There’s Something Really Wrong With Steam, PC Gaming’s Biggest Digital Store – Forbes
Once upon a time, I really loved loading up Steam on my desktop and browsing through the games. As a kid, there weren’t digital downloads of games. You had to go to the store and buy them in boxes, much like many people still do for console titles.
To make matters worse, we always had a Mac when I was a kid. So when I went to the store there would be maybe one game for Mac, probably an educational game or the occasional RPG (thank god for Might & Magic) but the pickings were slim.
Over in the PC gaming section, there was always way more to choose from. It made my mouth water. It made me wonder why we didn’t have a PC when there were obviously so many better games for that platform—as if my parents cared about the games.
Fast-forward to the dawn of Steam. I was still buying games in boxes at that point and I wasn’t aware of Steam right away—not until I bought Half-Life 2 and loaded it up and ended up downloading Steam and discovering a whole new world of PC gaming—including the fact that my old Dell was not powerful enough to play Half-Life 2 and didn’t have the correct motherboard to add a fancy graphics card, leading me to build my first gaming rig.
Steam was awesome. No more disc-based games? Sounds good to me, especially since back then the games came on DVD and you had to load four or five of them to finish installing. (Of course, Might & Magic II came on a pile of floppy disks and I even remember playing games on soft floppy disks on the Commodore 64 at a friends house. Suffice it to say, digital downloads were a welcome gust of fresh air.)
Now I could browse all these games from the comfort of my computer, though I quickly became addicted to Counter-Strike: Source and Team Fortress 2.
Internet speeds were slower back then—much slower—and Steam grew exponentially over the next few years as games started downloading faster, hard drives got bigger and technology continued to push relentlessly forward.
Valve, the company behind both Steam and Half-Life 2, shifted its focus away from game development as Steam ballooned. The service raced past the 125 million active user mark in 2015 and continues to grow.
But as Valve shifted its focus away from developing games and toward other pursuits—growing Steam being one of them; developing hardware like the Vive VR headset being another—the company changed, and not always for the better. I don’t just mean that because I miss Valve’s games—I do, and I mourn the fact that we’ll never get a Half-Life 3—I mean that with regards to Steam itself.
Take new data from Steam Spy that shows that nearly 40% of all the games ever released on Steam launched in 2016.
I can only look at this chart and shake my head in dismay.
Not including software or DLC, 38% of games released on Steam were released in 2016. Another 26% were released in 2015. That means that 64% of all games released on the platform came out in just the past two years. Loop in 2014 and you’ve got 80% in the past three years. If the trend continues 2017 could top 50% of games ever released on Steam—and that’s crazy, honestly. And not in a good way.
As the old adage goes, quantity does not equal quality. Steam has grown bigger than ever with more to choose from than ever before, but wading through all those choices is something of a nightmare. It’s enough of a nightmare that even keeping track of what’s coming out is hardly worth the effort. My interest in indie games has actually fallen over the past two years as I’ve been more and more bombarded with games. Rather than an indie renaissance, I feel my excitement and attachment to indie gaming withering on the vine.
And while Valve has done some things to navigate glut on its end, it’s done very little to stem the tide. Steam Curators is a nice touch. The total vs. recent reviews is a nice touch. Requiring developers to post actual screenshots rather than glam shots is a nice touch. There are lots of little nice touches that have made navigating all this glut a bit easier, but the fact remains: There’s simply too much junk on Steam right now. It’s too hard to keep up with and it’s too hard to know what’s good and what’s bad.
Partly that’s the advent of Steam Greenlight and Early Access which have, on the one hand, allowed a more level playing field and lower barriers to entry for smaller developers.
On the other hand, these programs have led to an influx of low quality titles and a bunch of in-progress games that are sold in an unfinished state. With some Early Access games, there’s a chance they may never release at all; others release to accolades and high praise. It’s just hard to tell nowadays.
Much of this also coincides with the rise of crowdfunding, which has allowed more studios to operate independently than ever before. Sometimes this is great, but sometimes we discover that indie studios also benefit from more traditional relationships with distributors and publishers—companies and people who are good with budgets and timelines.
So we’ve come to a place where choice is abundant and the playing field is so level, you can barely squeeze your way across it.
While all of this sounds very democratic in theory, in practice—Steam Greenlight is built around voting for games, for instance—it’s more Wild West than Utopia—and Steam has suffered for it. The Android Play Store is also very open, but it’s filled with shovelware and trash. Even though I prefer Android as a platform, I find Apple’s App Store to be far superior, better curated and less overrun with knock-offs and cash-grabs. Neither is what I want Steam to become, but that’s where it’s headed at breakneck speed.
Steam is still a very useful service. Despite its many bad games and despite the fact that it’s become more and more difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, I still prefer it to buying boxes and using discs. But Valve could do a better job at reining in the worst offenders and enact more strident quality control benchmarks. At the same time, the notoriously opaque company needs to be more upfront about what those benchmarks are and why, for instance, one game is greenlit over another—a process which, by all accounts, is as confounding as it is frustrating.
Ultimately, a store’s first mission is to its customers, not its vendors. In Valve’s case, Steam is a service for gamers and not a service for developers. Simply releasing as many games as possible is not good for gamers (or developers, truth be told.) It crowds out the best titles and makes it harder for consumers to know where to begin, what to buy, and what to ignore. While it may be true too many choices are better than too few, there’s also a third option. A happy medium. I don’t know what exactly that would look like. I just know it wouldn’t look like Steam in December of 2016.
Nobody will ever be happy with any change, but with so many games releasing the past two years, and theoretically even more releasing in the next two years, something has to change.
I’ve reached out to Valve to ask them for their take on this situation and will report back when and if they respond.