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Steam’s upcoming pay structure won’t help devs or players

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The issue of paying for inclusion

Steam Universe logo on blue background Valve

The Steam Greenlight system, where players vote on which games make it onto Steam, is going away. The replacement involves a more straightforward method of paying for inclusion.

The new system — Steam Direct — is simple: You pay Valve money — between $100 and $5,000, Valve hasn’t decided yet — and you get to release your game on Steam. The fees are recoupable, although we don’t know exactly what that will mean yet. The assumption is that if you plan on selling a certain amount of games, the fee to publish your game on Steam won’t actually impact your bottom line. If you don’t think you can sell a minimum number of copies? The fee is a very real cost; you will lose money.

Valve is basically giving up on the idea of curation. Anyone who can pay the fee can get their game on Steam. If you violate copyright, DMCA complaints will get your game removed. If your game is absolute garbage, the standard refund rules apply.

The bigger question is why bother limiting the number of games on the service at all?

Valve’s business brings very little risk

Valve keeps the publication fee if a game doesn’t sell any copies and, if a game does sell a lot of copies, Valve gets a cut of all those sales past the recoupable fee. Valve has little risk in this system, and Steam as a service will likely still be flooded with vast amounts of games that have little chance to find an audience.

Sorry to be a downer about the whole thing.

The service’s algorithms for matching games with potential buyers — if you like strategy games, it’s basically in Steam’s best interests to show you more strategy games — will remain powerful, and featured slots will remain valuable to the games that get them. This is Steam’s business, after all: To match games with players who will hopefully enjoy them.

“When we consider any new features or changes for Steam, our primary goal is to make customers happy,” the blog post announcing these changes states. “We measure that happiness by how well we are able to connect customers with great content. We’ve come to realize that in order to serve this goal we needed to move away from a small group of people here at Valve trying to predict which games would appeal to vastly different groups of customers.”

So why charge a fee at all?

A nominal fee at least keeps companies from flooding the service with “crappy” games, but the service is already flooded with more content than anyone can reasonably control.

The days Steam inclusion being an indicator of anything are long gone. There is no expectation of quality or even completion on the service right now. Being on Steam doesn’t confer legitimacy, and it hasn’t in some time. Asking developers for money, which was always a part of the Greenlight process anyway, won’t change that. This fee and paperwork system is, to be blunt, a solution looking for a problem.

Curation was never the answer

You really shouldn’t care if a million games are added to Steam every year; if you can’t get anyone’s interest — either organically or through effective marketing — your game will sink without a trace. There is no limitation to the shelf space on virtual storefronts, and one game being offered doesn’t shove another game off Steam.

Many games that seem inexplicable may become hits, and a lot of games that deserve success will sink without a trace. This is a problem that plagues every single art form in existence; and it’s an issue that wasn’t addressed by Greenlight and won’t be fixed by arbitrary fees.

Have you ever found yourself upset that bad music exists on Spotify when you’re listening to the new Run the Jewels album? Similarly,, no one has ever argued that one should have to pay to put a video on YouTube to make sure it’s “good enough.” The question is whether the company that owns the service ties its own self-worth to the content it’s providing. YouTube does not; there is plenty of unwatchable video on YouTube. Spotify keeps the same distance from its content; it clearly doesn’t feel like it’s cheapening itself by offering dozens of knockoff piano-only versions of Radiohead songs.

Netflix, on the other hand, has a brand it’s trying to strengthen by releasing or licensing shows and movies that are either “good” or at least of interest its audience. HBO is in the same boat; the quality of the content on the service can either weaken or strengthen its own name.

But those are services that you pay to access. Steam doesn’t make any money until you buy something. And the more things that Steam offers, the more opportunities there are to find surprise hits or even just weird flukes. It’s unlikely that any non-automated curation method would have seen Flappy Bird coming, and that’s the real fear in the new ecosystem. The real challenge isn’t defending the gates, it’s in getting better about making matches with customers. This is where Valve can do a better job earning its 30 percent rake on game sales.

To put it another way, I’m not worried about piles of games that never see the light of day, I’m worried that the current model of using what I look at or buy as a predictor of what I want to see limits my ability to not only see what I want, but to be surprised.

I watch a lot of science fiction on streaming services, but Netflix still didn’t think it should push Stranger Things at me when that show launched. I’m in the process of remodeling my bathroom and, after having purchased a bathtub, targeted ads now seem to think that I really need more bathtubs. The art of trying to anticipate what someone wants to see online is just dismal, and this seems to be a challenge that Valve is hoping to tackle.

Can Steam figure out a way to predict surprise, multi-demographic hits like Downton Abbey, but for games? I don’t care what some shrieking, sarcastic YouTuber suggests, I want a system that can get me from The Avengers to The Great British Baking Show. There’s not a lot of connective tissue between those two properties, but by gosh I love them both and online services that offer an overwhelming amount of material is failing to figure out why.

Developers want Steam to be a service that helps them find customers, and the fact so many of them are willing to give up 30 percent of their revenue to be on the platform leads us to believe they have faith that it’s possible. Players want a service that’s easy to use, minimizes risk with purchases and offers strong social features. Asking developers for cash upfront, even if it’s recoupable from Valve’s revenue share, doesn’t actually further either of those goals.

Steam’s goal seems to be to make money by connecting players to games they will enjoy, and it’s unclear how limiting the number of games on the service by demanding an upfront fee will ever accomplish that goal. During a time when machine learning still can’t figure out I’m never searching for Belly the rapper, no matter how many ‘90s rock bands I listen to, Steam’s idea to collect a fee from developers at the door makes little sense.

We shouldn’t care if everyone is given a home on Steam, but we should hope the service finds better way to connect us with games we didn’t know we couldn’t live without. If Valve can master that challenge, it won’t matter how many games are welcomed onto the service or if they have paid to get in.