Steam has the high ground, but for how long?

Most people on the internet, and almost all people who play games, have heard of Steam. Run by the Valve Corporation, it is the most widely used online storefront for games in the world and its sales, where games both big and little, old and new get huge price cuts, are what made it famous. However, in the last couple of years it has been well publicised that Steam has made a few missteps, along with Valve itself, and I have to ask whether Steam’s days are numbered.

I’ll start by talking about games because, before they made Steam, Valve did used to make some games. Now, however, Valve just make money. Creators of the critically acclaimed Portal and Half-Life series, Valve hasn’t released a game in 3 years. Their latest game, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, (CS:GO) is one of the three games that receive regular updates and support from Valve, the others being DOTA 2 and Team Fortress 2 (TF2). Both DOTA and CS:GO have big esports scenes and Valve do a good job of keeping them up, and both combined get around 1.5 million unique players every day, however, this can’t be all the people they have working on games. After all, it’s only updating and moderating them that requires programmers, and, while many people know Valve to drag their feet when making games (they’ve released the vast majority of their games and updates after when they said they would, sometimes announcing several release dates and missing each one in turn) I think it’s a bit ridiculous for Valve to be taking so long to turn over even one game.

The infamous example is Half-Life 3. I used to be of the opinion that Half-Life 3 was in development because it’s an obvious formula: Valve like money and people like Half-Life, so Valve will make money when they release Half-Life 3. They’ve even inadvertently created a lot of curiosity about the game by delaying it for so long. However, I now think that HL3 is just vapourware. I imagine that, at some point, it was being made but Valve long since decided to pursue other goals like Portal and Left4Dead, with the full intention of going back to it, but ultimately leaving HL3 in a half-ready state in a harddrive somewhere.

However, this is the least of Valve’s worries. Steam Greenlight started off promising but now its decent into a swamp of asset-flipped, early-access and straight up broken or unfinished games has been well documented. In principle you indie developers, who are the people who use greenlight, to have a sporting chance so you can’t layer on a huge cost as a barrier to entry, so Steam has to stick with the $100 price tag to put a trailer up for a game to be considered for Greenlight. However, this has opened the floodgates for the aforementioned money-spinning games that clog up the market, leading to the really good indie devs, who have a half decent or even highly praiseworthy game to be lost in the mire that is Steam Greenlight. Games like The Stanley Parable and Five Nights at Freddy’s show that there are good games which come from Greenlight, but you have to ask how many good indie games are lost because they are surrounded by rubbish that people just don’t want to wade through. All Valve would need to do is hire one or two people to just play the games that are on Greenlight and have a conversation with the developers behind them if there is a problem. A little aside to this; Steam has, potentially forever, ruined the phrase “in early-access,” but I’ll delve into that particularly frustrating rabbit-hole another time.

And finally we come round to competition. I don’t think gamers will warm to Origin any time soon, especially not while Andrew Wilson is leading EA’s bloody charge, but sites like GOG.com, that are able to wield sales like Steam does and also have the USP of being DRM free, means that Steam isn’t going to be the only big fish at some point, and I think that, unless they evolve, they may quickly lose customers, especially if their competitiors are someone like GOG.com which can run in a web browser. I personally don’t like the fact that I have a lot of games on Steam because there is no proof of purchase. If I forgot my login details one day and couldn’t recover them then that would be it for my library and I would have to say goodbye to my money or pirate the games I wanted. Steam has a monopoly for now, but, on the internet, that can be unpicked pretty quickly.

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