Ten years ago, you’d struggle to find fifteen retail PC games released in any given month – and fourteen of them would launch with bugs, never be patched, and sink without trace. Compare and contrast with today, where Brewsters’ Millions could be spent in the time it took to load the Steam store. The existence of Steam isn’t entirely the cause for our videogame abundance, but it’s certainly a large factor – along with an influence, for good and ill, on almost every other part of PC games culture.
But what if it had never existed? You be Jimmy Stewart-playing-Gabe Newell and I’ll be Clarence, your guardian angel and guide to this alternate reality.
The Steam service grew from Valve’s desire to enable easier online play and more immediately distribute patches and custom maps to players, but suppose they never accomplished that or clung to a third-party service instead, and never even had the idea of an online store. The changes are immediate, rippling across our timeline like Marty McFly vanishing from a photo.
Half-Life 2 still happens, but Episodes 1 and 2 arrive as a single boxed expansion. Team Fortress 2 still happens, but with the prospect of sharing the profits with another outlet, there are no microtransactions and no frequent patches. The Orange Box never happens at all and Portal is a download-only game that requires Half-Life 2 to run. Ricochet and Deathmatch Classic never happen at all. Without the infrastructure of Steam, Valve never get involved with Dota 2 – and Blizzard eventually do, albeit years later.
Conversely, without Steam, Valve are dependent on their creative output for a revenue stream. Unable to explore hardware and other whims, they instead make more games. Half-Life 3 comes out in 2010 to great acclaim – but it’s published by EA.
Meanwhile, other companies continue to pursue the ideas Valve have now abandoned. Microsoft still launch Games for Windows Live and without the competition, more developers sign up to use its online functions and online store. Users still hate it and more people buy consoles instead of struggling with it.
GOG, Stardock and others launch online stores, fighting for a market that’s smaller overall but still growing. More companies get involved, jockeying for position. Epic launch an online store, and so do Nvidia. Ubisoft and EA still launch Uplay and Origin, but Bethesda launch the Bethestore, Activision release Actiplay and Paradox Plaza is an actual thing people use. The market is split and most gamers have half a dozen different online stores and patching utilities installed on their computer. It’s frustrating for everyone involved.
Without a centralised place to buy games and with a reduced market, indie gaming never takes off in the same way. Games like Braid and Super Meat Boy come to PC but make less money than they did on XBox. The number of games released increases over the heyday of brick and mortar stores, but there is no Early Access, less diversity, and a number of genres remain all but defunct. Kickstarter funds the creation of more games, but developers still mostly sign with publishers to reach an audience. Without a way to sell their back catalogue, Introversion go bankrupt from Subversion and never release Prison Architect. Chris Delay Kickstarts an Uplink boardgame. Kerbal Space Program never happens. Goat Simulator never happens. DayZ never happens. Bohemia sign a publishing deal with THQ and go under when Arma 2 is released. Unity and Game Maker exist but most people don’t care. Minecraft is still the biggest game in the world.
The increased competition meanwhile means that the online stores need to do more to win over their customers. Sales are still omnipresent; offline modes are always functional; DRM is marginally worse when present but stores thrive solely on the promise of not having any. It’s not so bad, though Games for Windows Live is still shit.
Then Amazon launch a digital distribution game store, recognising the opportunity to consolidate and dominate a split market through their existing scale, much as they have for books with Kindle and are attempting to do with Lovefilm. They undercut the prices of all their competitors and exploit existing relationships with publishers to sell games from many other companies. Gamers, already used to the site and appreciating the advantage of only needing to install a single piece of software, flock to the system.
Amazon use their control to squeeze the big publishers. EA and Ubisoft still eventually pull their games from the system, to retain more revenue for themselves. THQ still close down. Indie developers are able to self-publish through Amazon much like self-published novelists can, but the market isn’t large enough and the service doesn’t do a good enough job of surfacing games from small creators. The inde resurgence still doesn’t happen, and more money continues to be made on console. Amazon launch their own game developmennt teams, but this time don’t hire Clint Hocking and Kim Swift – both are still at Valve, leading their own development teams working on Half-Life 4 and Portal 3 respectively.
There are still a lot of really good free games distributed online. Twine is still a great thing. A few more developers transition to commercial releases by selling games through their own website, which is a more accepted practice given the longstanding decentralisation of game sales. On the other hand, a lot more indie developers move to mobile game development due to the accessibility of the Apple app store. There are, on all platforms, a lot more games with microtransactions and free-to-play energy mechanics. Eventually HTML5 becomes a viable platform on PC, so small creators can release games without requiring a download service at all.
Recognising a shared desire for an independent games market, Mojang buy Paradox and develop the latter’s online store further. They welcome games from small independent creators and offer favourable revenue shares to everyone. The popularity of Minecraft drives people to the service and kids especially get into the habit of buying cheap, quirky games through the service. The indie game resurgence finally happens.
Everything is still sorta fine, but smaller and slower and messier. Except that Fred Wester – who remains with Mojang Paradox to allow Notch to own the company while being less publicly visible – instead comes to achieve Gabe Newell’s current place as the industry’s kindly internet uncle.
Which is maybe the point at which a bell rings, an angel gets his wings, and Gabe Newell goes running off through the snowy streets. Hello Savings & Loan! Hello Greenlight and Early Access! Hello Steamworks and Workshop and Curators!
This article was first published as part of, and thanks to, The RPS Supporter Program.