Do a few good games make up for years of anti-consumer practices?
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
Last week, Tim Colwell, creator of Point and Clickbait and one of the best men working in this godforsaken industry, wrote an article for Polygon entitled “Valve is not your friend, and Steam is not healthy for gaming.” As it so happened, this article came to my attention just as I was starting this week’s Second Opinion, which was going to be about the many flaws of Team Fortress 2. Now, I’m still going to do that, probably next week, but then I thought: I, too, hate Valve – I’ve been writing about that fact for a couple years now – and if this show can give a console a Second Opinion, why not a company? So, if you’ll pardon a slight deviation from our usual programming, let’s join hands and give everyone’s favorite evil corporate monopoly a desperately-needed Second Opinion.
My goal here is not to replace the Tim Colwell article or to simply re-state the points that he did. Part of that’s because it’s an excellent article, written by an excellent writer, and you should go read it. And the other part of that is because his article is more of a historical piece – a well-sourced look at Valve’s terrible business practices over the years. And that’s not really Second Opinion’s bag – this series is about criticism, not hard-hitting journalism, and it always has been. It’s not my place to weigh in on whether or not the “Good Guy Valve” image has always been a marketing ploy, as Colwell posits. I’m not interested on reporting on the fact that they’re dodging taxes and exploiting workers, even though it’s a matter of public record that they are and you should definitely be aware of that fact. But I’ll sure as hell critique them and their current anti-consumer business practices. Just as I’ve explained why, in my opinion, we should see Grim Fandango as being no better than your average point-and-click, I’m going to explain why, in my opinion, we should see Valve as being on the same level as EA, Ubisoft, and every other money-grubbing games industry parasite.
It’s not hard to see why people love The Valve Corporation (which is a corporation, as much as people like to forget that fact.) In their heyday, they were responsible for such games as the genre-defining (but not actually that good) Half-Life, the ALSO genre-defining Left 4 Dead, the hilarious and until recently seemingly unkillable Team Fortress 2, and Portal 2, which is the closest humanity has ever come to a truly perfect videogame. Oh, and they’re also responsible for a little-known game called DoTA 2, the single most-played game on Steam and one of the biggest eSports in the world. Once upon a time, they seemed like a company that truly cared about games, and about creating great experiences.
Then, they famously decided to quit making games, choosing instead to focus full-time on maintaining Team Fortress 2 and DoTA 2 and, most importantly, Steam – the largest PC games distributor in the world. Now that all of their writers and designers have either quit or are trapped in the purgatory of Team Fortress Comics, Valve will probably never make a game again. ESPECIALLY Half-Life 3 – can we all please shut up about that? No one who worked on the Half-Life games still works at Valve! It’s not happening, and even if it did, there’s no way it could hold up to a decade of hype.
Still, that didn’t bother me. You don’t want to make games anymore, so be it – all the stuff I love will still be there, and there’s nothing wrong with quitting while you’re ahead. I’d rather have two excellent Portal games than see it turn into some increasingly horrible annual franchise like Assassin’s Creed. What bothers me is that they didn’t work on Steam, they didn’t work on DoTA, and they didn’t work on Team Fortress 2. Steam is still a broken mess completely free of any sort of quality control, DoTA 2 recently had an update that completely changed everything and pissed off nearly the entire fanbase, and when Team Fortress 2 REALLY needed to make a big comeback, at the time when it was competing against the likes of Overwatch, Battleborn, and Paladins, when it needed to have the update to end all updates…they completely broke the game. Yeah, we’re definitely going to have to talk about that next week.
The thing about the Valve Corporation is that it’s lazy and it’s greedy. They’re used to having such a stranglehold on things that they don’t have to provide a quality product. For years, Team Fortress 2 was the best team-based multiplayer FPS on the market, and the only one with the cartoony, objective-focused approach Overwatch would later steal and improve upon. DoTA 2 players complain about every update, rightly, but that game’s slightly more addictive than cocaine, and if you’ve already sunk thousands of hours into it you’re not gonna throw that away just because they ignored all the actual balance issues in favor of re-painting Skeleton King. And what are you gonna do, not use Steam? ‘Cause as a reviewer, I can tell you that it’s the only place we ever get PC review code from.
A lot of people – Calwell included – have disputed Valve’s famous claims about their mobile offices and the fact that they let people work on whatever projects they want. But to be honest, I feel like there’s gotta be some truth to that, because otherwise I don’t know how you explain the depths of Valve’s laziness. Probably the most prominent example of this is Steam’s infamous lack of quality control. In case you’re somehow unaware, in the past several years, Steam has become an absolute dumping ground for crap games. I’m not even talking about stuff like that Slave Tetris game which, while obviously of low quality and poor taste, was at least a finished, functioning product. I’m talking about Journey of the Light, a game whose first level was unbeatable and whose other levels didn’t exist. I’m talking about games that just don’t work and the six different versions of the Unit Z asset pack that have made it to Greenlight or further. I’m talking about that Early Access TV show that was literally charging $7 for a .txt document describing what the show would eventually be.
I’m mad – and you should be too – that such a large storefront can’t handle one of the basic functions of the store, which is to provide working products that meet at least some standard of quality. I mean, sure, “buyer beware”, but what if I like trying smaller indie games? And for years, if you tried a game and it turned out to be garbage, you were fresh out of luck, even though UK law requires storefronts like Steam to offer refunds for any reason. Now they’ve finally introduced refunds, and there’s a bunch of ridiculous restrictions on them. Some games have even figured out how to be un-refundable, like this week’s Mirage: Arcane Warfare, which counts time spent playing the beta towards the two-hour limit for the full game.
What’s baffling, though, is how easy a problem this is to fix. Despite Valve’s litany of excuses, they could easily screen all the games that make it onto their store. In fact, they could even go through all the Early Access games and make sure that they’re actually making improvements and not just stagnating in the pre-Alpha phase. How do I know? On average, 100 games go onto Steam Greenlight a day. How many people do you think it would take, working 8 hours a day, to go through those games? If they look at 10 games a day – a little more than one game an hour, and more time than anyone should need to look at something like Potato Thriller and realize it’s crap – that’s only 10 people. They could pay for ten people just with the money they skimmed off the DoTA International prize pool. But even if that math is wrong, it’s unnecessary – I know that Valve could implement that kind of quality control because GOG implements that kind of quality control. You know – GOG? That tiny indie company with a team of 30 people? The company that isn’t making billions of dollars a year?
And Valve’s responses to the problem have each been more nonsensical than the last. They announced that they were going to replace Steam Greenlight with Steam Direct (a replacement that was supposed to happen in March, by the way.) With Steam Direct, you submit your game to an automated system that will let pretty much anything through, but only after you pay a fee that might be as high as $5,000. That price would limit one-man indie devs responsible for games like Undertale or The Search, and even some small teams, but wouldn’t limit companies like YOLO Army, who promise to get your games through Greenlight for a small fee and have been responsible for dozens of terrible low-quality games.
In response to the backlash this plan inevitably caused, they invited Jim Sterling and TotalBiscuit to come talk to them about how to make Steam better, and their new proposed initiatives are even more bizarre. There isn’t time in this video to go through them all – which should say a lot all by itself – but basically, their proposed plan would only allow you to see games the community has deemed “good.” That is, unless you decided to become a Steam Explorer, which would let you go through the crap and pick out the games that are actually good. In other words, Valve is hoping that you will do the quality control work for them – only without getting any sort of pay, naturally. It’s the same unincentivized labor they expect from Steam Curators. And from the artists and developers who put their heart and soul into the Steam Workshop, turning over the rights to their creations to Valve when they do so.
All of Steam’s responses to the quality control issue have been utterly baffling – whether it’s Steam Discovery, Steam Explorer, Steam Tags, or any other combination of “noun” and “Steam.” But they’re only baffling if you look at them from a perspective of actually solving the problem. They make perfect sense if your only goal is to make as much money as possible at the expense of your customers. Valve doesn’t want to solve the quality control problem – if they did, they have the resources to do so and would have fixed it long ago. They want these terrible games to make it onto the Steam storefront, because they make money on every sale. They make money on every trading card, which is how most of these less-than-bargain-bin games actually make their money back. And from that perspective, Steam Direct makes perfect sense. The $100 fee currently required for Greenlight goes to Child’s Play Charity. The 500, 1000, 5000 dollar fee for Steam Direct goes straight into Valve’s pocket. They’re literally taking money away from charity, folks – I don’t know how I can make this any more clear.
Lose the idea that Valve is somehow acting in the customers’ best interests, and a lot of things start to make sense. One of my personal pet peeves with Steam is the many problems with the Steam controller. Now, I’m a big fan of the controller – it’s actually my favorite controller for PC games by far. Sure, it takes some time to get used to, but being able to have mouse-accurate control with a gamepad is truly revolutionary. That is, it would be, if the haptic pads weren’t glitching all the time. And if the controller didn’t crash. And if the controller didn’t require the use of Steam Big Picture, which crashes even more. They’ve slowly been trickling out updates, but why haven’t they fixed these issues, especially when they’re still advertising the Steam Controller all over the storefront? Simple – each controller sale makes Steam a lot of money. Once you’ve bought it, they don’t care if you’re having a good time with it. It’s why they released a million Steam machines and haven’t offered any support since.
I could go on about Valve’s many anti-consumer business practices. As I said, I think next week we’ll dive into how and why they no longer care about maintaining their games. Plus there’s the fact that in 2015 they quietly announced that about 77,000 Steam accounts get hacked every month, despite their introduction of the awful Steam Guard service that makes me put in a code every time I try to use the mobile app, even on the same phone, even on the same network, even on the same day as the last time I used it. But the point is not to list every one of Valve’s missteps. The point is to bring to light the idea that a lot of people still can’t accept – the idea that Valve has missteps.
Look: you wanna keep buying from Valve, buy from Valve. For better and for worse, Steam is going to remain a huge part of the PC gaming landscape for years to come, mainly ‘cause, y’know, that’s how monopolies work. I mean, as much as I’ve just ragged on the company and as much as I try to stick to using GOG Galaxy for personal purchases, I still use Steam all the time for work, for its exclusives, and for whenever I want to play games with friends. Plus: I love the Steam controller too much to give it up completely. My goal here is not to call for an outright boycott, but simply to spread awareness. To try and break the idea that Steam is above reproach, or that Valve is this friendly Mom-and-Pop videogame shop that actually cares about its customers. And please, commenters – have some self-respect. Don’t do Valve’s marketing for them just because you use Steam or because they made some games you like. We all shop at Wal-Mart, but we don’t make meme videos about why Doug McMillon is Jesus. So ask yourself: what makes Steam any different?