Because a friend once pointed out to me that I always have fancy quotes in my editorials. — Nikola Katardjiev
Valve’s online platform Steam has been subjected to a great deal of criticism this past year, in particular because of two relatively recent additions to the system: Steam Greenlight and Early Access. The two systems have contributed to a wave of shovelware that has managed to get on Valve’s storefront, resulting in a wave of voices in the industry calling out for more quality control on the platform. Despite all this, a few weeks ago, Steam hit a major milestone — it surpassed 100 million registered users, with 25 million accounts being created this year alone. This dwarfs even the best-selling console of this generation, the PlayStation 4, which has ‘only’ managed to sell slightly over 10 million copies since its launch last year.
This got me wondering: how did Valve manage to reach this position in the industry?
Finding Success In Microsoft’s Failings
If there ever was a singular idea that ‘killed’ the Xbox One, it must’ve been their decision to abandon the used games market. While I’ll openly admit to being a fan of the underlying concept, I’m left with no choice but to concede that the company made
some several huge blunders in the process, allowing it to turn into the draconian DRM mess that we were presented with at E3. This led to fingers being pointed toward Steam, its usage of DRM, and its complete lack of a used games market. People began asking questions as to why PC gaming has been able to escape the brunt of the criticism.
Valve had to tackle this problem as well, and they came up with an answer: Steamworks. Intended partly as an anti-piracy measure, the system is tied directly into your Steam account, which allows developers using it to take advantage of a variety of features, ranging from multiplayer matchmaking to in-game DLC. In the eyes of developers, Steamworks was undoubtedly a more attractive variant of DRM than anything competitors had to offer. However, by including a plethora of game services that make the game better for the consumer and adding tangible end-user benefits, Valve managed to easily justify the inclusion of DRM on its platform.
The second issue arising from an all-digital market is the discarding of a used games market, and Valve had a tough job to justify that trade-off: something Microsoft failed at during its ill-fated E3 conference. After all, not everyone has the luxury of being able to buy new games at $60, and many do trade in their old games to pick up games they haven’t had the chance to play. It turns out the company had an answer for this too, albeit a bit more old-fashioned. To offset the loss of a used games market, Valve chose to employ massive seasonal sales (read: Winter Sales and Summer Sales) with price tags on even some AAA titles dropping to 90% off. It seems to me that during those periods, it’s all the internet ever talks about, and in the end, users haven’t felt the loss of trade-ins to any significant degree.
And the two decisions have seemingly paid off. With the exception of some occasional finger-pointing, Steam managed to solidify its presence as an all-digital platform, and it has managed to position itself as the king of online publishing and digital distribution. I don’t suspect I’ll raise too many eyebrows when I say that the platform’s online platform significantly outstrips that of its biggest console rivals.
An Open Platform For All
For all the tribulations of partaking in PC gaming, it certainly has its advantages. I never have to worry about whether my new rig will support my keyboard, or if it will have backwards compatibility – all my games, old and new, will still be available on my Steam account when I upgrade my computer. While console manufacturers have to make sure their newest device has an attractive lineup of games ready for launch, PC gamers can rest easy knowing that their computers will be backed by dauntingly big library of games — numbering well over 3,700 and counting.
On top of this, Valve made sure to truly embrace the concept of an open platform. While PC gaming is commonly associated with enthusiasts that sink thousands of dollars into their rigs (read: me), the low entry level and huge variety of games available on Steam ensured that even people with low-powered computers could find games their rigs could run. Indeed, it’s in no small part because of this reason that PC gaming is often not considered a direct competitor to the console market, but rather something that exists alongside it.
In September 2013, Valve made headlines again when it announced SteamOS: its very own gaming-focused operating system. Free to download, it was in fact just one out of three announcements Valve made in its bid to conquer the living room. As soon as the first few ripples made from the SteamOS announcement had settled, Valve unveiled Steam Machines: living room-focused computers intended to run SteamOS. To cap off a stream of news that caused PC gamers to go wild, the Steam Controller was revealed, in all its owl-reminiscent glory. It seemed like Valve could do no wrong.
From Behind Their Names in Lights, a Shadow’s Cast
In 2012, Valve would in an attempt to extend its lead on the PC market with the launch of the Steam Greenlight platform. A Eurogamer article, dated to three months after launch of Greenlight, discusses the platform’s early performance, and while early developer reaction had been mixed, those who managed to get their games approved spoke out favorably about the system. While it hadn’t been a roaring success, it certainly wasn’t doing Valve a disservice.
However, things were sure to change. Eventually, we all woke up to a Steam storefront flooded with shovelware and interesting or irrelevant titles making their way to the front page on a daily basis. Horror stories of games like Air Control and Guise of The Wolf were far more frequent than acceptable in the past year, and it seemed like the gems of Greenlight — games like Project Zomboid, Papers, Please, and The Stanley Parable — were drowned out in the sheer mass of shovelware and unfinished products. In Valve’s bid to have the most games, the company also ended up with the most garbage.
Its woes didn’t even end there; the company had also allowed developers to dabble in the Early Access model: a payment method that had worked out brilliantly for Notch when he was developing Minecraft. However, regardless of how good-hearted Valve’s intentions may have been, the fruits of their labors were not to be. The system was, just like Greenlight, abused and mistreated, and it seems increasingly hard to trust a game that’s selling under the label of “Early Access”.
Predictably, demands for Valve to enforce higher quality control on what appears on Steam began appearing on the internet, and rightly so. Among others, Jim Sterling published a video in which he criticizes the company for Steam’s recent shortcomings, going as far as to suggest that Steam was on par with the games industry before its big crash in the 1980s.
Despite an onslaught of criticism, Valve remained adamant that its decision was correct, and defended that in its updated Early Access FAQ:
“[It’s] up to the developer to determine when they are ready to 'release'. Some developers have a concrete deadline in mind, while others will get a better sense as the development of the game progresses. You should be aware that some teams will be unable to 'finish' their game. So you should only buy an Early Access game if you are excited about playing it in its current state.”
A Return to Form?
The argument that Steam needed better quality control was, and probably still is, very compelling. After all, here we were in a sea of games we couldn’t care less about, while the ones that managed to grab our interest sank to the bottom. However, several other big voices in the industry took a different approach than simply asking for fewer games on the platform. Valve may have washed away any responsibility of quality control in its FAQ, but, as Extra Credits points out, it’s clear that the company knows what a major problem its flooded store is causing and is adopting measures to solve it.
The solution Valve has gone for isn’t to gate off more content; it seems that it’s not prepared to give up the sheer quantity of games that Steam has accumulated over the years. Instead, the company has focused on giving users ways of sorting through its content. User reviews, integrated metascores, and tags all help to improve the search experience and make it easier for users to find the games they want to play.
More recently, Valve made a big stride forward in solving the issue of its flooded store: Steam Curators. In essence, it allows Community Groups to create pages where they can put up the Steam games they like or recommend. Judging from my Twitter feed the past few weeks, I’m more than confident in saying that the system has been positively received.
A Steam Engine in Full Force
Valve had taken the criticism of Steam to heart, and in facing its issues head on, the company illustrated a certain flexibility that has set it apart from the competition. We’ve seen countless companies collapse under their own rigid structures as they failed to adapt to a changing market — the failure of the Xbox One serving as a prime example — and yet, somehow, Gabe Newell and his crew managed to escape that fate.
It may have taken Steam some time; Valve has been updating the software since 2013, with Mac OS, Linux and mobile releases only being released in recent years. Nevertheless, it has left the company as the indisputable king of PC gaming. Valve has unleashed a Steam-powered engine on the world, and it’s not slowing down any time soon.