There’s a lot of heated discussion over Valve’s updated Steam Content Policy statement.
I understand that there’s arguments on both sides that make sense. It’s not contradictory to say the following things; (1) Freedom of Expression is important and should be enshrined on the largest games platform on the PC and (2) Valve should have better standards for what releases on its platform. Gamers may value freedom of expression – we may want to hold up different games as examples of people being allowed to make the very thing they want. But we should also value some basic standards of quality – the absolute deluge of tat that swamps Steam these days is not the sign of a healthy platform, and it’s turning people off using it. We don’t want censorship; we just want games to work.
(As an aside, again, if critics of games like Active Shooter or AIDS Simulator want to have an argument that holds up, don’t attack the theme or the provocation; attack the games quality. These are rubbish games made from pre-bought assets done very quickly to turn a few bucks in profit with no regard for stability or quality. Like Hatred or DOA Extreme 3, make sure the game is worth getting angry over before getting your undergarments all twisty.)
But there’s a point people keep missing here; Valve had no choice but to effectively abandon most of the rules it had.
This kicked off with Eroge Games being threatened with removal because of patches that could “uncensor” the games in question. Not my sort of genre by any stretch, but to take issue with pornographic content like Eroge Games was a bit rich – Far Cry 3 was re-released recently, and that has an actual sex scene with a full-frontal face-full of massive African American boobage (and quite nice they are too… ahem…). Japanese RPG’s have some weird stuff too, with Dark Souls having some very exposed breasts and nipples… yes, they’re usually attached to hideous chaos monsters with the bottom half of things in the animalia genus but the point is the top halves are sexy women with boobs. And if you want to talk about gratuitous nudity and sex, well, The Witcher series rolls into town to flip the bird at everyone. No-one is that shy of getting butt-ass naked in that series.
Point is – enforcing the rules retroactively could and would have made some very powerful enemies. Particularly CD Projekt, they of The Witcher series. GOG.com is their baby; and it’s often talked about with deft reverence too. If CD Projekt were to leave Steam entirely… well… GOG.com suddenly becomes very powerful with a series that could shift the platform and an upcoming game in Cyperpunk 2077 that could be a pretty major cornerstone to get people using it.
You know. How Valve leveraged Half Life 2 to establish Steam in the first place.
After years of letting people bend and twist the rules, the actual value of said rules was… well… kind of done. Indie developers (and particularly they of the Eroge genre) were dancing on eggshells when larger developers with bigger marketshare were using that very same Content Policy as glorified toilet paper. The balance was obviously beyond broken at this point; the only real differential was are you a big, established entity that might cause Valve a headache if they pissed you off?
Turns out – Eroge Games are pretty popular, and that backlash took Valve by surprise. Whoops!
Steam exists in a very dangerous place; it’s a massive storefront now, unquestionably with a monopoly on the PC Gaming sphere. But it’s never been less popular than it is now; once people sang about Lord Gaben, with memes about the Steam Sales flooding the Internet and jubilant celebrations. Now people are just done with it all, the novelty has worn off and Valve has presided over a period where it’s more than quadrupled its library of content in two years or so. And a lot of it is bad; cheap knock-offs or asset flips that are designed to make a few bucks as fast as possible and little more, with “developers” with the PR Ability of an angry swarm of giant mutant hornets. Being on Steam once meant you’d made it; now being on Steam is meaningless because everything is on Steam.
Valve is terrified that at some point, another store will start to chip away at Steam and that’s partly why they’re so terrified of how things got to this point; UbiSoft has its own store, CD Projekt has its own store, Dark Souls… is big enough now that it could sell on any platform. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer still, is the moral here; as long as there is money to be made, Valve can stymie these other storefronts a little by being the primary front-end, knowing that no-one will really fight back because Steam is just too big and too entrenched to struggle against.
However, this too shall pass. For example, numerous indie developers have made it very well known that they’re making a much larger profit – and seeing much higher sales – of their games on the Nintendo Switch, sometimes by massive margins too. This has happened enough that you can say there’s a solid precedent; there’s a place hungry for indie content and throwing money around with reckless abandon, and it’s powered by nVidia hardware and supports most major engines so you don’t have to go out of your way or anything to be there. This must have been wounding for Valve; it has hundreds of millions of users, compared to the Switch’s 20 million at this point. Valve should be massive, it should be able to achieve a profit for literally anything, and it’s being outperformed in this area by bloody Nintendo of all companies. Not Sony, not Microsoft… Nintendo.
And now smaller sites are making small dents here and there, with developers it would seem starting to take a glance outside of the walled garden of Steam and look around and see if there are any other Eden’s that haven’t been despoiled by overcrowding. It’s the same problem that afflicts Twitter and Facebook; having everyone is nice in theory, but bringing disparate groups together into the same space will always cause arguments. You get bigger, but the arguments get louder and easier to see and before you know it everyone is screaming at each other and fighting. Sometimes keeping these people apart is… well… just a sensible idea.
Valve’s problem isn’t its content policy – there are plenty of solid cases for and against allowing everything that isn’t illegal or straight-up trolling. People forget that there’s a middle ground in there somewhere, if they could be bothered to find it.
It’s that Steam has become too big, too bloated, too much too fast. And unlike console generations where the slate can be wiped down every few years so companies can start again (which is why the Switch has been such a hit), Steam has been there for fourteen years now. As a comparison, Microsoft’s Game Zone existed for eight years before Valve began to supplant it (and it did so because Microsoft was more enamoured with the XBox and console gaming in the 2000’s). Hell, for all the complaints, it’s not as if there was any anger at Game Zone being “large”; the only complaints I recall were from people cross that Microsoft was chasing the “console peasants”.
The only way for Valve to stave off competition now is to consume even more content; and that has meant abandoning any standards it may have had, no matter how gross or inedible the material may be, one of Steam’s remaining virtues is one of size. The intention is logical; who’ll really fight the monolithic monopoly at that point? But admittedly, as many have pointed out, just because the appetite is out of control… you can’t and shouldn’t just eat everything in your way. There is a point where things might still end up killing you somehow, or you just die from exploding, or in this case getting so large that Steam becomes impossible to use through lag or increased download times.
Can Steam change? Of course it can. But Valve’s statement shows no intention for that. It will continue to just guzzle down everything that comes near it, the store will be even more sizeable and the onus for curation and filtering will be put on the users, despite the fact that the algorithms have to date been pretty terrible. Steam requires (or should require) a little human oversight; but it is more cost-effective to use AI subroutines to do the job instead. After all, what else is Gaben going to stuff his pillows with if they have to spend a few extra bucks a year?
Some people might find that worth getting angry over. But it just makes me sad. It’ll be a sad day if and when Steam finally keels over. A once venerated company reduced to a glorified App Store; with mounting costs and a hunger for profit overriding the common-sense ideas that perhaps should have remained in place.
Oh, and Nintendo? Yeah. Take a look. Drink it in. This is the future of the eShop if you don’t start establishing some ground rules and standards.
You’ve been warned.