Big Pic­ture Mode

In­dus­try is­sues given the widescreen treat­ment

EDGE - - SECTIONS - NATHAN BROWN Nathan Brown is Edge’s games edi­tor, and is of­fer­ing Early Ac­cess to next month’s col­umn for the low price of £3.99

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.

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