I started writing this post March 2019 and it felt like there was never a good enough moment to stop and actually get it finished and uploaded. There was always a new controversy, an issue of some sorts and never a week went by without 10 new shovel-ware titles mysteriously popping onto the Steam store. New products eagerly priced at ridiculously cheap levels to bury any good indie titles coming out that week. It’s not just a quantity problem Steam store has though, remember Hatred? The ultra violent video game that needed an Adult only rating and managed to stir controversy for being released on Steam. This was only a month after Valve had to remove a game where you were rewarded for murdering gay people. Even last month (August 2020) Steam was in trouble for not allowing refunds on Microsoft Flight Simulator as the installing process was considered ‘play time’ and the installation takes hours to complete. There’s always something wrong with Steam but there are obvious reasons for that.
Before we go any further, let me be clear; I don’t hate Steam. I’m not some fanatic rallying to Epic’s cause and I don’t really have a preference with any of the services that offer similar stores. I remember when Steam was first launched and me and a friend couldn’t play Half-Life 2’s solo offline story campaign because we couldn’t get Steam to connect to the servers. That’s how long I’ve been using the service. Just like almost every PC gamer in the world, I’ve a ridiculous library of digital titles and I daren’t think about how much I’ve spent there over the years. Should the service just vanish? Well, my PC would go back to a retro games system pretty damn quickly. Just a hypothetical casualty of the ‘digital code in physical box’ ecosystem we now have with PC games.
The sheer volume of goods for sale on the Steam store is ridiculous. Half the reason Valve can’t do anything about the issues the store front has, is because of the sheer quantity of titles on it. I understand that the games industry moves incredibly fast and we have multiple big titles throughout the year. There are an incredible number of studios now all releasing their masterpiece as the days go by. I’m just going to put Steam’s quantity problem into context; This Monday (7th September at the time of writing) there were 4 new titles, 2 free titles, a soundtrack, web development pack and 2 major updates. This is on top of the 35 new packs of DLC for 5 different titles. The day before (Sunday! Who releases stuff on a Sunday?!) another 5 new games, a new font asset pack, multiple new release pages for future titles and even more DLC. If you thought curating the amazing Itch.io bundle was daunting, imagine curating this on a daily basis!
The amount of products being released on the platform is simply too much and curators can only do so much. Bloat is the main crux of the mater but Valve is making too much money to worry about it on a daily basis. It works out cheaper for them as a company to simply respond to large controversy after it has occurred rather that stop it at the source before it’s an issue. Steam Greenlight was the original solution but became disappointingly broken with many good indie titles buried by unscrupulous developers paying have their asset flips passed through the system. What we have now is arguably worse. At the time of writing there is a £76.00 charge to publish anything on Steam and the charge will be recoupable after $1000 is made on the product. Given how there have been at least 9 new games in 2 days that’s £684 for Valve for games that are very unlikely to reach that $1000 mark. It’s obviously not going to be in their best interest to cut that revenue anytime soon and in the very basic simplest way, a game would only need to make the £76 back to make a profit for the person uploading it (ignoring all of the development costs etc)
It isn’t all doom and gloom though and some things on Steam store have gotten better. The discovery queue algorithm is now starting to produce reasonable results based on past purchases. Smaller publishers are now much bigger and better known than ever before, their importance of skills with social media and marketing is greater than ever. The Steam store no longer holds as much of a monopoly as it used to with the Epic store buying exclusives and GOG offering more than simply retro titles. It’s still strange that Steam is the de facto for most PC titles with Microsoft and even EA now bringing their titles and services to the platform (but still having them available on their own) Ubisoft has its own platform as well, a hybrid monster that reflects its poor management and protection of staff by being both a stand alone store and also selling through Steam and 3rd parties, watering down any culpability. PC gamers now have choice, which is great.
Despite the ability to go elsewhere Steam is still an incredible success. As Gabe Newell said all those years ago, “the way to end piracy is to provide a service that’s more complete than cracked software” With every Steam sale washing PC gamer’s wallets dry and every new month of Humble Bundle’s Choice subscription providing more Steam keys (for the never ending library of games), the service is as strong as ever. I can’t really see the Steam store ever changing that drastically with only UI elements and events added in future but I do think the duality of Valve is best summed up with the end of the above quote by Gabe where he also said, “restrictive DRM only encourages more piracy” Given how many games launch with Denuvo on Steam and then are subsequently broken on launch, it doesn’t quite reflect his stance.
Where does that leave us then? The main thing to remember in all this is choice. Steam is huge, it’s the Amazon of PC Gaming and almost every PC game ever made will likely end up on it. There are even PC games for purchase on the service that simply load Dos Box and then will load an emulated disk of the game. The only way to navigate the ocean of Steam titles is by relying on sites and journalists that review the genres you like for a living. You can also learn about new products by follow publishers of indie titles that you’ve liked before on social media. If someone has worked on a title you absolutely loved then have a look to see what else they’re working on. Check Patreon to see who’s working on a new title, use Kickstarter to back something interesting and new or simply just look through your own wishlist.
Chances are something you added 5 years ago is now on sale again anyways…
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