Editorials, Opinions, Video-Games

What Valve’s Refusal To Curate Means For Indie Games

The year is 2018. Valve have stated they will intervene even less than they did previously in what will be sold via Steam. Everything will be allowed “except for things that we [Valve] decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.” A nice, vague line in the sand that will no doubt be redrawn whenever it is convenient. By conflating hate speech with taking offence at said hate speech, Valve has created a war within the comment section of its announcement.

This year will likely see over 10,000 games released on Steam. The content is coming, and we are powerless to stop it. We must go back.

A tsunami of games crashes down upon the Statue of Liberty

With apologies to political cartoonists/professional newspaper memers everywhere

The year is 1983…

North American video game revenues have just crashed by 97% of their peak because everyone hates E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Retailers don’t want the games and neither do the customers. Bargain Bins turn into literal landfills; no one, neither AAA producer or quick cash-grab developer, can make money by creating games. Consumers will understandably not wade through muck to find a good game for fear of wasting their money on yet another re-skinned sports game.

The dust settles on the home plate of a baseball field. Someone scored a homerun. Children have long since forgotten what it’s like to sit in dark rooms pressing buttons. The sun rises in the east, and above the noise of a cheering crowd it is there: The Nintendo Seal of Approval. The children put down their tools and ask their parents for the cool new toy from Japan. Sure there’s still a few cash grabs here and there, but that shining seal stands out on a shelf. It says quality, it says value, it says the age of gatekeeping is upon us.

A huge trash pile political cartoon that has been edited to say "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial"

Does this count as wit? I’m pretty sure if I could draw I could be a political cartoonist

The next 20 years or so pass largely without incident. In order to express yourself, you must get a degree and join an established studio with connections to a platform holder. “Gamer culture” has carved itself a spot, whatever that means; every title is a first person shooter with a sci-fi aesthetic and a grizzled male protagonist. A new light dawns on the horizon. A lone developer throws down their tools and says “no more.” From this day forth it is the age of the indie. We jump too far forward.

The year is 2025…

Gamers loathe independent games. Steam has continued on its upwards trend and has just reached its billionth game. Fifty percent of these are the same Unity tutorial of a ball rolling around on a flat plane, collecting rotating spheres. A few claim the title of “Early Access”, but in reality they will stay there for eternity. It doesn’t matter, no one can see them anyway!

Ever since Steam introduced the ability to mute certain tags, the majority immediately removed “indie” from their feed. It did away with the shovelware, the asset flips, the achievement farms; why wouldn’t people select the option? All these lone developers identified themselves as indie, and so it became known as a term for lack of quality.

Teams who had spent years working on a project, polishing and presenting their unique idea were swept along with them. At the mercy of what the consumers thought their games should be tagged as, no one could remove themselves from the silence of the voidThey begged not to be branded as “indie”, but Valve simply replied “there is a mismatch between how you perceive your game, and how your game is perceived by customers.”

Steam is now only useful for echo-chamber silos of niche recommendations. There is an entire community of people who subscribe only to tutorial games, repeatedly going through the process of buying, giving a poor review, and then refunding. It is hard to tell if they are real people or a group of rogue AIs. The anime-only and anime-offends-me clans routinely review bomb each other in an attempt to claim dominance.

Two monsters, of the two anime clans, point at each other, each declaring the other to be a monster

This is just that Spiderman pointing meme but classier somehow

Valve refuses to intervene, simply accepting their fee for each game that passes “Go”. The free market is good, the free market is great. People stop making video games because they’re offended by their own creations. No one is paying for games anyway. We must go back.

The year is 2007…

Steve Jobs stands on stage at the Macworld conference. To rapturous applause he candidly states, “Today, Apple is going to reinvent the phone.” A few developers quickly realise the new possibility space that is presented to them. A year later, with the release of the App Store, puzzles games that have existed for hundreds of years are updated to fit in the palm of your hand. Physics games and endless runners all enter the closed marketplace, happily handing over a percentage of their revenue to Apple for a shot at the big time.

Meanwhile, Steam has just hit a milestone. Over 100 games were released on the platform this year! Champagne is no doubt served amongst the team, celebrating the growth of the storefront. Valve currently manually approves every game, but worries what the future holds. There are some questionable titles coming through, but three solid in-house titles and a few standout titles from other AAA developers brush the worries aside. Then the indies arrive, and oh what colour they add to the storefront amongst the grey games.

People toast to a celebration

There wasn’t even a joke in this one, I’m doing my best here

By creating “platforms” rather than stores, these companies guarantee that everyone will have to play by their rules, arbitrary and obscure as they might be. Developers learn to appease the gods and pray to be featured on the front page as a means of guaranteeing success. New gods try to enter the market and compete, but it’s no use, the monopolies are forged and stand strong. It will be years before they falter. We return home.

The year is 2018…

An indie developer examines the fruits of their labour. This beautiful personal thing that they have spent months and months working on is nearing completion. It’s almost time to let it leave the nest. The simple option, as hundreds have done this year already, would be to push it onto Steam and hope it learns to fly as it hurtles through the air. But there is an alternative.

There are few alternatives in fact. More than ever being a developer requires building a community and engaging with them throughout the process, and then making the game available via as many means as possible. Put it on itch.io and let people tip a little extra. Flog it on GOG. Sell it directly from your own website. Let people pay a subscription via Jump. It is not, and never has been, Steam’s job to make your game specifically a success. Hedge your bets, don’t just put it all on the favourite.

If all of this sounds like boring busy work to you, the aloof creative, then try to partner with a publisher. We actually have a guide for that. Strike a deal that lets them take care of the marketing, community, and sales. If it’s more of a personal project or a prototype, ask yourself, “does this need to be in a shop?”

A very redrawn political comic about the 1%

This was just a travesty of an analogy. Does nobody know how stairs work? You can come back the other way. I have chosen to reimagine this as the lucky 1% sharing their wealth (of knowledge) with those less fortunate.

Making a game is hard. Making money from a game is even harder. Recognise that the success stories told by the indie darlings who made it big are the voices of a few amongst many thousands you will never hear. Survivor bias will make you vastly overestimate how well something will sell and – like anything – you need to do your research in order to succeed. Take a good look at those lucky creators, you’ll notice that most of them are very shrewd business people and made their own luck.

Back to the Future…

Valve expects that “the Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate, and don’t think should exist” but, for many, that “something” may rapidly turn into the store itself. Abdication of responsibility does not free oneself from the consequences of inaction. Valve isn’t neutral by stating all things as equal, it’s amoral. Do you as a developer want to see your game listed alongside an asset-flip high school shooter simulator?

Fight for curation and representation, because if you’re making something that matters then it is to your benefit. Support interesting creators and be honest with yourself about the commercial prospects of every project. I cannot stress enough how much I don’t want to see the ridiculous, monolithic, anime-tiddy-fight future of 2025!

4 Comments

  1. I regularly worry what kind of future I’m putting my game, Renaine, into. I’ve done a lot to grow this game organically, get a fan base going, but I just know that despite two years of work, ultimately some people will inevitably dismiss it as a pixel game, which automatically means indie, which (now) means low quality. There were days when the only pixel games were games like Shovel Knight and Noitu Love Devolution, there was no stigma, because the people who released knew what they were doing.

    I have and always will argue for a return to “Flash Portal Mentality.” Back in the day, there was a clear separation between amateur and actual professional. If your game wasn’t Aquaria, if it wasn’t Alien Hominid, if it wasn’t Super Meat Boy, Braid, Castle Crashers, etc.* it had no business being sold.* Period. There were some really impressive games back then like Thing Thing and The Last Stand but these devs knew that their games weren’t big and/or complete enough to be *sold.* The idea of asking people for direct money was serious – you had to really be on that level, that massive “work for several years to get here” level. If you weren’t, you didn’t sell. Ever. That attitude was so strong that even games that should’ve been sold like La Mulana or Cave Story weren’t until they were revamped.

    Now game devs who just picked up an engine, or just game out of a Game Design Degree, or just did who knows what but are effectively making their first real game are immediately thinking they need to post it on Steam and start asking people for money. The idea of asking people for money has become the default, the assumption that your game is worthy is the default, there is no longer a high bar to clear when your mentality can easily be “oh well if this asset flip crap is on the store, then my crap should be there too.”

    Indies are in a downward spiral because it’s in this weird new eternal amateur hour, being priced in the exact same race to the bottom way that caused the original game crash (the “I can get 5 games for $15 or 1 game” value dilemma.) There *needs* to start being a lower limit or else people will just retreat back to AAA like PUBG (currently the leading cause of Steam growth, and many of those new accounts are only buying that game, hence the average games per user going down) or Fortnite and *stay* there.

  2. Jonstone

    Valve could mostly fix this overnight by increasing the Steam Direct fee to $500.

    Heck, their original price range for it was $100 – $5000. They should just admit that the $100 price point is too low.

    • Alessandro Cossidente

      Yeah but that would be seen as interfering, which is pretty much what Valve doesn’t want to do. It’d also ruin their image, as someone might think “look at them, they’re trying to grab as much money as they can!”

  3. Great read 🙂

    However, Steam is just a store. Whether it is a clean, inviting store or not, its up to them, and whether we sell our game there or not, is up to us. And it is also up to us to market our product, and inform our players where it is available. We have a lot more options than Steam, but like any popular store, Steam’s promise is a community that’s bigger than we think we can reach ourselves, and it is also more convenient compared to making the game available on our own.

    As a hobby indie game dev, I put my game on Steam because of lack of time and out of convenience. I wanted an easy way for people to access my project if they want to. Steam is not the easiest but let’s say it is the tool of choice for the small audience I aimed to reach in the first place. My game does not sell, and that’s entirely because of me and the slowness of my progress.

    I think in 2025, we will experience a mature market where people be much more knowledgeable on how to search, filter, sort and curate their content. As creators, we can be more proactive and forthcoming with the way we present our games. I hope we will have a lot more convenient stores available for all sort of games, and I also hope we will mature as developers enough to understand whether or not its worth the effort to build your own little shop. Some of us already do this, like Cliffski or Spiderweb Software. This maturity will also drive the improvement of popular stores like Steam – if they will be bleeding content, they won’t survive, so they will be forced to make greater efforts to invite good games on their shelves.

    So lets just make good games 🙂 For ourselves and for everyone 🙂

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