Steamy

I am not a frequent reader of Polygon, but their recent (hit) piece on Steam is interesting. There is a lot going on in the article, but these are the two thesis paragraphs:

This, then, is Good Guy Valve — a corporation which employs precision-engineered psychological tools to trick people into giving them money in exchange for goods they don’t legally own and may never actually use while profiting from a whole lot of unpaid labor and speculative work … but isn’t “evil.”

This is the Good Guy everyone seems too afraid to call out, the toxic friend who is so popular that upsetting him will just make things worse for you, so you convince yourself he’s really not that bad and that everyone else is over-reacting. Once the Good Guy illusion has disappeared, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth: Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a “platform that connects gamers to creators.”

Basically, Valve conned us 13 years ago into believing they were the Good Guys, to the point that we unapologetically ascribe sins to Origin and UPlay that Valve themselves invented, and still perform where not prevented by EU law. Shkreli would give his left nut for the amount of free advertising that blasts over the internet for every Steam sale. All of this, all of this free money coming in, all this outrage over other corporations screwing over customers and employees alike… and we still eat it up for Valve.

I will admit that this article gave me pause.

It is a weird situation to find myself in, especially given that I am Pro-Consumer. Have you heard about Consumer Surplus? I invented that term. I will talk all day about how obscene it is for Blizzard to charge $25 for a character transfer, but spend zero time talking about how Valve takes a 75% cut of community-created DotA item/model sales.

That said, I’m not entirely sure there is a contradiction there, much less a cause for proletarian revolt.

Look, most of us grew up in the pre-Steam days. Do you remember what buying PC games was like? It was chaos. Sometimes you needed to keep the CD in the tray to play the game, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes the publishers installed a rootkit on your machine, sometimes they didn’t. The first time I ever “pirated” a game was with Command & Conquer 3 because the disc I bought from the store wouldn’t play; there was either a scratch on the CD or some bug or something, but it instantly crashed on boot. Downloading a Day 1 crack on a game you just bought for $50 and couldn’t even return is pretty emblematic for that time period.

In short, Steam saved the PC gaming industry. It provided a framework in which the industry could grow, while simultaneously providing immense value to gamers. Steam sales actually were revolutionary at the time – the only times you ever got a discount elsewhere was when the game was in a bargain bin. Steam sales are disappointing these days, for sure, in a world of GreenManGaming, Amazon discounts, and all the other storefronts. Whom deliver Steam keys 99% of the time. Which is what most gamers want, considering the platform itself is immensely stable in comparison to oh, say, RockStar’s Social Club.

There are legitimate complaints regarding Steam. The Support sucks, so I have heard. It took them entirely too long to introduce Refunds, and I understand that that only came under threat of court orders. I’m also sure that the author’s claims regarding reimbursement percentages for selling character models is probably true.

But overall, I think the article is mostly attacking a straw man. There will be Valve fanboys, just as there are Apple fanboys. The difference is that Apple is a walled garden of overpriced, proprietary bullshit. Steam appears to be a near-monopoly… but based on what, exactly? Origin (or GOG, etc) might indeed be the better gaming platform these days… if it weren’t for the fact that they have an absurdly low (in comparison) library of available titles. Does Steam have exclusivity agreements that nobody knows about? If not, who is really responsible for its market share? No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.

The bottom line is that nobody is being tricked here. Uber intentionally treating their entire workforce as contractors to avoid paying for health benefits or time off is not at all the same as “tricking” people into buying videogames over the internet. The damning “culture of cliques” at Valve is laughable; welcome to everywhere. Hell, if you want to see an abused workforce, take a gander over at Amazon warehouse for a moment.

“Good Guy Valve” is a marketing fiction, sure… but built on the back of a decade of actual value.

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Posted on May 23, 2017, in Commentary and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I’d argue that getting 25% for a DoTA item is a steal, since Valve did way more than 75% of the work to make it happen. Not only did they make the entire game that is so popular it makes sense to produce items for, but they also own and operate the platform for said sales. I’m not aware of a single game near the scale of DoTA that has a better arrangement for producers.

    As for the rest, crying about Valve ‘tricking’ someone into buying a game for a deep discount is a joke, and is likely written by someone who, like you said, either wasn’t around pre-Steam or has forgotten how ‘great’ those days were. Polygon is a PC gaming site, so they basically owe their entire existence to Valve at this point…

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    • Yeah, it’s tough to argue where the “exploitative” line begins or ends. There is residual value in creating these skins (etc) even if Valve took 100% of the money considering it gets your portfolio in front of millions of eyeballs; the game industry has a decent record in scooping up amateur content creators if their product proves popular.

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      • Not to mention the idiocy of crying about ‘only’ getting 25%, when in basically every other game that ‘supports’ mods, you get zero point zero percent, even when the mod is something as massive as some of the total conversions for Warband or Long War in XCOM, yet mod creators don’t complain.

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  2. Interesting article; thanks for linking it.

    The main thing I took away from it is confirmation that as much as gamers like to paint themselves as well-informed, rational customers, we’re just as tribal as anyone else: willing to defend companies we like and attacking those we don’t like, even when they sometimes do the exact same things.

    I see a lot of that in the MMO space too, with Blizzard being the prime example of a company that gets away with a lot of stuff that others get condemned for.

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  3. “In short, Steam saved the PC gaming industry.”

    I’m sure. Do you generally find “well it’s better than it was X years ago” an adequate response to every critique of everything then, or?

    “No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.”

    Right, but it’s wafer-thin apologist fiction to imply that market forces and the free market together would conspire to miraculously deliver us a platform that addresses all concerns around Steam. Established monopolies (based entirely on being there first, early Steam was a fucking nightmare as well) are already hard to break – Steam has the social aspect taped on as well.

    Does “well if MySpace stepped it up then maybe Facebook would clamp down on rapes being streamed on Facebook live better” actually solve the issue of Facebook having atrocious moderation policies? Not really.

    “Uber intentionally treating their entire workforce as contractors to avoid paying for health benefits or time off is not at all the same as “tricking” people into buying videogames over the internet.”

    Sure but I think there’s some parallels. Booking taxis and then doing everything else that Uber does (heavily subsidised fares, tracking, immediacy, blah blah) was also shit 15+ years ago. Uber absolutely revolutionised bookable personal transport – doesn’t justify their practices. Valve “providing a platform”, taking literally whatever cut they want from devs, content creators, bladey blah, because they have an unregulated monopoly, is not defensible on “well they got here first so there”. Similarly their mod support leaves much to be desired (one comment page? really? no forums?) and the complete abandonment of the very thing that’s spawned their success – open community development – is just an egregious failure. But, again, unpublishable because lul monopoly.

    “I’d argue that getting 25% for a DoTA item is a steal, since Valve did way more than 75% of the work to make it happen.”

    Of all the things to come out of this thread, Syncaine outing himself as a hardcore supporter of progressive taxation is not what I expected.

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    • I’m sure. Do you generally find “well it’s better than it was X years ago” an adequate response to every critique of everything then, or?

      It’s certainly relevant when trying to compare monopolies (real or imagined), sure. Did it revitalize an entire industry with innovation? Or did it simply stifle all competition via regulatory capture, exclusivity agreements, predatory pricing based on exploiting workers, etc? The means make a difference.

      Especially considering the thesis isn’t “Steam is a monopoly,” but “Valve is evil/immoral.”

      Does “well if MySpace stepped it up then maybe Facebook would clamp down on rapes being streamed on Facebook live better” actually solve the issue of Facebook having atrocious moderation policies? Not really.

      That’s an interesting example, for several reasons, but one of them is because I don’t see how it might even be possible to moderate anything at Facebook’s size. Streaming a rape is absolutely hideous… but short of having a significant time delay on a “Live” feed, how would anyone actually keep up with the terrabytes of video uploaded daily? Perhaps the lack of any ability to moderate beyond user-reporting is enough of a reason to remove the feature entirely, I dunno. There are a million reasons to criticize Facebook, but that particular example isn’t one I would use.

      In any case, the ship might have sailed for the social media platforms in terms of escaping Facebook’s shadow – not only is it nigh impossible to lure consumers away when the “product” is already free, but Facebook just ups and buys out the competition when convenient.

      Incidentally, this is not at all a similar case as with Steam and its rivals. Not only could any other platform come out with a lower supply-side cut (e.g. 25% or whatever), it can also compete on price on the product side. Shit, it’s been a while since I directly bought something from Steam – I get Steam codes from Humble Bundle, GMG, and elsewhere because it’s cheaper than on Steam itself. While I try to avoid being forced to use Origin or Uplay, that is because I don’t like those platforms. Something that could change if the price was better, the UX more pleasant, if there were actually any goddamn games on there outside the publisher’s own catalog, and so on.

      Uber absolutely revolutionised bookable personal transport – doesn’t justify their practices.

      See, that’s the thing. The “revolution” is entirely dependent on exploitative worker practices. There is no Uber with drivers with health insurance, minimum wage, or all the traditional trappings of a labor market. It’s good that Uber et tal are pushing cab companies to invest in apps and technology more, but ride-sharing only exists at all because someone found a way to pay workers even less. That shit is immoral.

      What’s the immorality of Steam again? Customer service sucks? Mod support is bad… compared to… something. Maybe there is some super-secret reason Origin and Uplay have no games; I imagine GOG’s problem is that few want their games to be DRM-free. So, we’re left with “Steam is bad because it’s so popular because it produced actual value and nobody can be bothered with challenging it.”

      Don’t get me wrong, there are legitimate criticisms against Steam for days. It could and should be better. But arguing as the Polygon article did that it’s immoral and/or exploitative because reasons… is just absurd.

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      • pls how do italics i cant even

        “The means make a difference.”

        I agree, but at this point are we arguing about Steam as it is could be improved, that Steam as it is is conceptually a bad monopoly, or Steam has improved the market? Because I think all of those can be true without being at all relevant to one another. It also depends how much you want to get into counterfactuals, but I’ll stand by that Steam is inherently a bad, “good guy Valve” monoply that stifled competition despite being an absolute shitheap for the first five years (something people are keen to wash over now).

        “Incidentally, this is not at all a similar case as with Steam and its rivals. Not only could any other platform come out with a lower supply-side cut (e.g. 25% or whatever), it can also compete on price on the product side. Shit, it’s been a while since I directly bought something from Steam – I get Steam codes from Humble Bundle, GMG, and elsewhere because it’s cheaper than on Steam itself.”

        To be honest I’m very much the target market for FB Live and Snapchat et al (Western middle class under-30 get in) but I struggle to understand the point of any of them, it was more just the most recent thing I could think of that wasn’t “social media perpetuates echochamers”.

        I agree it’s not at all similar in some ways, but I think you can’t ignore the social aspect of Steam because it’s just so handy. All of your online friends, there, all the time? Easily inevitable? A server browser? Crikey.

        Let me throw this at you: how about considering Steam as much more akin to the software of the PS4 and Xbone than as a mere content delivery system? Because I think that’s a much more interesting and fruitful comparison – although it does begin to stand against the idea that competition makes the service better. I imagine it’s a counterfactual again, but it’s food for thought. But, then, it depends on how much one wants to let (neo)classical economics fuck one raw before admitting that competition and the free market aren’t everything.

        “See, that’s the thing. The “revolution” is entirely dependent on exploitative worker practices. There is no Uber with drivers with health insurance, minimum wage, or all the traditional trappings of a labor market. It’s good that Uber et tal are pushing cab companies to invest in apps and technology more, but ride-sharing only exists at all because someone found a way to pay workers even less. That shit is immoral.”

        Look I mean I think Uber is the devil’s work delivered in a sleek package. Like Apple, then? It goes against everything I believe politically and economically by prioritising the cheapness and satisfied needs of drunk rich cunts at 4am over giving already destitute workers a living wage.

        Having said that, I’m not sure you can make the argument that the price is completely dependent on the app. I think a market certainly does exist for higher taxi prices whilst still having Uber’s app features. The revolutionary point is not really (at least for me) being cheap – taxis are cheap here. What is revolutionary is being able to see, real time, how long, where, how much and how trusted my taxi is from the comfort of my garbage tier smartphone without anything breaking and without having to batter my brain looking for a road sign at 6am coming down in the middle of some dark warehouses that may or may not be on a map. And the uber still gets here. That, to me, is revolutionary, rather than “yes sir okay sir 30 minutes” “by the way where are you I’m on the wrong side of city” “oh yeah it’s actually £30 ignore the dashmeter”.

        “Don’t get me wrong, there are legitimate criticisms against Steam for days. It could and should be better. But arguing as the Polygon article did that it’s immoral and/or exploitative because reasons… is just absurd.”

        Very true. I do think you underplay the dreadful mod support because, let’s be real here, Valve are a studio that have built their fucking gold mine out of stealing mods and polishing them. To not have incredible mod support both developmentally and for consumers literally boggles the mind on so many levels, economics being the most obvious. They’ve probably crunched the numbers.

        I think what’s important to take away is not to overpraise Steam and Valve to the point of buying into their word of mouth brand strategy. It’s the most effective form of promotion, but defending it/them to the hilt is just feeding into the ferociously uncritical lens most gamers have about the companies and practices therein that develop their beloved games.

        I mean just imagine in the near future:

        Valve underfunds X to the point of an entire studio being laid off? Just the market, bro.
        Valve promotes gender equality? Get ready for the shitshow.

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  4. mountainash13

    “See, that’s the thing. The “revolution” is entirely dependent on exploitative worker practices.”

    So the lack of employer provided health insurance is exploitative and immoral? Still amazes me people have come to think of this as a right and not a benefit. Or is it the pay rate?

    No one forced a single Uber driver to work for the company. And if their practices were so draconian, either another company would spring up that paid better and/or offered more benefits, or no one would work for Uber and the company would fold. Free market economics 101.

    To bring this back around to Steam, they can really take whatever percentage of player generated content sales they want. If they take too high a percentage, no one bothers creating content. Steam’s goal, in-so-far as being a successful company, is to pay the absolute lowest percentage possible that will still result in enough players creating and selling content to generate substantial revenue for Steam.

    I agree with you that Steam really isn’t exploiting anyone, but I’m failing to see why you think the Uber scenario is so different. Company A paying as little as possible for employee labor is ok, but company B paying as little as possible for employee labor isn’t?

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    • So the lack of employer provided health insurance is exploitative and immoral? Still amazes me people have come to think of this as a right and not a benefit.

      If you mean that employers shouldn’t really be the gatekeepers of health insurance in the first place, and we should move in the US towards a single-payer system, I agree. If you mean that any health care at all is a bonus, myself and the rest of the modern world disagree.

      No one forced a single Uber driver to work for the company. And if their practices were so draconian, either another company would spring up that paid better and/or offered more benefits, or no one would work for Uber and the company would fold. Free market economics 101.

      Another company like… taxi cabs? Which already exist and Uber is undermining by profiting on the margins between employees with benefits and “self-employed” gig workers who are nevertheless bound by employee-esque rules?

      Disrupting established industries is fine on the face of it, but the methodology and downstream effects matter. It is just like how Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and other such companies end up costing taxpayers billions of dollars because their workers don’t make enough money to feed themselves. If there were zero public assistance, nobody would work at these places because they could not survive on the wages provided, and thus the companies would be forced to increase the pay. But because there is public assistance, they can keep wages depressed and pocket the difference as a government subsidy.

      In a similar manner, even if Uber isn’t one’s main source of income (it can’t be), it’s expansion will destroy the competition that actually pays for livable wages/benefits, and then suddenly everyone is a contractor with no secure means of income. At which point the government will have to step in again to subsidize the profits of the 1% in a Race to the Bottom.

      I agree with you that Steam really isn’t exploiting anyone, but I’m failing to see why you think the Uber scenario is so different.

      Steam’s disruption to the industry or it’s “virtual monopoly” wasn’t built upon making workers’ lives worse. Or even being anti-competitive. Steam did not pull a Microsoft and make it difficult to install a different web browser, or exclusivity agreements with developers, or any of the traditional aggressive monopolistic practices.

      Uber doesn’t exist with employees with benefits driving the cars. That’s the difference.

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  5. No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.

    Eh, maybe no one is, but there are definitely inertial forces at work. People have most of their games on steam, so they are naturally resistant to move due to sunk costs. For that matter, content creation reimbursement percentages aren’t a very salient factor for most people when choosing a platform. Valve likely bets, correctly, that their 75% cut is pretty invisible except to the tiny percentage that actually make content, and those people might just be happy getting anything.

    For myself, I’ve used Uplay and thought it was fine. GoG is straight up better than steam, but it also has a somewhat different market. In the long run I think companies just decide that trying to directly compete with steam is not worth it, so you see more proprietary launchers ala Blizzard.

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    • There are indeed inertia factors at work. I don’t foresee Facebook ever being dethroned at this point, because at a certain size, there are too many stakeholders invested in the success of the underlying framework.

      That being said, I would suggest that gamers can be a lot less loyal than anyone thinks. I am resistant to leaving the Steam ecosystem, sure, but if there was a competing platform with a similar library of titles that was consistently 5% cheaper? Like I said, I basically buy zero games from Steam directly anymore, even during Steam sales. It would not take much to reach a critical mass with me.

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