Seven years after I wrote A Weaponized Machine about the indie scene snapping in twain over the proposed $100 fee to access Greenlight, it's Groundhog Day again. Steam are finally jettisoning Greenlight into the yellow light of the sun, like Teh Gabe promised a while back, and will be allowing developers to upload games directly into the heart of Steam with a service called Steam Direct. All that crowdsourcing bollocks is out the window.
But worries about FAKE GAMES and Steam's reputation persist and so instead of the $100 access fee for Greenlight there will now be... ta da an as-yet-undetermined publishing fee. And thus the indie "community" is once again at each other’s throats.
Last time this happened, I got rather sentimental about the passing of an indie golden age, with all its group hugs, hippie values and shit like that. Can’t get sentimental about what never came back, so what can I add to the conversation this time?
I can rant.
What is the harm if Steam throws open the floodgates to all and sundry?
What people are scared of is something like Google Play. It’s not just about Too Many Games™ but the number of parasites that mimic the games you actually want to buy. Every time I make a purchase on Google Play I need to check and double-check I’ve chosen the actual game I wanted. Is it Three or Threes! or is it THREES PUZZLE? But, hey, if there are enough eyeballs on these games, can’t we just crowdsource that knowledge? Demote those which are not the ‘droids you are looking for. That might not work as well as you think. Threes! was “outsold” by a free clone 1024 which in turn was ripped a new one by 2048.
There’s also this interesting idea that some people browse Steam’s shelves for new and exciting games. Now I haven’t done this for years as I’m up to my eyeballs with recommendations, like I need to go looking for anything anymore. Nonetheless, there is anger that any game can be on Steam, because Steam means something, like a seal of approval, a gold rosette that declares This Game will be Enjoyed.
There used to be heavy quality control on Steam, you know back in the days when there were about twenty games on the portal like Portal. But those days are over, old man. No one is going to agree on what makes a “good” game and there’s always ire for anything a little offbase. I think No Man’s Sky is an accomplished piece of work but there were angry people who thought it should have been buried in the ruins of Chernobyl because it was more fun playing a game actually set in the ruins of Chernobyl.
I admit I am confused about the desire for the perfect “discovery algorithm”. Someone, somewhere always gets fucked over by an algorithm. And trying to prove an algorithm has a grudge against you is not easy, although some cases are pretty obvious (I read some article about the first hour being critical if you want your game to remain on the Steam front page, but hey, buggered if I can find it now - oh here it is, thanks FLEB!). And good luck trying to persuade someone to alter the algorithm. Last year Arcen Games revealed that their “back catalog except for AI War and TLF all pretty much stopped earning any money around mid-2015 when some of the Steam store changes happened”. Next stop, layoffs.
And what do you want from such an algorithm? More like this? When will you discover something completely unlike this? Oh we just tweak some parameter, I suppose, a freshness coefficient. No worries, eh? The perfect algorithm will do everything and more. No one will be unhappy. Somebody should just write that.
I’d like to end the fetishization of the storefront by both customers and creators, but it seems people prefer machines over flesh telling them what to buy. And when the machine directs them to something they don’t like or has a lot of bugs then the popular reaction is a demand to blind the machine, and prevent it from seeing those FAKE GAMES. The machine is dumb, trust the machine. The machine is dumb. Trust the machine.
Let’s impose a bar of quality on what the machine is allowed to see. Quality is difficult to detect because, you know, machines are dumb and can’t play games. If only the Great Machine-Mother could make judgements that a game is worth seven point zero out of ten. Instead of a bar of quality then, let’s talk about a bar of money. What’s the impact of that?
Obviously some people aren’t going to make it to the promised land and hit their head on that bar. How many fall short depends on the level of tribute Steam would require (and somehow return to you later). But does this matter?
We still have a subculture of No-Steam-No-Deal (NSND) diehards out there, which is the frankly upsetting sight of kids buying the great open platform of the PC only to lock themselves heart and wallet into the One True Source of games. I don’t know how many people suffer from NSND but it’s at least ten, for sure.
And people do follow the recommendations that the machine spits out. But that storefront is fickle and it’s rubbish for games that are relatively niche. So if Steam removes those games that would normally die on the store… it’s like that conundrum about whether a tree falling in the forest makes any sound if no one is around to hear it. On the other hand, if the money bar is set high, the conundrum is more like whether anyone will notice a megacyclone wiping out an Amazon rainforest.
I’ve got wind that some indie developers are embracing a high bar as a good thing. This is clinging onto Steam as the Bringer of the Holy Spotlight of Attention, the storefront we daily worship. And it somewhat feels like trying to turn the clock back. Having been through a few years of indiepocalypse the answer is, well, throw all the poor off the Titanic to make sure it stays afloat for the lucky few. It still hit a fucking iceberg, you know. And if you think a money bar is going to make Steam a bastion of experimental, innovative new games, then excuse me while I vomit out my brain in disbelief. If Steam becomes the righteous defender of conservative game design, is that going to be an attractive look? It already looks like ass, you know. So many men with guns and swords whenever I open my Steam.
I did spot Jonathan Blow make the suggestion that indies go onto a more, erm, humble platform and raise money there and later make the jump to Steam.
Hold on, handbrake turn, screeeeeech
Making a vague analogy with a high street shop is unhelpful because Steam does more than just present a few shelves to browse. Sure, Steam is this store with infinite shelf space. But Steam also has a sort of publishing role because it is responsible for manufacturing each unit using computer magic. Steam also provides an assistant that keeps your games up-to-date with every patch issued from the developer. That’s not the kind of attention you usually get from your beleaguered retail store. Ah, I remember a time when you didn’t want the man at the store to follow you home. Even that mighty mouse Itch.io has an app which manages automatic patching. This is by no means unique to Steam.
And games are often integrated into Steam - all those achievements and save games being backed up into the cloud need developers to do something on their end. Best thing of all, Steam comes free with all that lovely DRM that consumers hate except when it’s in a convenient and much shiny jewel-encrusted box.
Point: Digital stores are not simply “stores” any more.
So returning to Blow’s suggestion, I’m not sure I know many developers who would be happy to shoot their marketing load for itch.io and then do it all over again six months later. And you probably want to produce a different version which offers achievements - the signature of a truly great game. And like no one is gonna publish your “now on Steam” press release for the victims of NSND unless you’re selling Minecraft. We all know that “Minecraft on Steam” would headline on every gaming website. Money goes to money. Attention goes to attention. (Okay, srs talk, you're gonna have to release with extra DLC to get the extra TLC of your Steam release being mentioned anywhere on the planet outside of your drunken rantings down at the pub. So build that into your Steam release plans, my friend.)
This is a fight between old values and the new normal. Like I wrote in my brilliant ebook which should be read by more people, it’s time to throw out “rich on release” models and embrace the long view. I say let’s fuck up the storefronts. Smash those windows. Make them unusable. Down with the goddamn machines.
See as much as I hate the money bar, it’s like the wrong battle. Every time another indie gets inducted into the golden halls of Steam, that’s another notch on Steam’s bedpost. More and more I am seeing new indie titles with no online footprint beyond Steam's concrete walls.
The catalogue gives Steam power, power which has already led to a great many accidental shaftings. Oh no! They changed the reviews! Oh no! Refunds! Oh no! Now you have to be exclusive on Steam. Ha ha, made that last one up. But imagine the rants.
The good intentions of Valve are superfluous to this discussion. If the people insist on giving a good President wide-ranging executive powers, then the people ought to be prepared to sing a goodnight lullaby for the nation when the next one is crazy and drones the free world to death. One day the algorithm hates you and your sales drop off the Cape of Good Hope - and you don’t know why and there are no people to talk to, just a machine. Please type your complaint into this box (100 character max).
Indies, I don’t know what you wanted in your future but I didn’t think it was bigger, more powerful corporations.
- These aren’t original thoughts. Cardinal Quest developer Ido Yehieli said in 2012 he would stop buying from Steam because of control issues. Terra Lauterbach, who was behind suteF and Thunder Gun: Revenge of the Mutants also expressed concerns in 2014 about the post-Gabe problem.
- This is a shootin’-from-the-hip version of arguments I make later in my book. You can download the first two chapters for freeee right now which explain the collapse of videogame pricing.
- Lars Doucet tried his hand at an algorithm for finding “hidden gems” on Steam.
- Ben Kuchera: “Developers want Steam to be a service that helps them find customers, and the fact so many of them are willing to give up 30 percent of their revenue to be on the platform leads us to believe they have faith that it’s possible. Players want a service that’s easy to use, minimizes risk with purchases and offers strong social features.”
- Rants are a good way to get other people to do research for your book via their counter-rants.
- Watch out, watch out there’s a paradox about. Even if we tear down the storefronts and leave Steam and its cousins with only a silly search box and direct links from other sites… we’ve just smeared the “discovery problem” around a bit. Electron Dance isn’t particularly big but I’m still inundated with press keys and requests for reviews. I no longer have the time to get through everything thrown at me and I’m more likely to follow other people’s recommendations that find some of my own nowadays. So how do things get discovered? Hey, I’m here to make problems, not solve them.