Steam, it’s not the be-all and end-all of the PC gaming market. It might have over 125 million users, with 16 million active right now, but other storefronts are out there. There is Uplay and Origin from the AAA publishers, with itch.io and Humble Bundle targeting the indie markets. Users have lots of choice now for where they buy their games, but we can’t deny Steam stands at the top of the pile. Despite its numerical supremacy, Valve’s little baby isn’t having things so easy anymore, with numerous crises arising over the last 18 months.
As The Reticule approaches its 10th Anniversary this year, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at how Steam has evolved, and whether changes made five or ten years ago, show us the causes of the current problems. Back in 2008, EA landed on Steam, which was then home to 15 million users. It came as the latest step in Valve opening Steam to a wider audience after bringing Activision and Ubisoft on board, but even then, I had my worries:
The announcement of the availability of EA games on Steam came with a big caveat, another big publisher using Steam has taken the choice to limit their products to North American customers only. With a new era of localised currencies (which is another issue entirely) EA’s decision comes across as being decidedly narrow minded.
Even the introduction of localised currencies didn’t start off too well. Back in 2009 I highlighted that while Steam was growing and offering ever more tools for developers (Steamworks at the time), users were still being treated to a farcical situation where $1 was being treated as equal to €1 without any differential at all. I won’t claim that costs of games are now fair for all Steam users, but the geo-blocking that I highlighted with EA in 2008 is still very much a concern. The European Commission launched an investigation last year into geo-blocking on Steam with five different publishers. Where that investigation will ultimately go is anyone’s guess, but it’s surely something Valve should be thinking about.
Going back to the 5th Year of Reticule Towers, we mused about SteamOS and highlighted some of the growing pains the Greenlight service was going through. Greenlight was, at the time, a much needed response to a point I first talked about when EA arrived on Steam. In that 2008 article, I wrote:
…it is important that Valve maintain their identity and the ethos of Steam, while we can’t deny that having these big games companies on Steam is great for business, there is a downside…The fear must be that the less mainstream games and smaller developers will find themselves being marginialised now on Steam…where are games from developers like Positech and the whole host of other indie game studios?
I won’t claim to be influencing Valve’s business decisions, but even ten years ago it was clear that Valve were going to be coming across different problems with Steam. Having started off as a way to better distribute patches for Counter-Strike 1.6, it evolved into being Valve’s very own form of DRM for Half-Life 2, and has continued to change with the times, but often in a reactive, rather than proactive, fashion.
Greenlight ran into issues with the first few weeks which could well have been avoided with clearer policies. While we haven’t talked about Steam for several years, Valve have also experienced issues with user reviews, tagging, refunds, customer service and a hostile community. Looking back through the Steam blog, there are dozens of posts where Valve talk about changes they are making to how user reviews work. Some fundamental changes were occurring within a handful of weeks of the previous changes going live. It’s been a dizzying time for anyone following what is happening with the platform.
Of course, the past few weeks have seen even more woes arise. It started with a number of visual novels being threatened with removal from the Steam Store, while just a few days later, a school shooter simulator was listed on the Store, then hastily banned. Valve’s response to the justified throwing of arms in the air, was a lengthy blog post from Erik Johnson. The key message from his post?
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.
Erik goes into detail over the difficulties Valve have experienced internally over recent weeks while trying to agree on a way forward and highlights some tools customers will be able to use to filter out content they don’t want to see, but the truth is they are absconding from any responsibilities they might once have had for the beast they created.
In truth, Valve’s new approach to the games they will allow on their platform is a very laissez-faire attitude towards their position as the pre-eminent PC gaming storefront. But, we shouldn’t be surprised. Valve have increasingly taken a hands-off approach, as seen with their abandoning of a highly curated service, to Greenlight to Steam Direct. The problems of recent weeks have been brought on by Valve themselves; and as a privately run company, they are within their rights to make potentially foolish mistakes. Mistakes that any publicly owned company with a responsibility to their shareholders would either try to avoid making, or would face greater scrutiny over.
I don’t know what the best way forward is for Valve, but I feel that the European Commission investigation will go a long way to determining how they manage Steam in Europe in the future. Maybe it is time for Valve to split the business. Keep the games development arm, while moving Steam towards a different ownership model. For while Valve maintain their laissez-faire, reactive approach towards the operation of Steam, the stumbles and falls of the past decade will continue to haunt them.