Big Picture Mode
Industry issues given the widescreen treatment
Nathan Brown ponders what’s really going on at Valve HQ
When the Steam summer sale ended, I was in profit. I suspect I might be the only person outside of Valve’s wheely-desked HQ to be able to say that. I did it by voting every eight hours for which set of four similarly themed games I wanted to see go on sale next; for every three votes, I received a Steam Trading Card, which I promptly listed on the Community Market for a few token pence. Each of them sold within minutes. By the end of the sale, I’d made about a pound and not spent a penny. It says a lot about how Steam has changed, I think, that my only engagement with its legendary summer sale was clicking on something on a website three times a day. I bought nothing, I made nothing, and I got paid. That’s the modern Valve business model in a nutshell.
Steam has always been more than a videogame shop, but it feels increasingly like the storefront is merely a hub serving all of Valve’s other microbusinesses. These days it’s a social network (with its friends list and forums), a fashion retailer (cosmetic items for Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2), a mod repository ( Steam Workshop) and a stock market (Steam Trading Cards).
It’s also increasingly a place where creators don’t go to sell games, but concepts, seeking approval through Greenlight and funding through Early Access. And Valve takes its cut of every penny that flows through its doors. As a case study in platform and business development, it is almost beyond compare. And I’ve no doubt that Gabe Newell’s eyes practically pop out of their sockets whenever he wheels himself over to the finance department. But since each new Steam initiative is devised, developed, integrated and then forgotten about when staff trundle over to wherever they fancy going next, I feel progressively less inclined to engage with the platform.
Much of that, I think, is because Valve doesn’t seem to care that much any more either. Greenlight is the perfect example of
I bought nothing, I made nothing, and I got paid. That’s the modern Valve business model in a nutshell
the ever-more-blurry line between the company involving its community and simply abdicating responsibility. The first batch of games to be added to Steam after Greenlight’s 2012 launch were just ten in number. The following month, there were 21. There were complaints that Valve was too slow in getting greenlit games onto Steam. It said it would fix it; instead, it opened the floodgates. Now, 75 games are added through the process every fortnight.
Between January and May, more new games had been put on Steam than in the entirety of 2013. That has precipitated a drop in overall quality, and Valve seems to have little interest in maintaining standards. Greenlit city-builder Towns, for instance, has been deeply troubled, sold in an undercooked state to an unsuspecting public mere months before Early Access formalised the process of paying to play incomplete games. A rash of public staff departures later, paying players are up in arms that the game they expected may never be completed, and Valve has done nothing. A Steam listing used to be a badge of honour. Now it’s a matter of course.
Early Access is even more problematic, I think, and not only for how the prevalence of in-development games made last month’s festival of discounts the most uninspiring Steam sale I can remember. A developer’s aim is no longer to make a great game that it believes will sell, but to keep the promises made to those to whom it has already been sold, and that bothers me.
I worry that Early Access will become the game industry’s equivalent of a payday loan, where studios make more money during development than after launch, so the only way of funding their next project is to do the same again. Above all, I resent the way Early Access games are just thrown in with full releases on Steam – they’re on the front page, the carousel, the charts and in sales, with no way of filtering them out.
Yet all these initiatives have been designed with noble intentions. Before Greenlight, Steam was an impossible dream for many developers. Before Early Access, they had to go begging for funding or try Kickstarter. You can see why Valve empowers its community: it makes great mods, designs fancy hats, and both highlights and funds games. This year, it has put up a $10 million prize fund for Valve’s
Dota 2 tournament, The International. But it’s not the answer to everything. Sooner or later, Valve’s going to have to stop the endless coasting along its corridors and solve some of its problems on its own.