“Good guy Valve.”
That’s a mentality that’s permeated the PC gaming community for ages. Valve made its name among game fans as a quality developer with a focus on the people who actually played and enjoyed their games. Community was a keyword in Valve’s growth into infallibility. From that identity came Steam, a platform for game delivery now synonymous with PC gaming.
It’s impressive, especially considering the thing Valve is best at is shooting itself in the foot.
These days, it often feels like you can’t go near a conversation about Steam without encountering some sort of bizarre game release on the front page or major controversy. Within the past handful of weeks, Valve had told developers of some visual novel games that they had only two weeks to make sweeping changes to their games that had safely been on the platform they’d be removed while not specifying exactly what changes needed to be made. Twenty-four hours later, Valve completely changed their minds. Only days later did people begin to notice Active Shooter, a game about playing as either S.W.A.T. officers or an actual active shooter, approved and up for purchase, though not yet released. Once mainstream press got a hold of the news, Valve had to pull the game.
Those recent events are a part of a long line string of bizarre and sometimes horrifying incidents involving, and related to, Steam. Such gems include a developer who tried to sue both a journalist and then Valve themselves, allowing a game onto the store with a title encouraging players to murder queer people, even, ignoring warnings of a massive vulnerability that forced the person who found it to upload “Watch Paint Dry: The Game” using that vulnerability to get Valve to patch it.
In what appears to be an attempt to address some of these issues, earlier this month, Valve issued a blog post entitled “Who Gets To Be On The Steam Store?” with the answer apparently being: everything.
Well, everything save for anything that, to quote Valve, illegal, or “straight up trolling.” To justify this, Valve uses what is effectively an augment that any action they may take towards a certain game is actually censoring ideas and all but actually use the phrase “slippery slope” in the post. In the place of curation or quality control, Valve plans on doubling down on its digital algorithm tools, leaving it to Steam users to indicate what they want to see and what they don’t want to see.
Put simply, Valve has finally tipped its hand and admitted the truth: They don’t care.
When the first versions of Steam hit all the way back in 2002, its purpose and design was very different from the Steam of today. Valve’s goals with the platform were far more moderate: Steam was meant to be a solution to delivering game updates and protecting Valve’s games from piracy in a more convenient manner for its user base. In its earliest years, Steam was only usable with games published by Valve and the client wasn’t required for use until Half-Life 2 released; what was considered a bold move at the time. Over the years, Steam has evolved well beyond that, and the increasing bizarre behavior can be charted right alongside it. Like other conveniences that evolve into juggernauts (think Amazon), Steam became a massive storefront. Steam stopped being about maintaining the games it hosted, and became about selling those games.
The argument that Valve stopped making games is not a new or unique one, but there is a modicum of truth to it. At least, the case that Valve stopped caring about games themselves. The impression Valve gives now is the same that they copped to in their recent statements; that they are more interested in maintaining their large presence in the sales market than anything else. One can even narrow down the focus and chart this trajectory:
- The implementation of Steam Greenlight was meant to give games that might otherwise not survive on the still-new storefront, but within a year pulled back several of the restrictions that made way for people to purchase or take on baseline game assets for various game engines and slap them together for votes on Greenlight. Valve would retire Greenlight last year in favor of a direct submission process that led to such Valve-approved submissions as the aforementioned Active Shooter.
- Steam Trading Cards, a special set of collectables tied to achievements within game. Greenlight submitters would sometimes create hundreds and have their games drop them constantly to encourage players to green light and then purchase their games. Valve has recently introduced a limit to achievements to try to quell this behavior, but Greenlight has already been retired.
- Steam Market allowed for players to sell each other digital items, earned through things such as loot boxes, with Valve taking a 15% cut. Valve’s inability or disinterest in enforcing its own rules for Market led to an influx of gaming personalities creating betting sites using the items and then making content of them winning skins on sites they also own. The value of some items fluctuate like stocks.
- Steam Communities, meant to help fans of games or genres come together, and even recommend other titles have never seen proper support or moderation. Now, Steam Communities have a growing neo-Nazi presence and play home to an ongoing war against games that dare to have less than 60 frames per second.
Now, this isn’t to say that Steam hasn’t been critical to the history of games. If anything, we still yet know the full impact of Steam’s existence on games. Through Steam, Valve was able to safely patch games long before consoles managed to do so, and still does so better than any contemporary on console or otherwise. Online multiplayer on PC has avoided becoming reliant on paid subscriptions because Steam facilitates it. Developers have a chance to get their games in front of a massive audience and easily hold sales when needed. Those games are able to implement anti-piracy measures without hurting the quality of their games, and players have a much easier way to pay for games than it is to find a stolen copy. The ease of redeeming Steam codes allows for everything from giveaways to the entire concept of the Humble Bundle, where groups of games can be sold and proceeds donated to charity. Steam is incredibly critical to the modern gaming environment.
That’s why Valve needs to treat the platform they’ve created as such. They don’t want to, though.
Instead, Valve now insists that Steam is still the small and isolated tool they created almost two decades ago to patch Counter-Strike, a small platform where the number of users and publishers is so small that moderation doesn’t feel necessary. Valve’s philosophy is that Steam should be whatever all of its users, both players and makers, decide it should be. Such a philosophy simply doesn’t work. The Valve philosophy doesn’t create a perfect Steam. It creates a broken one.
In an interview with Paste Magazine, Christine Love, developer of Ladykiller In A Bind, described the process of make games comply with Steam rules like some sort of nightmare: “There doesn’t really seem to be much to suggest that Valve knows what its own decisions and precedents even are.” Image & Form Games head Brjann Sigurgeirsson said in an interview with pundit Jim Sterling: “Steam is too crowded,” before indicating that the Nintendo Switch and even the Xbox One were beginning to seem like stronger places for their titles. Sigurgeirsson said in the same interview that his company’s most recent title, Steamworld Dig 2, sold many times more on Switch than on Steam-though did not disclose how much more.
Even Valve’s most devoted fans seem tired of Valve in general. In one of my favorite game reveal moments ever, Valve unveiled Artifact: The DOTA Card Game at The Invitational, an annual DOTA 2 tournament that is constantly the eSports tournament with the largest prize pool. Here, of all places, Valve should have scored a positive response-but instead were met with a massive sigh of disappointment. To them, Valve was trying yet again to cash in, looking to copy games such as Hearthstone.
None of these things are signs of a healthy Steam. These are not the actions of a company that even pretends to care about its audience or those who provide the games for Valve to sell. Say what you want about Electronic Arts or Warner Brothers-I know I do-they can at least put forth a modicum of effort when push comes to shove. itch.io has already committed to creating safe environments on its platform. When we interviewed Finji’s Rebekah Saltsman at PAX East, she praised itch.io for giving them the space needed to sell their game as needed, and provided excellent support. No one, not even myself, will stop using Steam tomorrow. However, continuing this course will only create a void for the platform that will one day replace Steam.
Among Steam users, it’s a commonly held understanding that in the unlikely event of Valve’s closure, all purchased games on Steam would be unlocked and made freely available.
This is believed because Valve has always had the reputation of the “Good Guy.”
It might be time to start considering that the Valve of today isn’t a good guy anymore, and maybe we all shouldn’t put that much faith in a company that won’t even pretend to respect us.