Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Hi, I'm Hamish Black and welcome to Writing on Games. First off, I'm not trying to attack anyone here. If I mention names, I'm not angrily singling anyone out, they're perhaps just the most relevant to or prevalent in this particular situation. I'm going to criticise some of Jim Sterling's ideas, for example, but he's not guilty of everything I talk about here. I also think that dude seems cool and I could see him being very fun to hang out with, so on the off-chance you're watching this Jim, I assure you it isn't personal. Cool? Cool. So yeah, Steam has been kind of broken for a while. As many before me have pointed out, the mere presence of a game on Steam used to be a marker of quality. In the past, it led me to trawl the platform constantly to see what new games had been released. Cut to a few years later, a tradition of hyper-reduced sales prices leading to a library full of games I will likely never play and an opening of the floodgates to any shmuck with an executable to throw up on the store and, well, yeah. Not so interested in that anymore. For some people, however, it's far more than just a lack of interest. People are legitimately angry about the state of the platform, with some people more or less dedicating their careers to trying to get things fixed. Notable problems include the ways in which Valve has let curation slip; that they've foisted responsibility for managing it onto consumers and algorithms. This leads to games that used to get visibility from their presence on Steam now being completely buried. There's also systems like Greenlight which have been gamed by rogue developers to get their games on the service illegitimately, as well as the ever-irritating asset flip (where store-bought assets and Unity tutorials are uploaded to the platform without any creative input to try and make a quick buck). Each has become more prevalent over the years, as well as gradually lowering Steam in the eyes of its customer base. As a result, a lot of things have been shouted very loudly again and again that Steam needs to stop letting bad games onto their service and start giving us good games, damnit! And at least on the surface, anyway, it seems that the years of shouting have worked. Steam has already announced that they're ditching Greenlight in favour of Direct - a system which introduces a paywall in an attempt to stop devs abusing the platform. In a somewhat more surprising move, however, Valve recently flew consumer advocate YouTubers Jim Sterling and John Bane (otherwise known as TotalBiscuit) over to their offices to consult on plans to improve the service. The result? Well, unfortunately, a lot of it boils down to a more concentrated focus on what they've already been doing: doubling down on algorithms and crowdsourcing curation (hey, wanna do some free PR work for these devs? You can call yourself an Explorer if ya want, buddy!), and I guess sating the weird desire of your TotalBiscuits to have everything perfectly categorised. A good few minutes of TB's video is spent lamenting the ever-so-urgent problem of Steam that they didn't recognise your specific distinction between the terms Rogue-like and Roguelite. This platform is really going places! As you can probably tell, I don't think any of this is very convincing. In fact, I don't get the feeling Jim and John are particularly convinced either. Maybe of the fact that that Valve is aware of its image problem? Who knows. It doesn't mean they're going to enact any kind of meaningful fixes however. Even flying the guys out there is more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. More importantly, I don't think it's possible for anything to come out of those meetings to actually solve the issue. That's because the issue itself is far bigger than just fixing Steam's front page. And that's just it - these people, these consumer advocates, were brought out to fix Valve's image problem. A problem Valve caused for themselves through their desire to control as much of the PC market as possible with little regard for how they were going to manage that eventuality. The problem is that we're viewing this in terms as black-and-white as “once we fix Steam, we fix the PC gaming landscape!” It ignores the more uncomfortable reality; that Steam is kind of a monopoly, and these acts of contrition afforded to very specific (if vocal) YouTube communities all amount to how they can maintain that absolute control. But why is that bad, you ask? All my games are in one place, so obviously I want that platform to thrive for the sake of convenience. I don't want a million Uplays and Origins clogging up my desktop, confusing my flow of gaming. I get that, I do. It's the age we live in, where we're constantly seeking out new ways to condense as far as possible the ways we consume media. The problem is that it gives Valve no real reason to improve. Game devs are making far less sales, customer satisfaction is through the floor, but Gabe Newell's net worth is the highest it's ever been. Even if individual games are selling less, Valve is making just as much across a larger number of titles. And now there's going to be a ubiquitous paywall I guess, locking out even genuine devs who might not have the money. It just doesn't work, because there's no competition. The solution is not to congratulate Steam on the appearance of contrition, of their supposed catering to the specific whims of the audiences of two specific YouTubers. The solution is to perhaps forego some of that unity of experience, for the sake of supporting other platforms offering different services. Whilst Uplay and Origin offer little in the way of unique selling points other than “you get to launch this launcher from Steam, which is itself a launcher”, there are other similar, but bespoke platforms that are worth examining. For example, instead of trying to find that tiny indie diamond in the gargantuan pile of shoddy mobile ports that is Steam, why not look for that experience on somewhere like itch.io? It's a service curated by actual human beings which offers smaller developers the means to distribute their unique, fun and experimental experiences that they might not be able to distribute on Steam. It's so different from Steam that its founder Leaf Corcoran has in the past altered things on the backend to accommodate the quirks of specific games, for instance. This is a platform that really cares about a specific kind of experience. With Steam's upcoming paywall, you'll probably see a lot more devs gravitating to this service, with the human curation and a genuine wish to support genuine devs stopping your Digital Homicides in their tracks. You can support the work of these devs by supporting the platform that cares about them. It's the same with GOG. You go there for old games, many of which fall into that somewhat ephemeral “middle tier” of development that can't really exist now because anything other than AAA mega corp or scrappy garage programmer just isn't sustainable on a platform like Steam. It's also totally DRM free, whereas Steam itself is DRM, giving you more choice in how you play and control your purchases. I'd say having multiple libraries is a small price to pay for each one having its own purpose, giving devs a choice of the platforms that suit their interests, each service being able to foreground the best of its specialty as a result, leading to a better landscape for the consumer. It's supply and demand – you support these carefully curated experiences on each platform, and that curation suddenly becomes a lot easier and more effective. More choice is better for everyone, and Valve controlling nearly 100% of all PC gaming purchases does not allow for that. Ultimately it's you who has to realise that though, and perhaps consider sacrificing some convenience in favour of supporting a competitive marketplace. But hey, I guess John giving Valve a good talkin' to about algorithms will have to suffice for now. Which brings me onto my larger problem with so-called “pro-consumer” punditry on the industry, and this is far from just John and Jim. There's nuance to every situation in the games industry that I feel is often lacking in the way these people represent it. Everything is always the fault of big bad publishers and lazy devs trying to make bad, incomplete experiences to irritate the poor, innocent consumer who can seemingly do no wrong, but also just can't stop buying those dang bad games. Essentially, the customer isn't always right, and these commentators rarely if ever point that out. It's how you get to situations like the Mass Effect Andromeda thing where people are shouting about lazy devs, when in order to get to their position, you have to be anything but. No one considers the fact that, well, games are hard to make especially within a large company, so you talk to other devs and they'll tell you it's a miracle anything gets shipped. No one considers that the devs perhaps didn't want to put the game out in that state. No one considers the fact that it was the end of the tax year, so EA weren't going to push that back, instead forcing already pressured devs to work harder and release something that they perhaps wanted to work further on. But nope, a continuous, reductive commentary on “lazy devs” (which is itself real lazy) and intentionally bad games leads to people getting harassed by those who have no idea how complex this process can be (or who was even involved). These people are now going to be the Explorers, choosing which games get surfaced and which get buried. All for the sake of fixing Valve's image problem. Sounds great, right? Ya just gotta have the good games be on Steam's front page and the bad games be catapulted into the sun! What I'm saying is that being pro-consumer means so much more than breaking things down into “good games” and “bad games” (something you see a lot of especially in John's video). This is a problem for a number of reasons; not least of which because it doesn't allow for games in the middle ground. The camp games; the ones that lack some technical finesse, but perhaps have heart. What's that? You want a kinda bad game to laugh at and have fun with? Well no, you don't get to do that, because Jim and John's fans-turned-Explorers have decided that that joke's over now and those games are all BAD. It's downright suppressive. Even if it's not that with these YouTubers, things often come down to “this PC port has a bad frame rate and these controls are bad and that's why this business hates the consumer!” Don't get me wrong, I've been guilty of reductive statements myself in the past – I've just never claimed to be some pro-consumer advocate.