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.
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.
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 void. They 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.
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.
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?”
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!