It’s not often in the history of software that a single platform has held so much of the economic and structural control over a medium. Valve’s Steam is a marketplace, (mostly) stable launcher and updater, community and now crowdfunding platform.
Some may disagree but Steam Greenlight tied to the Early Access program – where games are vetted for interest and release by potential customers, and then can buy a pre-release version of the build later on to fund further development and refinement – is very much a double-edged sword. While it may make sense on paper, there are some aspects of both those schemes that can detract from the products that Steam seeks to potentially support – but it is understandable if you know the company history.
Co-founder Gabe Newell left Microsoft after helping to develop several of the early Windows iterations, ploughing many of his millions from that into funding Valve as it began developing Half-Life. He has been incredibly critical of both console-centric software stores and the later versions of Windows, particularly citing the latter for threatening the openness of gaming and development. They have incorporated several indie teams into the fold when small projects were recognised to have serious potential, such has been the case for both Portal games thus far.
Now the notion of Greenlight and Early Access makes a little sense – a programme coming from what was a breakaway start-up looking to develop their own way, in order to introduce burgeoning talent to a wider community of gamers, is essentially offering the same opportunity to others. It is a noble effort, and only follows on from what the company has already established to be a positive force in keeping gaming fresh. If not for Steam, it would be difficult to imagine the success of many recent gaming icons – Amnesia the Dark Descent, Don’t Starve and Five Nights at Freddy’s being just a handful of examples.
The other part of this equation has been the explosion of ‘Let’s Play’ video series on YouTube, gaming being the largest consistent audience on the platform. It’s biggest stars are gamers, and feeding that conveyor belt of required daily content, due to public demand, means that more and more games are required.
Now the two things represent a kind of serendipity more than any conscious effort, but Early Access, et al, and the Youtube gaming community have worked out well for each other in that regard. On Youtube, the money is made by personalities and rhetoric/wit/sharing observations, so even games that aren’t great can garner huge amounts of views and exposure, by eliciting a reaction from the personality playing it for our pleasure.
The pitfalls are quite clear, that exposing your game before proper development is completed, in perhaps a buggy or incomplete state can have massive implications for the perception of that product. We know this is dangerous territory, from anger over recent years due to rushed AAA games requiring day one/two DLC and patches to function correctly, or avoid catastrophic and seemingly obvious programming bugs. The freedom to download games from any bulletin board, or sites where games are posted/shared like Gamejolt, use rom hacks and emulators to play or update classic console/arcade games, is part of what makes PC gaming so attractive compared to console marketplaces and does soften some players to bugs and glitches in running games.
Steam is somewhat regulated like the fenced-off Xbox/Playstation stores, part of which is what lead those requiring more openness, famously Notch during the public development of Minecraft, to avoid using it. This leaves Steam in a strange place, as it is both hugely successful, but also positioned awkwardly within the gaming sphere. This can be evidenced by their foray into capturing the more casual market, by creating the Steam Controller and Steam boxes, possibly to bridge a gap or entice console gamers.
During Portal 2’s release the Steamworks platform was touted to bring down some of that divide. It was admittedly interesting to use cloud saves so it could be played at home on Playstation, and the same save continued while on the move using Steam’s framework on a laptop. Despite this convenience and innovation, the compounding resistance from gamer’s set in their ways and competitors not wanting to fully include Steam’s platform on their install base has set that back, perhaps indefinitely given the lack of a further big name release incorporating it since that time.
Streaming services such as Playstation Now and the popularity of bite-sized gaming experiences tailored for mobile point perhaps to a more 360 degree approach. Pokemon Go has hinted at that, where a huge franchise once confined to Nintendo’s hardware environment has been released to a massive explosion of adopters on a myriad of mobile platforms and hardware versions (though the merits and pitfalls of that saga are now well-known).
Steam Greenlight focuses a little more on VR experiences and clones of successful games sometimes, as indie devs clamour for popularity and Youtube exposure from the stars – which may be great for onscreen entertainment, but not necessarily the gaming experience going forward.
It can be easy to see past good intentions. If Valve don’t build infrastructure to adopt streaming, augmented reality and/or mobile architecture (perhaps even some never-before-seen concept), they will no longer be the innovators they were, but close the book on their contribution to pushing the boundaries of gaming. That said, those sales they have are pretty amazing, and they’ll still make money hand over fist.
The question for Newell and co is: which one excites them more at present – developing the medium, or the money?