There was a time when Valve could do no wrong. Champions of PC gaming, undeniably pivotal in the current huge success of the gaming platform, and releasing stunning game after stunning game. When they spoke, the industry listened, and reported with a well-earned reverence. Those times, it’s safe to say, are long gone. Apart from past glories, Valve is now primarily known for Dota 2 and Steam (but for an industry-ignored VR hat), the latter being a monopoly-controlling online store that’s becoming increasingly nonfunctional and dysfunctional, and which they apparently have no coherent idea how to control. And yet so much that’s so wrong with Steam is so easily fixed: it just requires people actually doing something.
The biggest issue with Steam, beyond very many issues with its chaotic interface, even beyond the farcical “Recommended” lists that promote already popular games further burying smaller unknown titles, is the volume of games being released every day. Or, more specifically, how their arrival on Steam is handled.
There are on average 20 to 30 releases a day at this point, and developers are increasingly finding it extremely difficult to have their game see any meaningful front-page presence. I’ve been told by many independent creators that their game can see as little as a single hour on the opening screen of the online shop, before disappearing forever into the mire. Valve’s algorithms appear designed to only push those games that saw/fluked/PRd immediate sales on release, and then keeps pushing them for months or years after.
Of those released games, I’d estimate (and I stress this is my own anecdotal estimation) about half aren’t in a fit state to be on sale. I know this because I play so many of them. I scour through the utterly useless and hidden All New Releases list, adding anything that catches my eye across multiple genres, and then work through them whenever I can trying to find unknown gems to highlight on RPS. And wow, there’s so much broken rubbish. This morning in half an hour I got through three interesting-looking games that didn’t have functioning controls. Many times I’ll find that games don’t even launch. And this is it: Steam as a store is so bad, so lacking in visible curation of any sort, that there are games released for it almost every day that don’t even load.
Valve’s solution for this terrible mess has so far been to add a Refund button. This, like the increased reliance on the cruel and arbitrary madness of user reviews, the addition of Steam Curators, and the now-abandoned badly conceived idea that was Greenlight, diverts responsibility away from themselves and onto the customers. And it should end.
The user reviews should be, in theory, a means of communicating how a game has been received by customers so far. We all know this is a flawed system, we all know how it can be abused, and yet we all rely on it when deciding which of several choices to make when shopping on Amazon. But Steam’s is a degree more egregious, despite being so ludicrously easily fixed. At the moment, one single bad faith review sees a game labeled as “Negative”, with an orange thumbs-down logo next to it in the only listing it receives on the store.
Let’s repeat that. A game that a development team may have spent years working on gets barely a front page mention, then in the only hidden, buried location you’re reasonably likely to find it, it’s labelled before you’ve even clicked on it with a big warning sign that it’s bad, possibly because one person didn’t like one aspect for silly or dubious reasons. Click through and you’re likely to read, “I’ve not actually played this but…” A game can be trashed by reviews before it has even been released, leaving a permanent mark on its record.
Most people seem to assume that there’s a barrier before such labelling, that a game would need to get at least 50 or something reviews before the ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ showed up on its listing. But no, Valve haven’t done that. Let alone any noticeable active monitoring of reviews to see if yet another game has been on the receiving end of a bad-faith attack from an online mob. The system is skewed to support malfeasance when even something as simple as a minimum review count could address the problem in part.
This is, of course, crap for developers, but it’s also crap for players. Great games, fascinating games, delightful obscurities or inspired stalwarts don’t find the audience that wants to play them. And so far Valve’s response has been to iterate and tweak its still useless “Featured & Recommended” window.
There’s a term used in criticism to mock the worst of writing in reviews, ones that boil down to, “If you like this sort of thing, you’ll like this sort of thing.” This is seemingly as deep as it gets for Steam’s attempts to present its users with potentially interesting games. “You once played H1Z1 to see what the fuss was about. You now must want to play every other early access multiplayer shooter to the exclusion of all else.” You bought a game with this tag, here are ten other games with this tag.
So what is Valve’s response? Get rid of Greenlight, remove the only broken vestige of curation the store had left, and replace it with, er, nothing. A system is being removed, but there’s no clear sense of what will replace it, if anything. Valve report they want to use a fee for every game released on the store, but even on announcement they haven’t figured out what it should be. Numbers as disparate as $100 to $5000 are mentioned as if the two are either side of a coin toss, with no apparent notion that such barriers are no obstacle to perennial exploiters of the store, and will only give greater access to those who want to abuse Steam, and greater exclusion to those who will struggle to make back the fee thanks to the atrocious lack of exposure they’ll receive for their money.
This is, in effect, charging money to be sold in a shop that then won’t put the product on their shelves. “Oh, yeah, your games are in this cardboard box under the counter. No one seems to want to buy them though.”
And the solution, if I’m so clever? Humans. Human beings. Actual people.
If I can get through three games in half an hour, and discover that none of them should be on sale, at the same time as doing my bloody job, Valve can employ people to play the games that come out on Steam to at least check they load. I’m not talking about selecting games based on whether Valve thinks they’re good or not – god knows if I’ve learned anything in twenty years on this job it’s that people are desperate to pay money for terrible games – I’m talking about the most basic level of quality control. Does the game launch? Do the controls actually work? Does it crash after 30 seconds? Is it what it says it is in its own store description? Are the screenshots representative of what you actually see? The simplest things determined in just a few minutes.
It’s a task that could be completed by a team of ten. Game is submitted to the store. Human plays game, finds it doesn’t work. Human emails developer and says, “This game doesn’t work, fix and resubmit.” Done. Even here, developers could benefit as well as people buying from the store. In some cases, they might avoid that first flurry of negative reviews, sparked by poor first impressions. Curation might not be the the greatest job in the world, but it isn’t carrying rebar or cleaning prison toilets. Hell, it’s a way into Valve. (And no, I have no time for the nonsense about no job titles – even if it were true, they damn well need some.) They currently have a submission process, where in theory before games are released games are checked, but while we’ve heard from developers who have found this a useful process, I know from the crap I churn through that it’s a process that absolutely isn’t working. And there’s no sign that checks are occurring after release.
Every solution they mention is always outward focused, about getting the community to “crowdsource” the fix, about shifting the responsibility further away from them in the guise of “opening it up to the users” or whatever ridiculous phrasing might be used. This isn’t a beautiful democracy, this is one of the richest corporations in the industry outsourcing their responsibilities to their customers. We don’t know why it is this way, whether it’s due to errant policy or dysfunction, but so far there doesn’t appear to be any plan to change that aspect of the store.
Steam needs curation, and yes, guess what, that will be boring work. But at this point, boring work is the only thing that will fix the problems.