There was a time, not so long ago, when every PC developer wanted to be on Steam. Getting your game on Steam — if you could manage to somehow contact Valve and impress the company with your wares — was a golden ticket to sales and success.
Those days are over, according to the 20 developers I spoke with for this story. While selling a game on Steam has never been easier, only a “chosen few” are reportedly lucky enough to have Valve’s mysterious algorithm favor them with some promotional screen real estate, or popular enough to get a Valve representative to help them with a support ticket. The rest often feel like they’re on their own.
For many Steam developers, this two-tiered and algorithmically curated culture of “one Steam for the popular, and one Steam for the rest” is leading to dissatisfaction, resentment and confusion.
How this story began
I started receiving emails from developers who wanted to air their concerns about Steam after I wrote an article about the cold, corporate illusion behind the “Good Guy Valve” reputation. I’ve spent the last few months following up on these concerns, speaking to 20 different developers, from small-scale operations up to well-known “AAA indie” developers, to get a feel for what it is that has made so many of these once-eager Steam evangelists so cautious and bitter.
Very few of those developers were willing to put their names to their criticisms, with one even saying that they were “pissing themselves in fear” about the idea of an off-the-record Discord voice call. Much like the Steam Workshop creator community, which lives in terror at the knowledge that Valve could cut off their income at any time, Steam developers know who holds all the power in the relationship.
Here’s what those developers had to say.
The struggle with Steam reviews
It has been nearly five years since Steam introduced the review system. Since that time, there have been millions of reviews left on countless Steam pages, an entirely new genre of gaming journalism invented, and a radical overhaul made just to handle the backlash from angry PewDiePie fans.
Steam users enjoyed having an easy and convenient way to share their thoughts and opinions, while Valve enjoyed successfully implementing a system that encouraged users to invest more unpaid time and effort toward supporting the Steam ecosystem. Valve never pays for anything it can get users to do for free. Remember, Valve is a company that Gabe Newell himself described as “more profitable on a per-employee basis than Google and Apple.”
For some developers, however, the last five years of Steam reviews have been a nightmare.
”The whole way Steam handles reviews is so brutal and backbreaking to developers,” one developer with more than 500 reviews on their latest title told me. “I’m almost scared to talk about this because I’m scared of gamers knowing how much more power they have than they think.”
Steam’s automated system will change the font color on the store page from a pleasant blue (“Positive”) to an unpleasant brown (“Mixed”) if you get too many negative reviews. I had assumed, before writing this article, that the threshold for moving from “Positive” to “Mixed” would have been square in the middle, at 50 percent.
It turns out that you need to hold a surprisingly high minimum of 70 percent recommended reviews to get the positive rating. This makes it very easy for just a handful of negative reviews (“just three, four, maybe five” in the case of smaller games, some developers allege) to push you from blue into brown. That change comes with an almost instant drop in the number of sales, according to the developers I spoke with.
Players have a lot of power, but that wouldn’t be a bad thing if they were using the review system just for reviewing games. However, the system is being used for something else entirely, and the result is a huge headache for developers who have to play along with Valve’s flawed setup.
Reviews are the new tech support
Steam’s review system often works as a support line, where players ask for help with everything from computer compatibility to lost passwords. This creates huge issues with the legitimacy of “reviews,” as developers are given few tools to handle things in a more effective way.
”If a gamer expresses any kind of problem on the forums, I have zero support tools to handle it other than answering on a public forum,” one developer told me. “That’s not a good way to provide support. I can’t find out anything about their account, their computer, nothing. So what they end up doing, is they end up using the review system as a way to get support. I can’t tell you how many reviews I’ve got for issues which have nothing to do with the quality of the game. Forgot my password? Negative review. [Blue screen of death]? Negative review. These are things that are clearly support issues.”
Asked to describe what support tools are available to them, a different developer brought up the same issue.
“Well the tools are just the review system,” they said. “There’s no ticket management or way to allocate tasks. Or if there is I don’t know where it is. We try to push people to our Freshdesk support so we can manage there, but that’s tough. I’ve also tried to [private-message] people to fix issues and delve in deeper and that’s just potluck they check them and respond.”
Other developers are finding themselves using the forum as a launchpad to push users into Discord, or other third-party channels where they can provide meaningful support. Steam is, oddly enough, often the worst way to interact with players.
“I opened a channel for [bug reports] on the public forum, but I don’t get notifications for that, so I constantly have to be checking the thing,” Yitz, developer of hand-drawn RPG Nepenthe, told me over email.
“I tend to be super-engaged with my players, since my fanbase is still small enough to strike up friendships,” Yitz added. “Most people figure that out pretty quickly, and I often work out bugs on chat in Discord. Steam provides very little support for all of this.”
It’s not all bad news
“There are occasional [uses] of the review system to request support, but mostly we’ve found reviews have been genuine,” said Paul Turbett of Black Lab Games, which most recently launched the extremely positively received Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock.
“We have seen some themes emerge in reviews about things that [players] do and don’t like about our game,” Turbett explained. “The things they do like are great validation, and the things they don’t like are useful to help us make decisions for updates we make to the game.”
“I wish [the review system] had a popup that said ‘if this is a bug report, please send it to the developer first’ because that would make it harder to lose them,” Jaffit told me. “But that’s because I like to fix our users’ problems, not because I have issues with people leaving negative reviews. The reviews are fair as a way of aggregating ‘how happy are people with their purchase, by comparison to other games on Steam?’ which is all anyone should be using the review score indicator for.”
Even the developers who had positive things to say about the system admitted that they had to dispute the odd review here and there for slurs or outright trolling.
So what happens when a developer wants to contest a review? Would you believe that there isn’t a clear system in place for doing so?
Steam pushes back
While it is possible for a developer to try and have a negative review removed, the process often feels like a mystery, with no clear guidelines given to developers or publishers.
“[Valve] won’t do anything about the negative reviews that are obviously just support questions,” one developer told me in a resigned voice over Discord. “[Valve] doesn’t give even the users any kind of tools! So the users know the negative review will get attention, because they know devs don’t want a negative review. [Valve will] also do nothing about trolls, even when it’s obvious. [...] I’ve flagged negative reviews where someone was saying they wouldn’t recommend the game because our online service had its own EULA.”
This is a serious point of contention for some developers.
“I flag them. The ticket gets rejected,” they told me. “Then I mail my Steam rep with a list. The rep says ‘it’s your responsibility to maintain open communication and properly set expectations, and you won’t have a problem with negative reviews.’ Seriously? That’s the answer? This guy gave me a negative review because I wouldn’t let him have the word ‘FUCK’ in his name. How is this a failure of expectation management?”
Steam reps allegedly often tell developers that “many of the top 10 games on Steam have negative reviews” as a way of placating upset developers — a perspective that developers I spoke to found laughable.
“Those are the games with the budgets to advertise on prime-time TV,” one developer responded when I put the question to them. “They’re driving users with sources that have nothing to do with Steam whatsoever. They’re not even in my universe.”
Forced discounts, or “regional pricing”
Anyone who sells their game on Steam can expect that it will be available for purchase in markets all around the world; the platform’s reach is global. Steam boasts to developers that it will handle local currencies for them in a seamless manner, allowing them to get back to the business of game development.
However, there’s a catch. What many developers don’t know is that Steam is discounting their games for them in these other markets — selling their game at a rate in euros, rubles, won and so on that works out to be anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent off the original U.S. dollar price. That’s an enormous discount, and it’s one that many developers may not even be aware is happening.
If you’re a developer, you can check this out right now in the “Store Packages, Pricing & Release Dates” section by clicking on the dollar/pound sign icon on the right, next to your package. From there, you can compare the numbers that Valve is using to the current currency exchange rates, and see the difference.
This policy of deep discounting is spelled out in the Steam documentation. Valve writes that it will “recommend pricing strategies based on our experience and we may suggest prices based on currency conversions and other factors.”
Of all the developers I spoke with while researching this article, only Defiant’s Jaffit was aware that it was Valve’s practice to “recommend pricing strategies” in this manner, and was able to refer me to the correct place in the documentation that discussed it.
“It’s not like Steam invented regional pricing,” Jaffit explained. “Our experience is that it results in more sales. With 10,000 games on Steam, there’s no clear ‘one true way,’ and while I think the defaults are appropriate starting places for most devs, they all should at least know what they are so, they’ve got room to make specific changes that work for their title.”
An impossible choice
Many other developers were less keen on the system — once they were informed that it was actually happening.
“I had no idea it was this low,” said one developer, who has had experience dealing with similar regional pricing practices across stores run by Apple, Google, Nintendo and others. “They could have easily flagged this and emailed us as devs.”
Essentially, Valve offers developers an almost unworkable choice, and then tells them they have the freedom to do whatever they like. If they don’t want their games to be massively discounted in other territories, they do technically have the freedom to spend hours of their time every week checking 40 different exchange rates and manually adjusting 40 different prices. Or they can leave it alone, trust Valve to handle it for them and deal with the consequences.
The consequences are worse for some developers than others. One developer told me that they actually lost out on a local distribution deal in South America as a result of the discount that Steam had applied without their knowledge.
“All the negotiations were going really well,” said the developer. “It was really far along, very promising. Then [our local partner] told us that as the final part of the deal we would need to raise the price in [the local currency] on Steam, as we were selling at such a deep discount that they couldn’t possibly compete with it.”
This sent the team scrambling.
“I remember stopping the conversation and saying, ‘Wait, we’re not selling at a discount. What are you talking about?’ That’s when they showed me the local price. I was shocked. It was less than half of what I thought it would be.”
In some ways, although Steam allows a greater level of pricing control across different regions than other providers do, that control comes at the cost of your constant attention. There’s no way of telling Steam that you want your game to be sold at a flat one-to-one currency conversion, or that you want to sell at 60 percent of one currency and 80 percent of another. There’s no API that you can use to manage it. It’s Valve’s way, or the highway.
For example, if you decide your $14.99 game is worth a direct one-to-one exchange of 945 Russian rubles and you manually set it at that price, then you better hope that the dollar/ruble exchange rate doesn’t fluctuate too much. Steam won’t notify you if it does, and you won’t know why your sales have dropped off in that region until you log back in and check the currency settings.
One developer who is currently selling their game for $14.99 allowed me to log into their Steam account so that I could confirm what I had been told about the discounted regional pricing model.
We stood there together and ran through the various local prices that Steam had set, and compared them to the exchange rates of the day. Almost without exception, all of them were heavily discounted from the one-to-one dollar conversion.
“Bloody hell,” they said, after a few minutes of scrolling. “I didn’t know.”
Developers want Valve to take a stronger hand
Although you might expect that it would be otherwise, I discovered that Valve’s new completely-hands-off approach hasn’t won any friends among the developer community. Steam users have already complained about having to deal with dozens of asset flips, Trojan scares and literal cryptocurrency mining scams, but even the developers who can now publish whatever they want, whenever they want, say that they feel a heavier hand is needed.
“There are people making quality titles that are getting the same level of support as troll games that were made in three days,” Michael Hicks, developer of Pillar, Path of Motus and other indie titles told me. “Then Valve takes a 30 percent cut for doing next to nothing. That’s my main issue with their whole system.”
Others are worried about the market’s legitimacy.
“It’s dangerous,” said another developer. “There should be some minimum level of checking to make sure junk (and I mean actual junk that doesn’t work) is on the store. Walmart wouldn’t let anyone put stuff on their shelves, so why should Valve?”
Valve defended its Steam Direct decision by saying that “the games we allow onto the Store will not be a reflection of Valve’s values,” a defense that was criticized at the time as tantamount to giving up and walking away. Developers were quick to echo these sentiments when questioned.
”I’m a huge free speech guy,” said one developer. “Commercial products are a form of expression, I believe that, but it’s not the same. This bullshit defense of ‘just because we sell a game doesn’t mean we endorse it...’ what! You have to accept that you implicitly endorse anything you sell and you take a cut of.”
Is Steam’s 30 percent cut worth it?
Nearly all the developers interviewed for this piece, when asked if Steam’s 30 percent cut of revenue was worth it, answered with a resounding “no.” Many spoke fondly of the good old days, when Valve “actually did something” to earn their money. Now, many of these developers allege, those days are over.
“There used to be other companies you could use to do what Steam did, manage updates and transactions, companies like BMT Micro,” another developer said. “Most of those companies would take 4 percent or 5 percent from each sale. What Steam was supposed to provide for the additional 25 percent was ‘all those customers,’ but now they’re not providing that, and they’re actually [sending] you toxic customers who leave you negative reviews who make things worse for you.”
Hicks said that for him, the major difference between Valve’s 30 percent and Microsoft or Sony’s 30 percent was in the level of personal support and care the companies provided.
“Sony and Microsoft both provided me with personal contacts that I can pitch ideas to. They also provide contacts to pitch things regarding marketing [...] so if I have an idea for a cool promotion I can at least talk to someone about it,” Hicks explained. “Additionally, they do everything they can to provide each game with a nice chunk of store visibility at launch.”
Steam does not offer the same level of care.
“Valve has none of this,” Hicks continued. “They stopped giving everyone a personal contact, the amount of banner support you get at launch is based off title popularity so nothing is guaranteed, and I have no one to pitch marketing ideas to. If they’re going to be completely hands-off and redirect smaller developers to a message board for any type of support issues ... yeah, that’s not worth 30 percent to me. Honestly, they do as much as itch.io does and itch takes 10 percent for a default percentage!”
Many developers also spoke negatively about what they perceived as the ongoing and essentially unbreakable monopoly that Steam holds over the PC gaming market.
“I don’t think any digital store that takes 30 percent to host a download and take a payment can justify that split, but it’s a wider problem than just Valve/Steam,” Paul Turbett told me. “Unfortunately, it’s an industry standard now, and unlikely to change — especially given that most platforms have a single dominant store or a monopoly, and therefore no incentive to give developers a better deal.”
Jaffit took the opposite tack, and praised the 30 percent cut as good value, especially compared with the alternatives.
“Steam gives a massive amount of free marketing to some titles, and not others,” he said. “They [choose] the titles that get front page featuring algorithmically these days, which means they’re attempting to show their users games they’ll buy. If you’re in that list, then Valve for their 30 percent provides you with a truly massive amount of free marketing.”
Love it or hate it, the 30 percent cut is now standard, and will be hard to shake.
“Given how [metric-driven] web marketing is, it’s easy to put a price on that — and in general, that price is similar to the 30 percent cut Steam takes,” Jaffit continued. “In other words, if you had to buy your marketing from Facebook and Google, you’d end up paying more (and you’d probably sell less, because people are less trustworthy landing directly on your page than ending up on Steam).”
One Steam for the successful, another for the rest
As I spoke to more and more developers about their issues with Valve, a tale of two Steams began to emerge.
For developers with lots of sales and lots of positive reviews, Steam was good value for money, reasonable to deal with and pleasingly transparent, and could be relied upon to answer support queries and tickets in a timely fashion.
Meanwhile, other developers who were struggling to make sales, or dealing with online services that required additional support, found themselves frustrated at a marketing algorithm that was “almost impossible to understand,” waiting for days without an answer to any ticket lodged, and screaming in frustration when Valve delivered another stock response asking them to “better manage customer expectations.”
Valve allegedly stopped giving developers personal contacts around the time the service opened up to anyone willing to pay the fee.
“I definitely don’t feel valued as a developer on their platform; I just feel like another statistic that’s going through their automated process,” Hicks said.
When developers do take their issues with Steam directly to Valve, the company often disregards their concerns. Developers who were selected for the Indie Megabooth at PAX have reportedly compiled two separate comprehensive surveys about their experiences, and mailed the results to Valve. The company did not even bother to respond, these Indie Megabooth developers told me, and absolutely nothing has changed. Many have since given up on communicating with the company.
Even in their anger, developers are quick to point out that they believe it’s Valve’s famously cliquey “high-school-like” management, not the on-the-ground Valve employees, who are at fault. If anything, they say, their hearts go out to the employees and the workload they are under.
“The people at Valve I have dealt with [...] I have never had any problems,” one developer told me. “I feel like they work their ass off. In fact I feel like they work their ass off too much. I feel like they have about 4,000 jobs each. It’s shocking. Valve management has this corporate culture where they refuse to hire anybody. They want an automated or algorithmic solution for everything. I think the employees are too overworked and they’re not permitted to do the things they would like to do.”
Even if developers lose, Valve wins
As Valve has done with marketing, community content, localization and so many other things, it seems that when it comes to developers, Valve has once again positioned itself perfectly in a place to maximize profits and minimize responsibility.
The way that Steam is engineered ensures that Valve itself remains as invisible as possible, cultivating a “connecting platform” relationship where the developer is always the one at fault, always the one to blame, always the one to suffer — what one developer called a “cultish belief.”
As big titles and “AAA indies” are pushed more and more ahead by what smaller developers perceive as an incomprehensible algorithm, the future of Steam seems bleak for those who haven’t been able to break through the noise.
“I think that the way Steam is heading now will result in small developers moving on to places like itch.io,” one developer told me. “Steam is no longer the golden ticket it once was. It hasn’t been that way for many years now, but I think at the smaller indie end of town, it is getting worse.”
None of this likely matters much to Valve, however — the company gets paid either way.
“It seems like Valve are hoping the less popular games will just fail out of existence,” a developer told me. ”But they don’t mind collecting their share of those small profits as they fail.”
We reached out to Valve for comment on these matters, and have yet to receive a response.
Tim Colwill is an Australian trade union officer and organizer with the Australian chapter of Game Workers Unite. He is also the founder and editor of satirical gaming outlet Point & Clickbait. You must not, under any circumstances, @ him on Twitter.