Electron Dance
23Feb/17Off

Independence

oh no not again

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.

no-mans-sky

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?

20170211-SteamDirectMillionDollarFee

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.

welcome-to-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.)

minecraft-beds-stairs

Crafting recipe: Minecraft + Anything = Teh Gaming Headlinezzz

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.

Footnotes

  • 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.

Steam Extraction Script Errors

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Comments (26) Trackbacks (0)
  1. What nobody really wants to hear is that this is not a Steam problem, it’s a capitalism problem. There are no real solutions on this level. It can all be a tiny bit fairer, but it can never be good unless things change on a systemic level. Everything else is just pissing in the wind.

  2. Baby steps, Jonas. I did forget to mention that if itch.io got the same momentum that there would be no difference.

  3. I know… but I’m seeing conversations like this in every creative field (YouTubers, ebook writers, etc.), and very few people seem to be putting two and two together, while the world slides ever deeper into crisis.

  4. This is exactly why I’m so passionate about getting the book done – my contribution to this discussion.

  5. “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.”

    a fitting metaphor. the indie game space is one of our most important, consistent sources of ludodiversity.

  6. Oh my God, “my contribution to the discussion” is like the worst comment I’ve ever written.

    Ben – thanks! I just let rip here and didn’t overthink my writing. On the plus side: I do believe that diversity will not go away and that it will always be out there; people will not stop making things and the ability to get work out there will continue. But in terms of what makes money and what most people even see is already slipping away from us.

  7. “Indies, I don’t know what you wanted in your future but I didn’t think it was bigger, more powerful corporations.”

    Fantastic final line.

    This really opened up some concepts for me that I haven’t really thought of, and it’s really interesting to think about. I dislike how big Steam has gotten, I’ve HAD a Steam for years, but I’ve only started using it in the last 2 or so. Before that I always tried to get my own physical copy of games, but that’s really dying out so it’s really hard to do. So many games don’t even have disc releases anymore and it bothers me that this company controls everything. Especially with the limitations rising, I’m worried about losing all those gems you never expect to find. I can see this being so debilitating that it might actively make people want to stop making games, because there’s such a large barrier to entry that’s growing, and that’s frustrating when the internet initially made that barrier go away, like you mention in your book.

    There’s not much we can do against capitalism though, it just takes over, and it’s frustrating. I see this as really limiting, and it’s a sad direction that we’re headed in.

  8. Hi Gwen. I almost pulled that last line because it felt a bit too confrontational. But, gah, that’s the heart of the piece, the whole point. So it stayed.

    I actually quit buying sales a few years ago and wrote about that but these days I use the Steam wish list to remind me of games I’m interested in. So many games kept disappearing down the plughole. And now if the price is small I just snap it up. Way too much focus on Steam. Pretty much every press copy of a game I’m sent is, yes, a Steam key.

    The larger question of fighting capitalism is, whew, a much broader issue than I think we have time for here :) Suffice to say, the end of the book has to deal with the cul-de-sac the previous chapters have marched us into.

  9. I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read the first two chapters yet, but they’re on my reading list! So maybe this is something you’ve already made, but i’d be curious to see a graph that shows time on the x axis and something like “If consumers pay $1000 for your game, how much do you get on average” on the Y axis. Because tbh, I have no idea how steam for an indie today compares to something like “stores + you have a publisher and it’s 1997.”

  10. “Rants are a good way to get other people to do research for your book via their counter-rants.”

    You sly old dog. Excellent rant.

  11. Dan

    Don’t sweat it! I’m not going to send the reading ninjas after you. I just have to keep putting the message out there because there are MILLIONS of people who haven’t read my book. I must not stop in my unceasing attempts to find them all. You may even notice I’ve added an ebook link to the little bit at the end of each post now…

    But: when you say “how much do you get on average” what do you mean? Do you mean “total game revenue”?

    Shaun.

    Unfortunately I haven’t seen any counter-rants! I think people who disagreed simply left it alone. Also I guess it’s the week before GDC and people are just performing Zen meditation to prepare themselves. But hey, small victories, I’ve actually posted an essay on Electron Dance this year!

  12. By “how much do you get on average” I mean that if consumers spend $1000, how much money does the game creator see? I’m under the impression that if I made a game myself and released it on steam or an app store, I’d get ~$700 for every $1000 spent buying the game or IAP. Just curious how that would compare to the situation in earlier times, or in different circumstances. Presumably if I had a publisher, i’d get much less than $700 for $1000 in sales. Or what would it have been like if I had sold 20 copies of my $50 game at babbages? 200 to the store, 500 to the publisher, 300 left for the developer?

    I don’t necessarily have a point or argument about this, just really not sure how the present compares to the past. I recently read your stories about being a game developer. With that in mind, it strikes me that getting noticed and game distribution were pretty tough in the (surprisingly recent) olden times, too.

  13. Dan, I’m not sure you can find such statistics because every publisher had different agreements – but its not really the problem. The percentage extracts by store/publisher are irrelevant if you’re shifting enough units to market millions and they’re not really what make the Indiepocalypse “story” compelling. What we’re missing is what revenue a developer makes – but try finding statistics for that!

    The problem, as perceived, is faltering prices coupled with an inability to get attention. And I do talk about that in the book :)

  14. I should add that I make the argument – like others have – that we’re seeing a return to the previous norm, because making easy money is never the norm in any market.

  15. I don’t disagree with anything you’re saying (sorry, too lazy to research for a counter rant), but I’m struck by analogies to other creative industries. TV shows were cancelled for having audiences that would be unheard of now, like seven million people. Oasis sold like eleven million copies of that cd with champagne supernova. I guess you can chalk a lot of that up to monoculture resulting from lots of gatekeeping and fewer commercial options. Getting signed was like the golden ticket, but I guess you could still flop.

    So the more I think about this, the more the indie bubble seems like a simple-ish economics story of a boom during a transition period. If games were anything like other media, publishing and distribution probably used to get 80%+ of revenue. So when they switched the amounts available, a lot more game endeavors became viable – you, too could be like Jeff Vogel! – and of course some of the many new games would break through as hits, which probably accelerated the trend towards people entering the brave new game dev world. The return to normal returns seems inevitable though – it’s like the Solow model like that.

    Hmm.. Just thinking aloud on your comment section. I do feel bad for Arcen, though.

  16. @Dan – Tangent time! A band or artist “getting signed” in the era of Oasis was no golden ticket. Megasellers like Oasis were the exceptions that drove thousands of bands to leap, starry-eyed, into shitty deals in the hopes of making similar bank. The majority of bands which signed to major labels in the 80s-2000s lost money on the deal.

    The music industry claimed it did too, which I gather was/is only true in the same way as Hollywood “loses money” on films thanks to Byzantine chains of companies and licensing deals. So “you could still flop” misses the extent to which the entire system was weighted against the “content providers” (to use a despicable modern phrase) from the outset.

    Steve Albini wrote articles in the early/mid 90s on how this scam typically played out. Here’s the famous one:

    http://www.negativland.com/news/?page_id=17

    Here’s Courtney Love on the same subject in 2000:

    http://www.salon.com/2000/06/14/love_7/

    And a 2009 piece on one way major labels “cook the books”, from someone who worked at Rhapsody and was in a “flopped” major label band in the early 90s:

    http://gizmodo.com/5417318/my-6247-royalty-statement-how-major-labels-cook-the-books-with-digital-downloads

    I’m not sure that the music industry is a great example in this discussion because the ‘Steam/indie bubble’ being proposed in this thread lasted just a few years, but I’d suggest the stranglehold of the major labels in the music industry – a bubble inflated and perpetuated by corporate power – spanned several generations. I can’t say for sure though as most of my knowledge lies from the late 70s onwards. Regardless, I’m comfortable getting hyperbolic and saying that the music industry should be burned to the fucking ground for the sake of music.

    Maybe none of this is relevant to the main sphere of argument, anyway, but I’m compulsively driven to point out that the major label music industry was bullshit and I’m glad it was torn a new one, even if it was by Apple, who are different kinds of scumbags use different methods of maximising revenue streams.

  17. All this “against capitalism” stuff is faintly embarrassing. As if the People’s Revolutionary Video Game Curation Collective #673 is going to be more open to dramatic new ideas that go against the grain of what’s popular and accepted than a marketplace where the base platform _is_ still open, despite the presence of one giant. History tells us precisely the opposite.

  18. ThirteenthLetter, I have read your comment back half a dozen times and aside from your finding it embarrassing to discuss capitalism in the context of economics, I’m really unsure what you’re trying to say.

    It looks as if you’re suggesting that, because the PC is an open platform, criticising existent approaches adopted by major players, and recognising deep-rooted structural problems in the economic orthodoxies which drive them, is irrelevant, because somehow the fact of that open platform will generate new approaches – but presumably without anyone criticising those which exist? You can see that this logic appears oxymoronic on the face of it.

  19. Quoting one of the comments:
    “There’s not much we can do against capitalism though, it just takes over, and it’s frustrating. I see this as really limiting, and it’s a sad direction that we’re headed in.”

    Well now, I may be just a simple country lawyer, but when someone is talking about how we need to do things “against capitalism,” it gives me the impression that they are against capitalism.

    If the point is that social networks are vulnerable to network effects that make it hard for smaller players to break in, yes, that’s correct. But going from that to how we have to “fight capitalism” is like if you discovered that your bathroom door sticks and responded by burning down the house.

  20. “But going from that to how we have to “fight capitalism” is like if you discovered that your bathroom door sticks and responded by burning down the house.”

    Maybe it’s actually more like discovering that your bathroom door sticks and you don’t have the tools to fix it, so you look for a local carpenter to come fix it but you find that they are all off working fly-in-fly-out jobs on resource extraction jobs in remote bush areas and the remote areas are dealing with the social impact of large groups of temporary workers (mostly men) with nothing to do but drink and your area is dealing with the social impact of the absence of those men for weeks on end and then their return with heaps of money burning a hole in their pockets and violence and suicide rates are up in both areas and social cohesion is down and the government is not levying enough of a rent on the resources that we all own but that large international corporations are exploiting and leaving all this social wreckage behind and no one is doing anything to help the people whose towns are changing around them and it’s an over simplification to call all that “capitalism” but it’s a useful shorthand for those who aren’t desperate to pretend there isn’t a problem.

  21. Um. Some of that spray may not make sense outside an Australian context. Or even then.

  22. …and the door got left behind as the extended metaphor ate itself. But it’s still sticky.

  23. “…and it’s an over simplification to call all that “capitalism” but it’s a useful shorthand for those who aren’t desperate to pretend there isn’t a problem.”

    Except it’s an inaccurate shorthand because if your economic system was “not capitalism” you’d most likely be starving in the fields under a dictatorship. If you go to all those miserable unhappy people in your town and successfully convince them that “capitalism” is responsible for all their woes, the result isn’t going to be that those people support a generous welfare state and anti-monopoly laws at the next election; the result is going to be these people replace capitalism with something catastrophic. So maybe it’s important to be accurate about these things.

  24. Would it help you to go with the point if “unrestrained” is explicitly in front of “capitalism” instead of just implicitly?

    I don’t think the proletarian revolution is quite so close in Australia or elsewhere in the Anglosphere that you need be so worried about the unruly crowds misinterpreting the rhetoric, but clarity is always helpful I suppose.

  25. Hi. I’m against capitalism. I’m not for welfare capitalism, but for proper actual socialism. The means of production owned by the working class and all that. Abolition of the profit motive.

    Yes, I’m a Marxist. So are other people. Deal with it. Ideally without the cliches. Read some contemporary socialist theory. David Harvey has a nice series of free videos explaining Capital. His book “The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism” is also a good point to start.

    Steven Brust has a very useful list of answers to the standard objections to socialism:
    http://dreamcafe.com/2013/09/13/answers-to-a-few-things-im-tired-of-hearing/

    (This has nothing to do with videogames per se. Games are just another market inside this system, and nothing games or gamers themselves can do will have any impact on it.)

  26. There is a strange pop followed by an unexpected silence, like someone had blown an airlock evacuating the room of oxygen.

    You’re not sure what, but something has changed.


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