I think it’s time we admit that Steam’s grand experiment in a conscientious laissez-faire games marketplace has failed.
Not that it’s failed monetarily (by all reports it accounts for the vast majority of Valve’s revenue stream) but as a marketplace that purports to be a discovery vector for new indie games as well as an approachable location to seek out games as a player. Steam has become a frustrating maze of content, not at all helped by the lack of curation of titles.
A lot of the problems with Steam can be traced back to Valve’s management style, which is infamously secretive and prone to transferring the labor of curation from Valve in-house to the “Steam community,” a term that has become harder and harder to define as Steam grows as a service.
There are pros and cons to the Steam model. Clearly, Valve has yet to settle on what they believe to be the optimal method for developers to put games on the service. Before the current “$100 fee and you’re listed” Steam Direct model there was Greenlight, and before Greenlight it was a process of familiarizing yourself with a representative from Valve enough to get your studio’s games listed.
A more hands-on approach made sense for a smaller, more contained platform. But as the platform grew, it increasingly turned over curation and moderation to the users. With the launch of Greenlight in 2012, the final barrier between Steam consumers and prospective Steam developers seemed to be dropping—it was up to the users to decide what would appear on the storefront.
But the thing about turning over the keys to the crowd is that their whims—good and bad—will inevitably influence the power that they wield.
Greenlight was shut down in 2017, replaced by Steam Direct, a newer model of studio-platform integration where studios or individuals can pay a small fee in order to list their game on the Steam marketplace. After submitting a title and the required paperwork, the game goes through a 30-day verification process in which the game will be checked to make sure it is “configured correctly, matches the description provided on the store page, and doesn’t contain malicious content,” as detailed by Eurogamer.
It’s that last line that sticks out to me. It’s probably meant to refer to viruses or, more specifically, dangerous content that could harm a user’s computer, and not the content contained within the game ideologically, but it makes me wonder what Valve would consider “over the line” when it comes to inappropriate content for the platform. In the past, games have been pulled from Steam for sexual content, but rarely anything other than that.
American popular values often place sex as more offensive than violence or hate speech. It’s not that hard to look at the history of the MPAA rating system for films and not see a bias similar to that which Steam has on its marketplace—unsurprisingly, the moderation culture of Steam mimics the culture that it was developed in.
Last week I wrote about the ways that Blizzard is failing its professional community by not making clear its standards for how professional esports players should behave. Valve does have a public post detailing the Rules and Guidelines for community on Steam, available here, but, as others have noted, this appears to have done little to curb the rash of hate group activity on the platform.
A grand problem with Steam lies precisely in the fact that it is massively profitable and therefore implicitly justifies any abhorrent activity on the platform. I have no doubt in my mind that to Valve, the profit gained by Steam as a platform signals on some level that the platform itself is stable and not in need of further moderation. Thus, we get further handing-off of reporting and curation duties (formerly costly, in-house structures that required additional staff) to the community, because to Valve the system is exceeding expectations in income to the company.
Here’s the thing: If Steam wants to be a fully laissez-faire, unregulated market, then it’s failing at that—the sale mechanisms and fee structures for new developers mean that it’s already gatekeeping the market entrance of smaller developers. If Steam is trying to be a regulated, more family-friendly market (in whatever way that is defined), it’s also failing at that—due to the preponderance of hate activity easily found on the platform. And, of course, if it’s trying to do both of these things—which to most understandings it is—it is failing at that.
The only place it’s not failing is in making Valve money. Unfortunately, that money comes at the cost of a safe platform and a hostile environment for newcomers—not exactly the games wonderland it purports to be. If Valve wants Steam to be a place where the quality of titles and of the community is a selling point, they’re going to have to grit their teeth and get hands-on.
Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.