Friday, February 10, 2017

Thoughts on Steam Direct

There's news today that Valve wants to transition away from Steam Greenlight, which is a crowd-source voting system where you pay $100 *once, forever* to let users vote for your games on Steam, and after a certain vote threshold you can put each game on Steam.

The new system planned for roll-out in Spring 2017 is something they call Steam Direct, where you pay a "recoupable" (whatever that means, here? Valve doesn't say) $100-$5000 fee *per game* (they haven't decided the actual rate yet) instead of going through the vote process. They want their storefront to seem more open, but they are also cautious about public perception of "shitty games diluting" the Steam store.

A lot of my thoughts are basically a repeat of past criticism of the Steam Greenlight fee, years ago, except this could be much more expensive and much worse? Here are my reactions:

  • Steam Greenlight (and Steam Direct) is not for AAA developers, or established commercial indies, or indie publishers like Devolver or Adult Swim, who already have guaranteed unfettered relatively easy access to Steam that bypasses Greenlight. Instead, these fee systems are for the most vulnerable in the game developer community -- people who are starting out, students, experimental designers, etc. who doesn't have any Steam contacts. When you ask, "is Steam Direct good", you should be imagining how it affects poorer people with precarious situations and no working relationship with Valve.
  • The shitty games are on Steam, and the shit is there to stay, so just embrace the shit and learn how to filter / curate / deal with it. For those indie business devs who cling to 2010, I'd say the days of scarce Steam storefront access guaranteeing sales are way long past. Now it's time to share the tent. This is not your golden platform anymore.
  • The proposed Steam Direct payment structure heavily penalizes and discourages the most vulnerable devs on Steam: developers of experimental work, short-form work, or free games (i.e. LIKE ME) who will be unlikely to "recoup" the per-game fee cost. Even if it's as low as $500, that's still a big ask for a student or small developer literally living on ramen. Does Valve really want to say "less-commercial, short-form, or free work does not belong on Steam"? Even if it's good? Even if there's heavy user demand for it? (e.g. my game on Steam has 150,000+ players and an 85% rating) ... 
  • Paying a per-game fee penalizes people for being prolific and productive? (Also, a per-game fee is totally the opposite of what VR needs right now: as many people as possible desperately trying new ways to make VR work.)
  • One reading of "recoupable fee" would mean a temporary deposit that Valve holds. Another reading of "recoupable" would mean you are supposed to kickstart your fee somehow, or it comes out of your games sales, or something. Either interpretation places a big undue financial burden on the vulnerable creators who will actually use Steam Direct. ("Want to put your work on Steam? OK, first spend a few months planning a Kickstarter / your loan application / re-finance your loans / sell your bone marrow")
  • To the people who say I'm "sensationalizing" the outrageous $5000 proposed fee, which is the hypothetical worse-case scenario that is thus unlikely to happen -- have you been paying attention to US politics lately? Also, Valve quoted that number out loud, in public, precisely to gauge your reaction to it. If you just shrug, what you're actually saying to Valve is, "yes, a high per-game fee is good, please raise the fee as close to $5000 as your conscience will allow it." If I were a master of rhetoric, I would purposely say "5000" so that "500" seems "reasonable" in comparison.

    Instead, here's what I'm saying: "Dear Valve: I don't like what I've heard and I'm upset and I hope you don't do this and I hope the fee is much much lower ($100 or less) or ideally you figure out some other way of filtering game submissions that doesn't involve charging the poorest least-commercial developers for more money (per-game?!) just to get their work out there."

UPDATE: I think this issue also brings up several other underlying problems with how Valve does things. "Fine-tuning the right fee structure" may seem like the "correct problem" to investigate... but only if you think capitalism is like some sort of great AI that is really good at determining who "deserves" to eat food. Do you think poor people are just unavoidable edge cases to ignore, or are they evidence of an unfair and cruel system?

This is not a problem to be solved with capitalism AI, this is about access to culture and speech. Remember that part about how games are a form of creative expression and speech? It's not just some bullshit you invoke to Joe Lieberman to avoid government regulation -- that means you have to actually defend access to game development as a principle, even when it's not as profitable or cheap as you'd hope.

This is what every good programmer knows: not every problem needs some sort of clever framework or a generalized case that will infinitely scale. Sometimes the answer is obvious: make something that works, tell a human about the spec, and then rely on humans to use human judgment.

You cannot automate access. This cultural and emotional work is a human job. It is my opinion that Valve should consider bringing some humanity into this. If Steam / Greenlight staff are over-worked, then hire more people to help them.