Valve’s Steam platform has been able to successfully stand as one of the pioneers of PC gaming ever since its launch in 2003., presenting itself as one of the easiest ways for gamers to obtain their games, via means of digital distribution. Steam has helped grow the PC platform’s popularity, and their serial key tracking meant users were no longer in danger of losing their serial keys, and players have to maintain disks in good condition or run out to a store to buy a game. Many of these ideas have become standard throughout digital distribution, but Steam made PC games more accessible than ever before and also provided a much easier method for developers to distribute and update their games to customers as the popularity of Steam grew.
Steam’s early roots though, while interesting and key to its future prominence, don’t reflect much of the issues it has today. For that, you have to look at the various situations and potholes it has run into in the 2010s, some of which are more visible now than ever.
To explain and expand upon this, let’s head to a year that some people within the Steam community may remember well: 2012. This was the year in which Valve launched their new Steam Greenlight system, intended as a means of making Steam a more open platform for indie game developers wanting to get their games in front of Valve’s already large player base. All that stood in their way was a one time $100 fee (the proceeds of which were donated to the charity Child’s Play) and a community voting system. The way in which Steam Greenlight worked was that after the fee had been paid by the developers, they could submit their game(s) to Steam Greenlight, which would include a minimum of one trailer, four screenshots ,and a description of the game. If Steam users liked the game and wanted to see it come onto Steam, then they could vote yes on the game, if not, then they could vote no.
At first, Steam Greenlight proved to be a relatively good system, allowing a greater array and different types of games to come onto the Steam platform that probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day in Valve’s more walled off approach. Valve staff even commented themselves that they were surprised by the amount of interest shown to visual novels, further showcasing some benefits that could be had with the community having a say in what games come on to Steam.
However, as Greenlight continued to stay open, the more flaws started appearing. Opening these doors meant that Valve was doing business with more people than ever before. While that brought the wider variety of games, it also meant that bad actors had a chance to get in and take advantage of the situation. One of the ways these new devs started bringing some negative attention their way was in the way of filing DMCA takedown notices to YouTubers that were negative of their products.
The first two major cases that originated from Greenlight in regards to DMCA were from two different developers, Wild Games Studio and FUN Creators, developers of the games Day One: Garry’s Incident and Guise of the Wolf respectively. These two development companies got media attention, but not necessarily positive attention when both filed fraudulent DMCA takedown strikes against YouTuber and gaming critic, TotalBiscuit. The two instances focused on the same topics and happened in the span of four months with Wild Games Studio filing their takedown notice in October 2013 and FUN Creators filing theirs in February 2014. Both of these developers attempted to silence negative press of their product and/or content that they just didn’t like. As well as not reflecting well on the developers themselves, and when consider these developers as people doing business on the biggest PC distribution platform, this doesn’t reflect too well upon Valve either. Even after all of the negative press hit, Steam continued to be the only place where players could download these titles.
The most infamous example of these issues would be developer Digital Homicide, who created The Slaughtering Grounds, among many other titles. Digital Homicide filed a DMCA takedown notice of Jim Sterling’s The Slaughtering Grounds first impressions video. Their feud with Sterling continued throughout the rest of the year, and into 2015, leading to an audio interview that Sterling conducted as he continued to cover the company’s games. Things got to the boiling point when James Romine, the co-founder of Digital Homicide, filed a lawsuit against Sterling alleging assault, libel, and slander while demanding $10 million, which would later be raised to $12 million and then finally to $15 million as the lawsuit went on for almost a year.
During this, Digital Homicide continued to post games on Steam and Steam Greenlight. While Digital Homicide’s image was already sour since The Slaughtering Grounds, their reputation worsened in June of 2016 when there was community backlash as Digital Homicide was posting nearly identical games to Steam Greenlight that were clones of their previous game Krog Wars with different assets placed on top of the gameplay. Some of their game series that followed this formula was Sarah to the Rescue 1-5, Daisy’s Sweet Time Cupcake Mania 1-3, and Sinister Spiders 1-3. The spam and community backlash ended up being so big, that Valve marked all of Digital Homicide’s games as incompatible on Steam Greenlight and forced them to remove a lot of their submissions. What made Valve step further, though, to remove all of Digital Homicide’s games entirely, was James Romine filing a lawsuit in September in 2016 against 100 anonymous Steam users for upwards of $18 million for personal injury charges. In response, Valve removed Digital Homicide’s products from the store. At that point, Digital Homicide had submitted a grand total of 70 different games to Steam Greenlight, all of which were asset flip titles (which will be talked about more in a bit.)
These developers are just three of the most prominent ones, as there were many more cases throughout Greenlight’s run. Some other notable incidents include Dentola Studios who filed a DMCA takedown on SidAlpha’s negative coverage of their Greenlight collection, and Dallas, developer of Fur Fun, who filed DMCA takedowns on small YouTube channels for videos that were critical of his game.
Around 2014, there was a rise in the number of shovelware titles that started getting greenlit and then released onto the Steam store. Ranging from games that launched to Steam with missing executable files, to games flat out lying about their early access program, to games that were clearly and notably of much lower overall quality than games that came out in previous years. These instances were not one-time occurrences either; these cases continued and persisted throughout the entirety of 2014 and for the rest of Greenlight’s lifespan.
Additionally, there were games that are now commonly referred to as “asset flips,” which are games made of assets from the Unity, Unreal, or other asset stores. The “classic” asset flip involves just purchasing an asset and then “flipping” it into a product on the consumer store with screenshots and a trailer. Some titles put in a bit more effort into flipping, buying different asset packs, often without much care for visual cohesion, and combining them together to release on storefronts. These processes often created games that were buggy or incomplete, as the assets had been designed for use as part of something, not as full-fledged game. The overall quality of the games coming though was, again, only part of the overall problem.
Vote Boosting and Giveaway Groups
The Greenlight process itself proved fraught with problems as various bad actors began to work out different ways to take advantage of the system. One tactic that some bad actors employed was the idea to offer Steam keys in exchange for Greenlight votes, essentially bribing voters. With the existence of groups such as Yolo Army, it made it easier than ever for developers to reach out to a large community base with their Greenlight entry and offer free game keys for votes. Developers could employ group owners to host giveaways which required people to vote on games on Greenlight to be entered. The process was more commonly referred to as “Greenlight boosting.”
While bribing users was one way that developers could easily get around the voting system, employing bots to vote yes on the game was also a tactic used by some. Valve did attempt to tackle this issue in a small way, where they stated in a Greenlight FAQ section that chances were that if developers employed these tactics during their Greenlight campaign, Valve would intentionally delay the greenlighting of the product; however, this did little against these bad actors as a number of developers continued to participate in the process. In addition to a number of these aforementioned vote boosting groups offering their services, there have been a number of reports of these groups blackmailing developers, by saying they’ll leave bad reviews if the developer does not hand them over what they want and developers have also gone on to label these groups of people as extortionists.
Steam Greenlight’s Voting Process
Valve seemed to greenlight games solely based on the “yes” votes; “no” votes rarely hindered games, as staff monitored the percentage of yes votes a game got in contrast with no votes. Valve, in turn, used both metrics alongside the traction the page was getting to generally move a game up and/or down within the top 100. When your game entered the top 100 on Greenlight, chances were high that your game would receive the greenlight, and the higher you were in the top 100, the higher your chances were.
Rules still tended to apply, however, and there were instances in which Valve did remove games from Greenlight that, for example, plagiarised other developer’s work and DMCA takedowns were filed. Other cases where Valve stepped in on Greenlight entries is when entries seemed particularly focused to offend a group of people, as was shown when a game centered around killing gays was submitted to Steam Greenlight.
The way in which greenlighting games were managed also changed a lot since Greenlight’s inception. Back when Steam Greenlight was first introduced, the number of games that got approved/greenlit was very limited. As recorded by Giant Bomb, the first batch of games that got greenlit on September 11th, 2012 consisted of only 10 games, and as months went by similar small amounts were greenlit. Until August 28th, 2013 where a 100 game batch was greenlit, with multiple 100 game batches following soon after. The amount of games only went up from there.
Out With Greenlight, in With Direct
Steam Greenlight remained open from July 2012 to June 2017, but in January 2017 Valve announced that change would be coming, and that change was to get rid of Steam Greenlight in favor of a new system. Promoted as a more streamlined method for developers to get their games on Steam, this new system was called Steam Direct and launched in June 2017. As the name suggests, this method meant that Valve had more direct communication with the developer in regards to getting their game onto the Steam store. The community voting process was gone, along with the one time $100 fee.
Valve’s Gabe Newell actually did voice plans to axe Greenlight years prior to the formal announcement, with Newell expressing an interest to close Greenlight back in January 2014. He wanted developers to have more control over their content as Valve’s player base raised, and they felt like Greenlight wasn’t giving developers sufficient control of their products.
This was instead simply replaced by the developer submitting their game to the Steamworks site (the Steam site for developers) and paying a $100 fee per game. Tax information and additional paperwork would also need to be filled out. Then, a 30 day waiting period starts, which in this time Valve reviews the game build submitted to Steamworks to make sure that the game being submitted actually runs and doesn’t contain any malicious files. Developers are also required to set up a store page for their game two weeks prior to launching so that Valve can check the description on the store page matches the content of the game and that it’s visible to users so that they can report on any inappropriate content. Upon launching the game to Steam, when/if the game makes $1000 in revenue, then Valve will refund the developer the $100 submission fee.
When Steam Direct launched, the system definitely lived up to its promotion of it being more streamlined for developers than Greenlight. Despite this system being newer, and with Valve even opening their office doors to Steam critics Totalbiscuit and Jim Sterling for their input on what they had already drafted up at the time for Steam Direct, Steam Direct appears to have done little to address some issues that were at the core with Greenlight. While vote boosting has technically gone with there being no voting system anymore, the shovelware coming onto Steam seems to have increased since the introduction of Direct, seeing as how the total amount of games coming onto the storefront has increased for the amount from last year. The game count for games that were released in 2017 according to SteamSpy is 7,645, which is just over a 52% increase in the number of games released last year to Steam (5,006.) Keep in mind as well that this year’s count is counting both Greenlight games and Steam Direct games.
Steam Curators and Algorithmic Focus
While Greenlight definitely was not perfect, the community voting system was at least some level of control before games got onto the Steam store; it may not have been effective, but at least there was a barrier. Steam Direct doesn’t seem to have any barriers present and is an even more open market than it ever was before. Valve have voiced desires for Steam curators to be a possible answer to this, as just recently Valve launched their Curator Connect program along with overhauling the Steam curator system earlier this year. This intended to provide more tools to Steam curators to customize their own Steam store page that their followers and maybe newcomers can visit to view things such as lists that the curator has created.
One of the highlights of many is the Curator Connect feature, which allows developers to send review copies of their games out to Steam curators alongside a message. The curator can then choose to accept the copy of the game, though they are under no obligation to actually review the copies they’re sent. However, this method doesn’t appear to have significantly done too much to combat shovelware and asset flip titles, since the curation recommendations aren’t affecting everything that’s viewed on the Steam page. While the Steam page does show recommendations from curators that you choose to follow, it doesn’t seem to have stopped places such as the new releases queues from showing these titles to users. This can help indie developers, as a number of them have jumped onto the Curator Connect program as it has assisted in their games surfacing above the amount of shovelware on Steam towards followers of the curator. It can also equate to followers checking out the store page.
Alongside Steam curators, Valve has also pushed a heavier reliance on the use of algorithms to try to make more appropriate games appear towards specific users. The algorithms work by looking at games you own, games you’ve played, and what similar users have played, and as well as looking at user tags; all of that information is then taken into consideration and a set of games will be generated. The algorithms can mainly be seen at work when browsing the Steam Discovery queue and when you view the front page of Steam when logged in, where games that Steam thinks that you’re interested in will appear based on some set pieces of data. Some of the data that is used includes what your Steam friends recommend, what your curators recommend, the overall rating the game has based on community reviews, and store tags the game has compared with games you own and/or have played. In some cases, these algorithms have proven to have a positive effect on some indie developers, as shown with the case of Defender’s Quest and their tale of how the changes to Steam boosted their visibility and ability to reach their audience.
What Some Developers Have to Say
I additionally decided to conduct some interviews with three different indie developers in regards to the transition between Steam Greenlight and Steam Direct, alongside their experiences with both systems. The full interviews can be found in a separate article. However, there were a couple of things that those developers told me that I feel important to bring up here. I asked each developer their thoughts on if the large number of low-quality titles was hurting visibility of their products. Daniel Steer from Back to Basics Gaming stated:
Yeah, absolutely…More games = Harder for the customer to effectively surf the store front and find games that they love. In walks the Steam store algorithm…
Cubic Timeline Productions also believed that the large influx of titles didn’t necessarily help their game in gaining the visibility they wanted by stating:
Frankly we have had almost no traction marketing Vulture but I am not certain enough that this is caused by the steam direct issues to pin that blame on anyone. The market flooding can’t have helped though.
Steam Trading Cards
While what’s mainly been talked about so far has mainly been focused on the quality of the games coming onto Steam alongside the types of developers Valve are doing business with, the flaws and issues that have arisen regarding the indie scene on Steam don’t stop there.
One of the systems Valve created that has received a lot of abuse ever since its introduction is the Steam trading card system; however, abuse has actually slowed down thanks to Valve stepping in. Some of you may have been wondering how those obvious asset flip tiles of low quality actually made money. The answer is trading cards. If you price your game dirt cheap on Steam but also add trading cards, people will buy the game, farm the cards, and then place the cards up onto the community marketplace in hopes of making a profit. It even got to the extent of shady markets for asset flip games that promised trading cards were being created. However, as I mentioned, Valve did start to cut down on games solely meant to be farmed for their trading cards, and Valve made it so that your game would need to reach a certain point in their algorithm before it would be classified as being worthy of having trading cards drop to customers.
In addition to the changes in how trading cards were being distributed towards new games, Valve took extra steps to prevent mass game giveaways for games that included trading cards by starting to limit the number of keys that developers could request, and that if a lot of keys were requested, Valve would be taking a closer look at the reasoning for the request.
After trading cards started to become limited, developers decided to set their sights elsewhere and attempt to target a different demographic of gamers—the achievement hunters. Throughout this year, a great number of titles have decided to put their marketing focus on the number of achievements the game has (usually in the 1000s.) A few examples of games that push this kind of tactic include Zen vs Zombie (10,361 achievements), The Mexican Dream (10,979 achievements), and It’s Village (12,322 achievements.) Valve did end up capping the number of achievements a game can have to 5,000. However, this did little to stop games like this, as shown with games like Achievement Clicker, the Achievement Hunter series, and the Achievement Lurker series from finding an audience as with what happened to the card farming market. The hope for these developers is that the achievement hunter audience will buy enough copies of the game to allow for trading cards eventually in Steam’s algorithm.
Steam Review System
Some developers, while also abusing the trading card system, have also attempted to abuse the Steam review system. Some developers on Steam were giving away free copies of their game in exchange positive reviews, which would then go on to boost the rating the game had based on Steam’s aggregated community review score that is displayed at the top of the store page. Like what happened with the trading card system abuse, Valve also did step in on a number of occasions to counteract some abuses of the review system.
Firstly, if the review abuse was within Valve’s realms of monitoring, then Valve took action against a handful of developers that were abusing the review systems by severing business ties with them, due to their actions going against the review policy. Secondly, Valve made it so that if the user obtained the game for free or if it was activated via a key, the review would not count towards the aggregated score. Thirdly, Valve allowed users to look at more review score data on a store page to combat review bombing. For those that don’t know what review bombing is, it’s a term used for when a company does something that a certain group(s) doesn’t agree with, causing many of them to give the company’s game or games a lot of negative reviews at once. A recent example of a review bombing would be with Bethesda adding in paid mods for Fallout 4 and Skyrim: Special Edition, which left a lot of gamers unhappy, so they took to the Steam user reviews to voice their displeasure.
An additional change that came out was the way in which Valve overhauled how helpful reviews were calculated, which was done to attempt to fight back against spam bots, and to (as the title says) “Make helpful user reviews more helpful.” With this change, the aggregated review score would also affect the type of reviews that would show up on the front of a game’s store page, and user reviews would be reflective of that rating. For example, if a game has a 70% approval based on its aggregation, that would mean seven positive reviews would appear and three negative, each of which would be the most helpful from both positive and negative.
One move that Valve did garner praise for at the beginning of 2017 was the way in which they started to take a stand against developers abusing Steam tools, ranging from marketplace manipulation (usually involving developers employing bot networks to farm items from their game to place on the market and sell them, since the developer always gets a cut of market transactions) to violations of the review policy. However, it probably would have been a better piece of news if some of these removals were further enforced. There were a number of developers that had previously been banned from Steam that went on to return to Steam under different names, with the more prominent one being Gennady Guryanov. Gennady Guryanov was banned from Steam due to violating the review policy, yet Gennady Guryanov returned under a different name to launch another game by the name of Secret Doctrine.
Another example was when Digital Homicide had one of their Greenlight games resurface despite Valve severing ties with the company for being hostile to Steam customers
Steam Refund Policy
Another issue that has risen and caused problems for Steam is Steam’s refund policy. Up until June 2015, there was no refund system on Steam, which meant that consumers did have to be much more cautious in regards to the games they purchased as there was no way that you could refund it if you didn’t like it or it proved to be a broken product. This even resulted in the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission filing a lawsuit against Valve for their lack of refund policy and quality of products on Steam, which they ended up winning.
It seemed like this instance was what brought Valve to finally introduce a refund system, in which if you have played the game for less than 2 hours or have owned it for less than two weeks, you can seek out a refund if you are dissatisfied. In regards to the Australia lawsuit, Valve did file an appeal, which also failed, meaning Valve had to pay a $3 million fine.
The refund policy did have a direct impact on a number of different developers. One notable case was that of the Steam game Journey of the Light, which was a falsely advertised game that promised to have a total of 8 different difficultly levels riddled with puzzles, but in reality, only had one incomplete level. As archived by The Know, the developer Lord Kres was frequently complaining about the fact that Journey of the Light‘s sales had tanked as a result of Valve’s new refund policy. Lord Kres then went on to say that there would be a hint on how to complete the first level when the first trading card dropped after you play two hours, which is the time limit before you can no longer seek a refund.
So with all this in mind, with all these problems still continually happening on Steam, it remains the largest digital distribution storefront for PC gamers, solely due to its convenience and accessibility for your games all in one place. But Valve is going to have to start cracking down on the issues with their repeated reliance on algorithms and the community to drive their store forwards leading further towards disaster rather than glory.