A Case of Steam
Steam has become quite the thing, hasn’t it? Once seen as a bit of a stamp of quality, or at least an assurance that the game in question was functional, if nothing else. And that you could always find the latest releases quite easily. Getting on Steam was a dev’s dream, as it was a very good chance they’d be noticed.
Something that has been going downhill steadily. I first started noticing it when the deluge of DLC started showing up on the New Releases list. When suddenly the most recent Train Simulator would drop a few dozen individual trains as DLC in a batch and completely clog up the New Releases list. At least now you actually have to toggle to see DLC, so they fixed that bit, to their credit.
But since then Steam has been slowly opening the floodgates of what gets on. And it’s become increasingly clear that the current UI and policies just can’t deal with the current reality of Steam. And Valve haven’t really addressed it.
Now this is basically a collection of ideas I’ve picked up over time, along with reflections and thoughts of my own. So you may have already heard a lot of this elsewhere.
To get this out of the way immediately; yes, I did hear about the idea that both publishers and individuals will be able to create their own curated storefronts where they pick what games they want to show off for their friends and fans to browse through. While an interesting idea, the latest news I could find on this (granted, I only did some quick searches) was some interviews Gabe Newell did at the start of February 2013. If anyone has any newer sources, I’d love a link.
Now, the idea, the promise, that anyone can create a storefront and pick what games to display, and that people would be able to find worthy games through those they trust the opinions of sounds like it could be great. Though, even with the incentive of getting a percentage of each sale through their storefront, is this really going to help un-clutter Steam? I suppose only time will tell, if it ever arrives. And in Gabe’s own admission: If it fails, at least it should be a spectacular show.
That doesn’t really help us right now though, does it? There was Greenlight, which can really only be called a spectacular failure already. Many games get through simply because of some (Internet-)famous person saying “hey, I found this thing”, or because something like Reddit or 4Chan discovers a terrible game and gets it greenlit as a joke. Or the developer straight-up lies in their presentation. I don’t think a huge percentage of them do that last one, but each one is a hit to the system. Not to mention how unclear it can be what has to go on Greenlight and not. Certain things get around it regardless. Certain things have to go there even if they’re from an established publisher. Questions are asked, no answers are given.
Then came the Early Access program. Which has turned into quite the beast. As of current there seems to be very little, possibly no, limits on games in Early Access. No pressure that you have to update at regular intervals. No baseline of functionality that a game has to meet to qualify. Not even any sort of guarantee that the game will be finished, or else removed. In fact, Valve recently made an update to the Terms of Service that stated a warning that there was no guarantee that an Early Access title would be finished.
And we can’t forget the torrent of publishers just dumping all their back-catalogues onto the platform, and not even always doing the courtesy of making sure they work on modern operating systems. Or even listing the original release date.
All of this ends up under New Releases. Getting on Steam used to be a sign that you would get noticed. Now you’re likely to get buried. So much crap comes out every day, that a proper new release might be pushed off the top 10 list in a matter of hours. Valve’s ‘fix’? Have the frontpage default to Top Sellers instead. Yes, that will help us find what is new and potentially interesting.
So, what can be done?
First and foremost, I think the simplest fix would be to institute a return policy. That Steam still doesn’t have this is essentially a travesty. Even EA have one of those on their Origin platform (even if it’s only for EA’s own games). If Valve are so intent on letting any old crap onto their platform, they need a way for people to regret their decisions. Even if it was just 24 hours, that would be a huge step. I think Valve’s current policy is that you get one, exactly one, refund at some point, by sending them an e-mail and asking. I also believe I’ve heard that you’re allowed to cancel pre-orders. When EA are being more customer-friendly than you, you might need to think about what you’re doing.
I’ve heard the argument that people should always research any title before they buy, and it’s their own fault if they don’t. That seems rather anti-consumer to me. I don’t expect most gamers to be as active regarding reviews and such as I am, or my circle of friends are. I totally believe that most people will just have a look around, see something that looks interesting, and buy it entirely based on what they read on the storepage, which is written by the developer to put their game in the best possible light. Maybe they’ll look at the user reviews. Maybe they don’t even do more than look at a title and say “hey, that sounds interesting” based entirely on the name. And I’m not so heartless as to claim those people don’t deserve to regret their decision if they get fooled into buying something that is shit, or that they plain don’t like.
And if a return policy means less, or less extreme, Steam sales, then personally I think I could live with that. They’re already letting game devs and publishers set up their own sales at any time, so I don’t really believe we’d see that much less of it.
Secondly, Steam really, truly, honestly needs a complaints response team. The stream of games that come onto Steam is too large for anyone to reasonably check out each title before it goes up. But let’s say a title gets a lot of complaints. Steam should have a team for this, that investigates complaints, and checks out the state of games that get a lot of reports. If it turns out that the dev has lied, or the game is just broken beyond playability, or whatever else valid complaint it could be (there have actually been games that miss the exe file needed to start them when you hit Play), then the title would be removed from the store and the dev given notice of what would need to be done to get back on. And any new build would have to be submitted to the response team for testing before it’s allowed back on.
Basically, they get one free chance before being put into the process if they fuck up. And maybe they’d only have a set amount of chances before they got black-listed, or something? Like, I can easily see a dev being able to submit a build that would get through the response team, but would show to have serious problems that still make it unfit for being sold for money. Maybe the old ‘three strikes and you’re out’ system could work?
This sort of applies to Early Access as well. People try to say that you can’t judge an Early Access game, because it’s not finished, but that’s bullshit. If the Early Access builds were free, that would have some merit, but they’re charging money for them, which leaves them completely open to criticism.
And I really do believe there should be some restrictions on games allowed on Early Access. Some bugs and missing features are of course to be expected. Yet there are still games so unfinished that they probably shouldn’t be there… but leaving that aside, just having to abide by certain rules would be a start. You have to update regularly. You need to promise the game will be finished. Your storepage can’t outright lie about what’s in the game. Your game can’t contain stolen assets. (The last two can also apply to ‘finished’ games.) If any of these rules are found to be broken, the game will be pulled until it’s rectified. Or possibly given a warning first, if you want to be more lenient. Take Towns as a prime example. The dev has stated there won’t be any more updates, that it won’t be finished. So why is it still up there for sale?
If you aren’t ready to update the game at least once a month, or go as far as to complete the game, maybe you shouldn’t be in the Early Access program. If you aren’t ready to accept criticism, maybe you shouldn’t be charging money for your work.
Thirdly, we could use a serious overhaul of the Steam client UI. New Releases is possibly the most dire. This should be split into at least three different categories: New Releases, New on Early Access and New on Steam. The first one contains the actual new games that have come out, the second should be self-explanatory in that it only shows Early Access titles, and the final one would be anything that hasn’t been on Steam before, but has still been out for a while. Like all those games from the back-catalogues of various publishers that are being dumped on there. Maybe there should also be some sort of distinction between these back-catalogue games, and stuff like indie games that have been sold on other sites for a while, but just took some time to get onto Steam. Though if all indies were allowed to just publish directly on Steam when their game is finished, like what has been promised, we wouldn’t need to make a distinction there.
Similar treatment should probably be done to the Coming Soon tab.
And we should probably just abolish the entire Greenlight system. As a process of vetting through democracy, it hasn’t done all that well, I’d say. This is the Internet, where people are more likely to vote for bad stuff because they find it funny, than to look for and find the really good titles in the umpteens of games on Greenlight.
I think that’s me run out of steam, if you’ll excuse the phrasing. If you have any more ideas or input, I’d love to hear it. These are just some general ideas, after all, and there is guaranteed to be stuff I’ve forgotten or just not considered.
As a final word, I guess we can say Steam is living up to its name. It’s quite possible to get burned.
~Wulf doesn’t understand how so many people are still buying DayZ