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Steam, Unleashed

As many people are writing about, Steam recently revised their policy on policing the content of games sold on their platform. The new policy? Anything goes… unless it’s illegal or “trolling.”

So we ended up going back to one of the principles in the forefront of our minds when we started Steam, and more recently as we worked on Steam Direct to open up the Store to many more developers: Valve shouldn’t be the ones deciding this. If you’re a player, we shouldn’t be choosing for you what content you can or can’t buy. If you’re a developer, we shouldn’t be choosing what content you’re allowed to create. Those choices should be yours to make. Our role should be to provide systems and tools to support your efforts to make these choices for yourself, and to help you do it in a way that makes you feel comfortable.

I agree with pretty much everyone that this change will not go well for Valve.

What I don’t think is appreciated as much though, is the quandary Valve was/is in. Although there has been movements to erode it, most of the internet is still protected by Safe Harbor rules, meaning that you cannot be held responsible for content that other people post. This has led to a weird dichotomy in which Valve gets blamed for letting school shooting games slip through the cracks – and how this must reflect on Valve’s values as a company – whereas no one holds any such standards on Google, through which you can readily find the most vilest of content imaginable. “Steam is offering it for sale though!” Okay… how about Amazon and eBay and Craigslist and any ISP that allows whatever store/forum to be hosted on their bandwidth?

Do we even want these tech entities to be the arbiters of morality on our behalf?

When I saw this announcement, my first thought was “Yikes,” followed by “This is probably less bad than simply saying ‘We now allow (cartoon) porn.'” Because that is really what’s going on here, IMO. Remember the game Hatred? That was pulled from Steam for violence/controversy back in 2014… and personally reinstated the next day by Gabe Newell, who said:

Hi Jaroslaw. Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers. Good luck with your game.

Conversely, the number of uncensored hentai games on Steam can be counted with, ahem, one hand.

You can make all the “Artistic!” arguments you want, but the bottom line is that Valve had to constantly argue that Geralt having sex on a stuffed unicorn (etc) in Witcher 3 was fine, but anime boobs was going too far. Worse than literal Hitler, in fact, or outrageous violence and gore. Visual Novel studios had to censor their products, and then offer instructions on the Steam forums on how to uncensor it via patches. Until Valve cracked down on that… which then led to developers giving instructions on their own webpages and dedicated fans then relaying that info via Steam forums.

To be clear, this policy shift will unleash all sorts of actual disgusting, offensive garbage on the platform, a few clicks away from anyone. Steam will still have a long way to go to get as bad as this site, but they are certainly heading down that road.

But at some point, I have to ask… why shouldn’t Steam be a simple (DRM) platform? The argument that Steam used to be a curation of the best games is a canard from yesteryear. In 2013, there were 565 new games released on Steam. The following years, that number increased to 1772 in 2014, 2964 in 2015, 4207 in 2016 (40% of all games on the platform), and 7672 in 2017. Any sort of active curation has not been occurring for at least four years, and certainly stopped by 2016.

Amusingly, we seem to be on the pendulum backswing when it comes to videogame punditry. Back in the day, you had to rely on gaming magazines like Nintendo Power and Game Players (ah, my youth) to find out any useful information about the gaming world. Then gaming went mainstream, and for a while there you were able to consume the information available on your own. Now there are so many games and information vying for your limited attention that it’s better to just find a few websites or bloggers with similar tastes and just follow them. That’s your curation now.

Anyway, like I said before, I fully anticipate Valve being raked over the coals for this move (which they have arguably been doing for 4+ years now). It’s already happening, actually, but it will get much worse for them once (more) outright racist and sexually violent games are released and then broadcast on cable news channels. I don’t want those games to exist either… but someone apparently felt that way about uncensored Visual Novels for many years, and I didn’t think that was particularly reasonable. Those two things are not equivalent… and that’s kinda the point.

Is it that we are supposed to trust Valve’s corporate values to arbitrate the correct morality, or is it more that Valve’s (nebulous) policy provided us a lever by which we could enforce our own? With Valve throwing up their hands, we have (for now) lost that leverage, and must rely instead on the much more difficult, and potentially futile, endeavor to change hearts and minds directly.

Bleach is a much better disinfectant than sunlight, but at some point we should address the issue of why shit is getting so dirty in the first place.

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Half Death: Episode 3

If you haven’t already heard the scuttlebutt… well, I’m sorry. The former lead writer for the Half Life series has released what is widely reported as a summary of the hitherto (and likely forevermore) unreleased Half Life 2: Episode 3. While it is being termed “fanfic” by the author himself, keep in mind that Marc Laidlaw left Valve in January of last year, and there are no other writers from the series remaining in Valve.

Read at your own risk unforeseen consequences.

Divorced from physics-based gameplay and otherworldly vistas, the plot ends pretty quick. And it certainly still leaves the door wide open to some kind of proper Half Life 3. But… this is closure enough for me. It feels right. While nothing can really assuage the ire I feel after the ending of Episode 2 almost ten years ago, this nevertheless meets me halfway. It lines up with pre-established lore, and completes the themes presented since the original game.

Which makes sense, coming from the person who wrote everything in the first place.

At the same time… goddammit. Valve hasn’t released a single-player game since Portal 2 in 2011. That’s more than five years ago, for those (not) playing at home. And really, they don’t need to anymore. Steam obviously more than pays for itself, as evidenced by the non-standards of Early Access and shovelware that make it to the front page. For all intents and purposes, Valve has taken the ball and gone home, having monetized every inch of the field. They built it, we came, they left.

Oh, well. At least there are all these other games I can play on Stea…

…goddammit, Gabe.

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.

On Mods

As you may as heard, Valve’s grand experiment with paid Skyrim mods debuted and shut down in three business days. At one point the untouchable darlings reddit, both Gabe and Skyrim itself has taken a huge beating in the eyes of the horde; Skyrim went from a 98% positive feedback rating on Steam down to 86%. Gabe confirmed that the number of emails his staff received will cost them literally $1 million to comb through.¹

From my seat up in the peanut gallery, the entire issue of paid mods seemed to be a solution in search of a problem. Was there some crisis in the modding community preventing mods from being developed? Were popular mods being abandoned? What, exactly, was the issue with the status quo?

To be clear, I’m not against people getting paid for their work, in the same way I’m not against, say, religious liberty. At the same time, I don’t think the concept in of itself justifies every means of expressing it. The modding scene was already a healthy ecosystem built upon passion, collaboration, and natural curation. SynCaine points out there are some mods out there more elaborate and fun than the game they’re built upon. Just imagine how many more, better mods would be generated if said people were paid for their work?

Well… err, maybe eventually.

The Skyrim paid mod section was not active for long, but the future cesspit of theft and profiteering was clear to see. Who looked at Steam Greenlight or Early Access and thought, hey, let’s introduce that to the modding community? Under a paid mod paradigm, you literally can’t give your mod away for free, because someone else can and will turn around and try to sell it for cash.

During Gabe’s AMA on reddit, the creator of the Nexus website point-blank asked what Valve was planning on doing in terms of, you know, not single-handedly monopolizing the modding market. Gabe had no real answer. Which is a problem considering paid Steam mods would give even ambivalent modders every economic incentive to pull their mods from Nexus and any other site to exclusively use Steam Workshop. I mean, what, is Nexus and all the other sites supposed to suddenly create their own mod marketplaces?

With the paid mods plan on ice (for the moment), there has been some further crying about how “freeloaders” and “trolls” have won the day. Out of the entire fiasco, that sentiment bothers me the most. Erecting pay-walls around hitherto free content is an erosion of Consumer Surplus, full stop; it doesn’t matter whether modders “should” have been getting paid this entire time. Splintering the modding community into factions with negative incentive to cooperate is an erosion of Consumer Surplus. Maybe we get really well-done, professional mods out of the paid system eventually. But considering you are paying extra for that value, the Consumer Surplus gains may be a wash. In which case you are no better off than before, minus a thriving modding community.

Nevermind about all the bizarre arguments surrounding mods like DotA and Counter-Strike. Would those mods have achieved their meteoric status had they been priced “fairly” at the start? I don’t think anyone believes that that would be the case.

Do modders deserve to be paid for their work? Probably. Do I deserve to be paid for writing posts for the last four years? Feel free to Paypal me as much money you want. But as a consumer/reader, you are under no obligation, moral or ethical, to pay for something someone is giving away for free. And as a consumer/reader, you have every right to complain when your net Consumer Surplus is being reduced in any way. “Freeloaders” and “entitlement” are specious non-arguments, and especially absurd given how we’ll all talking about people who already bought a videogame.

If you want to pay modders, there is nothing stopping you. As in, right now. Go for it. I’m sure their contact information is listed somewhere on the mod page. Just don’t pretend this change was anything less than a fundamental redesign of the entire concept of modding. Or that this particular implementation was at all going to work, logistically or conceptually. In fact, I doubt that it ever does, even when Valve comes back to “iterate” the process later on. And by “work,” I mean generate more value in the aggregate for gamers and (free) modders alike.

¹ As opposed to Support tickets, which no human ever reads.

Xbox One Eighty

I take no credit for either the title nor the picture:

Sort of like SimCity's "cloud computing."

Sort of like SimCity’s “cloud computing.”

If you had not already felt the Earth’s sudden wobble from the magnitude of Microsoft’s about-face, allow me the pleasure of informing you: the Xbox One no longer has its ridiculous DRM. Namely:

  • No internet connection is required to play games.
  • No 24-hour online check-in.
  • You can buy/sell/gift/rent/lend game discs just like on the 360.
  • You can purchase digital versions of games on Day 1 and play offline (once downloaded).

One of the “casualties” of this Lance Armstrong-level backpedaling is that you can’t have that whole “10-person family sharing” plan or the ability to “take your games anywhere by logging in.” Often lost amongst the Apologist tears though was the simple fact that logging on from a friend’s Xbox One basically meant you would have had to wait for a 10+ GB download before playing anyway. And what were the odds that more than one member of the family could play the same game at the same time? In other words, you are not any worse off than the present system of just taking the disc with you.

Plus, you know, used games.

On a semi-related bit of interesting news, apparently Valve snuck some interesting code into the Steam software: shared libraries, e.g. lending digital games. Obviously nothing is formally implemented yet, but the premise seems to be that once you lend a game to a friend, they can play it until you log on to play it yourself (which then bumps them off). Which is… pretty remarkably clever if you think about it. Valve could just as easily went the other way, where you couldn’t play until your friend “gave it back,” which would probably discourage people from using the feature at all. Assuming there is no transaction fee or anything, I would feel comfortable giving one or two of my Steam buddies access to everything.

Regardless of which way the shared library plays out – if it plays out at all – today was a huge win for consumers everywhere. I am not quite ready to declare victory yet, but the future sure is looking considerably brighter than it was, oh, two weeks ago, eh?