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Editorial: Is Steam Hurting Its Own Brand?

Steam Greenlight indie Early Access

It might be hard to recall, but there was a time when a program by the name of Steam was detested by gamers. Alongside Valve’s release of Half-Life 2 was a new requirement that players needed Steam in order to access the title. However, the software barely had any functionality at all and was prone to crashing. This was in 2004. Today, invoking Steam’s name results in a very different opinion.

Many gamers flock to Steam as their number one choice for purchasing digital PC games. In fact, there are many out there who go so far as to state they won’t buy a game until it has come to Steam. Yes, you can add your own game files to the program and launch through it, but that isn’t the same. There’s something to actually owning a game on Steam and increasing that collection amount. Of course, then there’s the much-loved Steam holiday sales which through copious deals around day after day, some of which price games at incredible discounts.

Valve has had a very good last few years thanks to Steam. But it seems like it might soon begin to fall out of favor with its massive user base. A handful of policy changes have been rolling out over the past few years which are now becoming a large portion of the store. These include the Steam Greenlight and Early Access initiatives. Both seek to allow more titles onto the service without having to go through Valve’s slower and one at a time approach of the past.

But shouldn’t more games being made available be purely positive? Yes, it is exciting that any game has the chance at Greenlight success. However, there are many issues with the program (that Valve itself acknowledges). As long as Greenlight stays as is, however, these issues will remain as sticking points. One of the biggest issues is the fact that it ends up being a popularity contest. Games that best know how to market themselves, have an existing fanbase, are able to bribe users, or happen to be from a popular genre (horror) always take the lead.

Well, the point of Greenlight is to let the players choose, isn’t it? The main problem with that is the majority audience is simply unaware of what they’re voting for in droves. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as a well-known mobile game or indie success outside of Steam. Then there are other games that provide gorgeous screenshots or cool concepts that get voted up into being Greelit quickly. And then they come out and… it’s not pretty.

Many Greenlight games are excellent and add a much needed facet of the Steam Store. However, there are other games that are absolutely broken or horrendous in other ways that make it through. Managing to fool players is rewarded and Steam isn’t able to say no. After all, they can’t exercise quality control as that goes against the rules of Greenlight. While this is a great positive for small games that otherwise would never get past Valve, but also lets in drivel. Without mentioning names, I have already wandered into many Steam Communities to see players distressed, annoyed, or rightly angry at developers for not fixing their clearly broken titles. There were some questionable games on Steam before, but at a lesser amount than there are now.

Alongside this trend is the Early Access program. Steam devised it as a way to get currently in development games onto the store. By doing so, the developers may speak more directly with fans, gauging their desires as well as getting reports on glitches. At its core, it is a very helpful service for developers and a neat way for players to feel like they’re helping shape a product. What could go wrong?

So far, very few games have made it out of Early Access so it’s hard to tell where this will lead, but right now there’s a lot of trouble. Some developers seem keen on squashing any criticism on their respective Steam Community, completely voiding the point of being on Early Access. Others have in the past asked for egregious amounts of money. There’s no guarantee that these games will even ever reach a finished state. As no one has outright stated they quit development, we can’t tell how Valve will or will not choose to reprimand them. Some games are progressing nicely, while others appear to have gone live at super early states and not gotten far since.

On one hand, it is an exciting prospect that Steam will eventually be a very “open” storefront. However, thanks to many poor quality games arriving, users are becoming more cautious with their purchases. Getting burned by a purchase once might not deter a user, but after a few stinkers who knows? Steam’s audience is vast and has been built up by the promise of good games at (often) great prices. With an increasing amount of broken projects though it is aiming to hurt that image which took so long to build up.

Will as many users purchase Steam titles because they simply like the synopsis, concept, or selected screenshots? It seems this will not be as frequent as it has been so far. Then again, what can be done about it? The concept of Steam being open to all developers is fantastic but proves to be much harder to manage in reality. We’ll have to see how everything continues to evolve. We’ll also have to see whether the current diehard Steam users will continue to lavish blind affection onto Valve. As a user, be sure to do your homework before buying any new games on Steam. For all the great new releases coming out, there are always going to be a handful that don’t deserve your money.


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