Not only is Steam's current model broken, but things are potentially about to get a lot worse.
By James Pinnell 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.