Rob Fearon On Videogames And Stuff

Direction

One of the themes I find I have to keep returning to in my writing of late is the direction Valve are taking Steam in. A lot of criticisms against what Steam is now awkwardly boil down to trying to hold on to a Steam that hasn’t existed for a few years, which I’ll admit I find somewhere between frustrating and interesting.

Frustrating because, like I say, this Steam hasn’t existed for a few years so it seems strange to expect things to be put back in the box. Interesting because, of course, it makes me question whether Valve are doing a good enough job of communicating where things are heading.

I get Valve’s unwillingness as it’s a constantly moving target and a lot of info is out there but as ever with Valve, piecing together anything means ducking into an AMA (Ask Me Anything, it’s a Reddit thing) here, a talk here, an interview there and a blogpost over there. It’s not difficult to piece this stuff together but it’s really quite easy to miss things. And for most people, Steam remains a place where the store itself changes but their usage is still pretty much “open it up and buy a game” or whatever. Why both Discovery updates are really important to how games get sold on there seems to have fallen down the back of the sofa somewhere.

I dunno. As ever, I don’t think you can over discuss these things and maybe a bit more of a public approach to this stuff might be worth Valve considering in time. Often Valve discuss things in developer terms or to a very specific audience, leaving other folks to fill in the gaps with their own brands of speculation which leads us to having to unpick a lot of bad ideas every time we need to discuss things like adults. Seriously, 99% of talking about anything Steam does means having to counter a whole ruck of (predominantly sourced from YouTube) nonsense about it as a platform.

I also understand how it must be kinda confusing to those who don’t keep their ear to the ground (because let’s face it most people don’t need to, never mind anything else).

It’s a thing that people like continuity in their experiences with an app, a store or whatever and Valve do their level best to make sure Steam remains vaguely familiar, changes are often incremental as well as making way for the occasional drastic change. Some tweaks come with little announcement beyond a beta note (for which you have to be opted in, anyway), others big and worth announcing. These are the ones that invariably cause the most fuss.

Whatever. Steam is and has been for a long time, evolving.

For the past five years, Valve have been working towards opening Steam up more and more. Which has meant over that time, there’s been a great deal of changes to how Steam presents games to the public. Again, some drastic, some not so much. Some successful, some not so much. It remains a constant work in progress in how it’s done but the aim is ultimately the same. Steam will be a place where a lot of games are sold. Like, a lot of games.

Because, they sort of have to. Well, OK, they don’t have to but they’ve realised the benefits and where we’re heading. There will still be a place for heavily curated stores but when the de facto place people go to buy games locks a huge number of good games out of sight and view by virtue of them not being available there, it’s a problem to continue down the curated route. Well, for the mass market at least.

To put it another way, they understand how dominant their position is and what that means for PC gaming as an ecosystem as well as knowing that more people buying games is more money in their pocket. Which is sort of a thing businesses and humans like for some unfathomable reason. I dunno, I’m waiting until I get enough to let you know how that feels. Please send me money.

At this point, maybe you’re thinking ‘well, GOG does…’ and yes, I hear you loud and clear but GOG, for most folks, will not do anywhere close to the numbers Steam does. There’s (politely) a huge drop off between First Place Store and Second Place Store in the market. Obviously, not for all titles and some will have narrow differences in sales between stores and that’s brilliant. Unfortunately for everyone else, this is an all too occasional thing.

Which all brings us back round to where we are at present. We are in times where games are in abundance. I wrote about this a few weeks back and I think it’s (hopefully) a useful primer for understanding why Valve are doing what they’re doing. We’ve gone from not many games being sold under our noses to lots of games. We’re all slowly adapting to this new normal. Even if the new normal is about ten years old by now and no-one speaks about just how much shareware existed before but shush. It sort of works.

Of course there are people who don’t appreciate this or like it. There’s plenty of folks who find the changes befuddling, plenty who find them unwanted and whilst I don’t entirely understand that, I can empathise with it. Things in games change fast but you know, it’s been five years since Valve started to kick the doors down with Greenlight – this hasn’t happened *that* fast. But then a lot of people aren’t (and have no need to be) concerned with the future of games, only what’s in front of them right now. This is fair enough.

Just, things are going to carry on changing no matter. So there is that.

Both Itch.io and Steam are building their own solutions to this thing where we now have loads of games being made and sold. Itch, whilst not having the customer base of Steam (yet?) has a slight advantage in being built from the ground up to accommodate where we are sort of roundabout now. Steam has a lot of stuff that slows the process, their backend for one thing, never mind what the public sees.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that Valve are trying to automate everything they can just because they can. As with a lot of things in games it’s true up to a point. In the case of dealing with the flood of games available now, they’ve realised – through some quite thoughtful analysis – that they knew less than they thought they did. Greenlight itself was built on the idea that Valve (or someone else) would be able to spot what would be worth putting onto Steam through some sort of magicks. What they discovered instead was that this, in itself, was a roadblock to things doing well. Because it turns out, you maybe don’t know at all what’s going to do well or resonate or bang with some people.

So they decided to step out the way.

And as they did, it turned out that more games could thrive and do thrive. They have the numbers to back this up. Unlike, you know, the internet.

The downside, of course, is that all this can be a bit needle in a haystack without some systems built to aid rummaging. Not only that but the way videogames were heading, something needed to change to ensure some level of sustainability. The ‘four years to make and have a hit out the gate model’ was maybe alright in times of scarcity but increasingly perilous as tech progressed and folks could speedily throw out really good looking, and playing, videogames.

In other words, we were kinda on a course to fucking it. Grandly. For lots of people.

Now, maybe you’re thinking I’m going to posit that Valve are somehow the saviours here but no, not really – they’re just responding to how things have changed in games. Like I say, Itch are doing the same albeit in a different manner. Console companies are still keeping a fairly tight grip on releases there but should the day come when console dev is properly available on the console someone bought from a shop, they’ll face the same challenges.

I suspect that’s only going to be a few years, at most, before they find themselves with similar quandaries as Valve do anyway if they’re aiming for longer generation platforms this time. Games aren’t going to stop being made, you know, providing we all see 2017 out alive anyway.

But anyway, I digress.

My larger point is that Steam is heading in the direction of opening itself up, removing large portions of human intervention not to avoid hiring people (they have people working there!) but because those people may stop a game finding its audience. And to top it off, because in another few years asking a human to process every single title that makes it onto Steam will be an incredibly complex and time-consuming task.

It’s already complex but Valve do check titles and store pages fairly diligently where they can. I know folks who’ve had their work bounced back and asked to change store page content around, pulled on things in their games and all manner of stuff. It’s only been a few months since they laid down new guidelines for developers to adhere to when it comes to writing their store page and displaying screenshots – these things are checked.

There’s wrinkles though. The same things that make Steam such a wonderful platform for a lot of developers are the same things that can bite them in the proverbial backside. At any point, a developer can update their game. The update process, for a developer, is effective but arcane and to be honest, I’m surprised more developers don’t make a hash of it. Except plenty do, just they’re also knowledgable enough to know to check themselves and quickly push out another update to fix the stuff that they missed from the last one. This is a lesson a lot of new or less thoughtful developers learn the hard way. Essentially, it’s dead easy to fuck up an update, right? And you can update right up until the store actually goes live and after that too.

‘Ahar!’, you might think. ‘Surely Valve can just put a freeze on updates until launch and that would ensure…’, you might continue and I’d have to stop you there because it wouldn’t solve the problem as much as just delay it a bit until later. And maybe you’re like ‘but they could get someone to check updates’ and bang, no, you’ve got the hellscape that is an approval process then and if you’ve ever wondered why fixing anything on iOS seems to happen slowly at times – there you go. If folks want devs to have the ability to speedily patch work, this is the compromise we have. Some devs will make a fuck of it. Because life is like that.

The other, often discussed, side effect is that a lot of things folks aren’t interested in makes its way onto Steam and yes, the quality is quite variable. It has been since around 2009 or whenever Valve first started pushing their doors open properly just folks seem willing to ignore the existence of a lot of games that didn’t find their millions on Steam.

Valve’s technique is to build a system that sinks them. Not entirely, not forever, just on a personalised basis. It’s got some way to go but the sales figures of these games, the amount of eyeballs on them – that most people won’t see them unless someone shouts about them, well. It’s kinda working.

Not that you’d know it from the internet, or course. But really, it mainly is.

Unfortunately, videogames is slow to acknowledge these changes. There are developers who still believe (and in some cases, bank on) launch week being the be all and end all, the key to success. There are developers who still believe that we can have 2009 again and Valve should enable those conditions. Meanwhile, the processes Valve put into place are to encourage longer term success. Updates, communication, development as a responsive and timely thing. It’s working for a lot of people.

It’s not working for a lot of people.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to sort that out, both discovery updates are working towards the goal of getting the right game to the right person, lifting more titles up and into view – of ensuring that launch week is not The Week too. And yes, this does mean de-emphasising the new release list because for the majority of Steam users, it will be just noise now. We saw this in real-time for all too long when an influx of publisher back catalogue titles started to be added to Steam and New Releases became borderline useless without a lot more effort than folks often like to expend.

So that’s where we are right now and vaguely where we’re heading. We’re in a sort of messy transitional stage in an industry that rarely manages to sit still at the best of times. Understanding what Valve are doing also takes a bit of understanding where we are and where we’re headed but the basic jist of it all is that the good games are going to keep on coming and whilst Valve and Itch are preparing for it, there’s a lot of us in games it’s going to creep up on.

Things are shifting at a fairly fundamental level and how we keep up with this will help decide just how healthy an ecosystem we want. And in so many ways, it’s out with the old and in with the new. We just have to figure out what that new is now, y’know?

I’m not sure we’ve got as much time as we think.