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Steam Isn’t Perfect and It’s Important to Know Why
The PC gaming scene’s slow but near-total adoption of Steam as its distribution service and DRM-of-choice is an interesting study in the dynamics between convenience and freedom. In using Steam, PC gamers are choosing certain conveniences in exchange for certain rights. Steam gives you an easy place to organize all your games, whether they were purchased on Steam or not. It’ll automatically update all of your games, and it’ll put your save files on the cloud so they can be retrieved from any computer. That’s not even to mention the sales… But those services and conveniences don’t come without penalty. In PC gaming’s reliance on Steam, we’ve not only given up important rights as consumers, but we’ve affected how game creators do business.
Section 2A of the Steam Subscriber Agreement states, “The Software is licensed, not sold. Your license confers no title or ownership in the Software.” Every person who downloads Steam agrees to it, even though the thought of it would probably give most of them pause. You do not own any game you purchase through Steam. You have no ownership over them whatsoever. When you buy a game on Steam you’re actually buying a “limited, terminable, non-exclusive license” to use the game. Essentially what it means is that every game you’ve ever purchased through Steam is a rental without a return date. And that “terminable” part means that Valve could remove any game from your library and be perfectly within their right to do so. In fact, they’ve done it once before. Last December, Forbes reported that Order of War: Challenge, the online multiplayer component of the strategy game Order of War, had been removed, not only from the store, but also from every owner’s library. Now, Order of War: Challenge was useless since its publisher, Square Enix, had shut off its servers, but the power Valve holds is plain to see. A game was taken from paying customers without warning or debate.
Since you don’t actually own any of your Steam games, it raises another question. What happens to those games if Valve were ever to go bankrupt and Steam ceased to function? Steam Support has claimed on a few occasions, usually in private chats with customers, that in the event of Steam’s discontinuation that all users’ games will be made available to them without the need for Steam. While nice, this reassurance isn’t written anywhere in the Steam Subscriber Agreement and thus Steam isn’t obligated in anyway to follow through on it. This also ignores any say game publishers may have for what happens to the games they technically own that you’re licensing, and considering it was Square Enix that initiated Order of War: Challenge‘s removal from Steam, it’s not difficult to imagine that they would have some say in the matter. As someone who’s poured hundreds, if not thousands of dollars into Steam, the idea of not owning the games I paid for and being at the will of a major company (no matter how benevolent they act) is, at the very least, troubling.
And that’s just the consumer side of Steam. In 2012, 75 percent of all downloadable PC game sales were through Steam. Steam’s stranglehold on the digital PC marketplace means that indie developers are practically required to get their games onto Steam if they want any hope at breaking even, and it’s not an easy process. All of the big publishers, as well as some well-known indie developers, have deals with Valve to get their games released on to Steam as soon as they want, but for lesser known titles to get a spot in Steam’s store they have to go through Steam Greenlight. Greenlight is a service to which any developer can submit their game. Games are then voted on by the community based on if they would buy it or not. Valve then looks at the games with the most votes and then decides which ones they would like to put on the store. When it was first announced, it seemed like a perfect way to involve the community while also taking work off of Valve’s hands. Gamers would be able to get games they wanted on to Steam, and Valve wouldn’t have to sift through every single game that was submitted for publishing. It was a win-win idea. But the reality isn’t as simple.
Greenlight’s system is a popularity contest. Games that get championed by well-known Internet personalities with a lot of fans and games that simply contain common popular subjects, like zombies, are often the first to get mass support. On top of that, it means games in niche genres with small but dedicated audiences will inevitably fail to garner the votes they need to be noticed during the selection process. Valve’s method and criteria for choosing games is also ambiguous to the point of being detrimental. Valve doesn’t simply take the top voted games and publish them. They pick and choose which games to accept, without giving any feedback to the games that aren’t accepted. Games can sit in top ranked spots for weeks, get passed over when Valve selects titles to publish, and be left without any idea why they weren’t picked and what they could do to help their chances. Going through Greenlight can be a nightmare for indie developers, forcing them to compete against one another for attention and favoring games that have broad appeal, not necessarily quality. On top of that, there’s a $100 subscriber fee to submit games. A small amount of money to some, but if you’re working on a game full-time and you’re not well-known enough to get on Steam, chances are you’re not going to have a lot of money to spend.
Even after all that negativity, I can still say that I love Steam. I put every single game I own into nice, neat categories in my Steam library and I’m a sucker for sales just like everybody else. I don’t think Valve is evil and out to get us and everyone should stop using Steam immediately. But Steam’s prominence in PC gaming comes with ramifications for both gamers and creators and it’s important to be aware of them. We should know what we’re actually getting when we hand over our money and we should know how our actions affect those who make the games that we love. You don’t have to stop using Steam, but every once in a while check out other services like GOG.com (their focus being DRM-free and classic games) or Desura (a service that’s more open to indie developers than Steam is and allows for DRM-free downloads of its games). Go to Greenlight and vote for some games that look interesting, and send an email or letter to Valve if you think Greenlight can be improved. Steam’s positioned itself as almost a necessity for PC gamers; the least we can do is know its shortcomings.
If you’re interested in reading more about Steam’s importance and effect on indie developers, Eldritch creator David Pittman has a fascinating breakdown on the game’s sales history here, and Six Sided Sanctuary creator Devin Power wrote an open letter to Valve explaining the problems with Greenlight and offering a number of solutions (with some NSFW language) here.