — imagine a store that is practically groaning under the weight of terrible FPS titles scraped together for a quick profit in Unity, a store where searching for “Borderlands” brings up 100+ titles all hoping to dupe an unsuspecting player into a purchase with Steam’s ridiculous No Refunds policy.

But even a partially curated store still manages to promote poor quality titles. Take The War Z, released in 2012 as a “Foundation Release”, outright lied about its features and performed in such a shoddy state that Valve made a rare impasse and pulled it down. It was fairly clear in the wake of this mess that Valve had already begun moving away from taking an actual interest in the ultimate quality of the games that featured on its flagship service, and instead had begun to move to a model that promoted quantity in order to bulk up revenue, or as they would put it, “expand the catalogue”. In fairness, this open policy has done wonders for the state of titles that used awful Gamespy or Windows Live based multiplayer and DRM systems, with Steamworks being a much cleaner and less intrusive (as well as completely optional) system. Additionally, I’m sure many players would prefer a title released on Steam than on its various competitors platforms, including Origin — although I’ll be the first to speak of Origin’s many clear advantages, especially its generous refund policy.

It gets worse. Existing publishers who had relationships with Valve pre-Greenlight — most of the AAA publishers, and a few lucky smaller ones — aren’t required to submit games to Greenlight. As a result, they have been flooding Steam with a host of back-catalogue titles, many of which are poorly ported and barely working, or simply exploiting this loophole in order to publish indie titles that don’t need Greenlight to operate. How these titles pass any sort of internal qualification system is still a mystery — Valve still doesn’t/hasn’t made clear what guidelines (if any at all) existing publishers need to follow in order to put new games on Steam, and this two-tier system that is in place is clearly unfair to small developers who likely need to put a lot more on the line to promote, say, Black Annex, than Square Enix would need to promote Thief. A great example of this is publisher Meridian4, which recently decided to publish three 14 (yes, fourteen) year-old puzzlers on the store in order to claim “New Release” status. Something tells me Meridian4 wouldn’t have been able to get those games through Greenlight.

So what’s the solution? Personally, I believe Valve should think twice about moving any closer towards self-publishing. I do not think that every game deserves to be on Steam, and I especially baulk at the idea that any old shoddily designed port should be listed and take away very limited and important space from amazing, new, indies like Circuits or Space Engineers. I think the store needs to be completely redesigned away from the early system developed in the mid 2000′s that only added a few games a week, and more towards a system that rewards and promotes quality, freshness and merit.

If a title is getting lots of positive ratings, it should be easy to find and not buried against a publisher who pays money for featured access. Lists are fine, but there should be more than four, and a few of them should be genre based or focused on Greenlit/Indie titles. I also think it’s long overdue that Valve should make a proper refund policy, and drastically improve their customer service response times. A much stronger stance is needed on vetting what ends up on the store  – especially when offerings like the disastrous Earth: 2066 are “supported” by the sheer fact that they (have, and continue to) exist.

In the end, this isn’t just about making an example of Steam: it’s really more about developing a roadmap for all online services that feed digital downloads. Sites like GOG do a stellar job in ensuring that they have systems in place to guarantee their games work properly and are of a decent standard. On the flipside, services like Humble, Steam and Origin have a lot of work ahead of them to ensure that by trying to be everything to everyone, they don’t end up corrupting what made them so successful in the first place.

34 comments (Leave your own)

Don’t have time for a more thought out reply, but yes this points at definite concerns for what could unfold on Steam if the gates are thrown open.

Will it eventually be time to go back to retail stores and complete the circle? But will they still be there? (I must admit I am missing having a physical product these days and am finding myself willing to pay a little more to get it my games from an actual store, where suitable – Particularly with Playstation where their digital prices are terrible in the first place)

 

I already feel like I am drowning in casual indie products and early access games on Steam. I hate the idea that there could be even more confusion than there is now. I suppose that’s why they implemented tags…

It would be nice if there was a way of creating a custom default view based on tags you do or do not want to see.

 

I’ve heard some first world problems in my day but “I have too much choice when shopping on steam” would just about take the cake.

 

That word, “impasse”, I do not think it means what you think it means.

 
James Pinnell

schrapple:
I’ve heard some first world problems in my day but “I have too much choice when shopping on steam” would just about take the cake.

I think you’ve missed the point.

The issue I have is not about having “too much choice”, it’s about the store eventually being choked up with garbage apps making it next to impossible to find the quality games you want.

 

schrapple:
I’ve heard some first world problems in my day but “I have too much choice when shopping on steam” would just about take the cake.

Haha.

I type “borderlands” into Steam’s search bar, and I get Borderlands 2, Borderlands, then DLC. No 100 random games trying to trick me. Is my Steam just way smarter than yours? Or are you googling?

 
James Pinnell

ooshp: Haha.

I type “borderlands” into Steam’s search bar, and I get Borderlands 2, Borderlands, then DLC. No 100 random games trying to trick me. Is my Steam just way smarter than yours? Or are you googling?

Sigh. If you read the preceeding paragraph you would realise I was talking about the theoretical implications of a Google Play style self publishing system.

“Going down this path is genuinely worse than Greenlight could ever hope to be — imagine a store that is practically groaning under the weight of terrible FPS titles scraped together for a quick profit in Unity, a store where searching for “Borderlands” brings up 100+ titles all hoping to dupe an unsuspecting player into a purchase with Steam’s ridiculous No Refunds policy.”

 

A great example of an open store being exploited is with Google Play and GTA V. Searching for the app lead to a whole heap with a similar title, all meant to dupe a user into installing ones other than the official one. All of the false ones apparently did little more than serve up a bunch of adverts to the user. http://www.phonesreview.co.uk/2013/09/21/gta-v-ifruit-app-for-android-download-warning/

These scams are less likely on Steam, but for a low entry fee to get on the store you will definitely see a whole raft of dodgy titles trying to sneak into your collection under the the illusion of being another title.

It is also more a matter of it becoming increasingly difficult to find the gems amid the “noise” of crappy titles. It is fine if you are searching for a specific title, as per Ooshp’s example, but when you are searching through a sale for hidden gems do any of us want to click through page after page of “candy crush saga” wannabes to find that one decent game? That is where the problem will show itself at its worst.

EDIT – And on top of all that you don’t even need to have a finished product to get on Steam these days. Can you imagine Early Access with the doors thrown open?

 
jerichosainte

The point being people will probably choose not to bother with the service if it’s heading this way.

 

I agree it’s already an issue, and it’s only going to get worst, need far better filtering/searching tools if they’re going to go down this road, potentially add things like customising the store home page you see in your client to exclude certain games/genres/whatever

 

James Pinnell: Sigh. If you read the preceeding paragraph you would realise I was talking about the theoretical implications of a Google Play style self publishing system.

I have to admit, I needed to read that paragraph twice before I realised that you were talking about the google store.

You did a great job of pointing out something I’ve never noticed before in that the steam front page is always full of crap.

I’ve never really noticed it myself because I’m looking at the store page probably once a day. But if someone were to just come along and look at it for the first time, half of what they see under ‘new release’ and greenlight stuff is mostly crap.

 

That’s precisely the problem that tags help alleviate. Anything that is generally bad will be tagged as such. I think they already have a plan in place to address it anyway. User created stores. Gabe has mentioned in a number of talks that they are looking towards going to user created and curated stores. There will be people who create and curate respectable and reliable stores and will be rewarded for it, and then those cheap indie early access games that people dislike won’t make it into those stores.

 
James Pinnell

fireslide:
That’s precisely the problem that tags help alleviate. Anything that is generally bad will be tagged as such. I think they already have a plan in place to address it anyway. User created stores. Gabe has mentioned in a number of talks that they are looking towards going to user created and curated stores. There will be people who create and curate respectable and reliable stores and will be rewarded for it, and then those cheap indie early access games that people dislike won’t make it into those stores.

The issue with tags is that they are one of the worst ways to find content that you want. A tag does not reduce the amount of rubbish, it just puts it in a box with other good content, since anyone is able to astroturf their own app and tag them whatever they want.

The idea of a bunch of little stores turns Steam into something like eBay – which still suffers from inaccurate search, misleading titles and so forth. I personally think that widening scope like that heavily affects customer experience and will push them away to someone who takes care in maintaining it.

Steam doesn’t have the luxury of a fixed marketplace.

 

James Pinnell:
The idea of a bunch of little stores turns Steam into something like eBay – which still suffers from inaccurate search, misleading titles and so forth.

God, I used Ebay for the first time in a long time the other day, just trying to see what there was in the way of cheap laptops, and it was a bloody nightmare. I ended up having to filter it down to requiring “USB” to make it bring up actual laptops, instead of it showing me stickers for laptops and all sorts of other stupid items, regardless of the price range I set.

 

James Pinnell: I think you’ve missed the point.

The issue I have is not about having “too much choice”, it’s about the store eventually being choked up with garbage apps making it next to impossible to find the quality games you want.

No point missed, it’s just that your article is based on a hilariously unlikely hypothetical scenario and amounts to scare mongering .

If all copyright and trademark laws in the world were to be revoked, or if steam for some reason decided to deliberately annoy the biggest names in the game by allowing small time producers looking to cashing on big names to break said copyright and trademark laws. If steam also sat idle while their own service became unusable due to rip off titles and if they were to instead of re-acting to the problem just stand on the bow of the sinking ship saluting the sun then yes, the wildly improbable picture you have painted could occur. But we all know those things ain’t gonna happen.

I also noticed that you have given not a single example of 100+ rip off titles drowning the search engine. The closest you came was mentioning War-z, which is a rip off of the free and trademark free mod Day-Z. Now no one is doubting that this was a cheap money grab, but it certainly isn’t the first time in history it has happened (and amazingly steam didn’t collapse in a heap) and certainly won’t be the last (and my crystal ball also predicts steam being able carry the unbelievably heavy burden of a single rip off).

If you wish to scare monger about something that is actually a realistic threat to gaming why don’t you write about major publishers trying to gain control over digital distribution and control the market? Things like crowd funding and services like steam are life preservers thrown to a drowning consumer and for some reason people seem intent on destroying them. I just hope people will, ahhhhh………. What’s the point? You’ll learn the hard way, only problem is by then it will be to late, by then all the alternatives will be dead and gone.

 
James Pinnell

“I also noticed that you have given not a single example of 100+ rip off titles drowning the search engine.”

I’m sorry, what the hell are you talking about? You still don’t understand the correlation I have made, so I will explain it AGAIN.

I was comparing the current state of self publishing app stores like Apple’s and Google’s (Go on, do a search for anything that’s not candy crush or hearthstone and tell me how many rubbish results you get) and how Valve’s potential push towards self publishing – which they have indicated is their next step – is the same model mobile OS providers use for their stores.

This is not a “hilariously unlikely scenario” at all if the barriers are pulled down. Google Play and Apple’s App Store were once heavily curated before they went self-publishing.

But on top of this – Steam’s marketplace is already full of rubbish, like I mentioned – the lists and front page are plastered in horrible ports of ancient games, pushing down the releases of new titles and making it difficult to find quality applications you may not have heard of. My example was just that – an example – and it was a hypothetical situation based on the utter mess that Steam is right now.

I’m not shitting on Steam for the sake of it – I’m highlighting a massive problem that is facing them and other DD marketplaces and it’s something they need to change. I think mobile app stores are absolutely atrocious at highlighting decent content and heavily pushing back garbage apps from search and promotion.

If you think Steam’s Marketplace is fine the way it is, where existing publishers are allowed to dump any old crap on there at will, where indies are forced to compete on an unfair system to add their titles, where the UI actively fights against your need to locate titles that are actually new and interesting, where there is no refund system for anything but preorders and “Early Access” means you can basically lie about the current state of your title in order to suck money away and censor your critics – then great. I’d rather see changes personally.

 

I feel like this hypothetical problem is solved by a refined store interface and Valve not being stupid.

Steam got to where it is by being good at what it does. I don’t think Valve are just going to sit around and watch their store degenerate into Google Play store levels of filth.

But that view doesn’t make for an article someone’s likely to read.

 

For steam the current store layout was good before but not anymore especially with Greenlight. I think there definitely needs to be complete redesign to accommodate the incoming waves of games.

 

James Pinnell:
But on top of this – Steam’s marketplace is already full of rubbish, like I mentioned – the lists and front page are plastered in horrible ports of ancient games, pushing down the releases of new titles and making it difficult to find quality applications you may not have heard of.

I’m not sure what your front page looks like but mine has Watchdogs, Counter Strike, Space Engineers, Skyrim, Wolfinstien, Dark Souls 2 and Tropico 5.

EDIT: And the top sellers (at least the first 40) are all top quality games, either AAA or top indie.

 

I do not think that every game deserves to be on Steam, and I especially baulk at the idea that any old shoddily designed port should be listed

As soon as you get to “allow this but not that” you enter a subjective selection where no one will agree on anything. Allowing everything and having very good mechanisms for providing and showing user feedback will alleviate most these issues.

I also don’t see heaps of imitation games cropping up because ad based games are not feasible on the PC. PC gaming market is not the same as android/iOS

Without the right tools this could be bad but I think the community feedback available through steam and use of tags/filtering can really open the doors to any good developer to be successful.

Edit: Origin could also do this but I think coming from a more “corporate” background they would be (irrationally) averse to the risk of the Origin brand being tarnished by bad games.

 
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