WHEN STEAM TURNS TOXIC

Today I’m going to suck air through my teeth, make little whimpering noises at the back of my throat, and do something that goes against every urge in my body: I’m going to criticise Valve. That company that manages to be both successful and profound in their work, that balances originality and classic elements within their games, that has redefined major genres like the first-person shooter, the puzzle game and the online MOBA. I’m going to look them straight in the eye, summon my strength and say “come on, buck up.”

Brrrr. I feel slightly dirty writing that.

But I’m not criticising their games today, I’m talking about something very different: their infamous Steam store. As the most popular method of downloading games that there is, Steam is something of a must-have for anybody who owns a PC and uses it for anything more entertaining than Minesweeper.

And there’s a lot to like about Steam, I won’t deny that. It wouldn’t be as big as it is without being good at what it does, and it’s not hard to see why people flock to it. It’s got a good user interface, a huge library of games, regularly holds sales that allow you to buy them at low prices and incorporates interesting extras like mod workshops and a community market. It’s got more pros than a Vegas brothel, but like a brothel you’d be wise not to approach those in a management position. You’re also terrifyingly prone to viruses, being financially scammed, witnessing offers from those who are worryingly inexperienced, and just being disappointed with your purchases in general. But anyway, what did YOU do last weekend?

The thing is, Valve seems to enjoy the “hands-off” approach, tweaking the Steam formula occasionally before sinking back into the shadows to see what happens, and this is a problem when you’re running a system where a hell of a lot of money changes hands. You can’t set up a system this complex, nuanced, popular and open to manipulation, and then just ignore the whole thing.

Valve history

I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…

Because this can lead to some serious issues. There’s been many cases of misrepresented games on Steam, releases that lied about their content in order to get people spending. And whilst that’s neither Steam’s fault, nor a problem that plagues it exclusively, in most other cases the host platform gets involved and takes it off the marketplace. After all, these incidents effect Steam’s reputation too, especially when they’re on there for a while.

And boy, the incidents are really starting to pile up. Valve appears to have no interest in quality control, allowing anything onto Steam and only removing it when enough of a fuss is kicked up. There have been games which publishers lied about in their marketing (Aliens: Colonial Marines), games that were basically unplayable at launch (Batman: Arkham Knight) and games that were using asset packs and other people’s content without permission (take your bloody pick on that one).

And in all these cases, Valve didn’t do a thing. They sat back and went “not my problem.”

Isn’t it? For god’s sake, at one point somebody was distributing malware and computer viruses through your system, claiming it was a demo and sitting back to watch people’s hard drives melt. Not only that, but it was using someone else’s game as a trojan horse to hide it, so it’s both cyber-vandalism and a copyright scam.

And Valve stepped in, eventually, but it took a while and the damn thing never should have been up there in the first place. There needs to be a vetting process where they can see what’s valid and what isn’t, before the consumer has to find out the hard way. If you’re asking us to put our faith in your store, you need to have faith in it yourself and make it safer to use, or at least start cutting out those games that don’t deserve to be up there.

Steam Error

There’s also the occasional technical glitch. Or that Starbucks router was touched by the finger of god, either one.

And what about Early Access? For those of you who don’t know, the Steam Early Access program is another of those ideas that sounded fine, at least before people abused the shit out of it and reduced it to the embarrassing mess it is now. Developers can upload basic alpha models of their games in order to raise support for them, and those who buy these prototypes will have them updated for free when they’re finally finished, funding the developers in the meantime.

The problem is that the costs of this method can often outweigh the benefits. Whilst there have been success stories like Darkest Dungeon and Speedrunners, both interesting and innovative concepts that broke their respective molds to a certain degree, there’s also quite a lot of… Well, flotsam and jetsam.

Early Access games sell themselves on promises, sometimes charging the player the price of a full game (or more) and claiming that it will all be justified in about a year when it’s finally evolved to what it should be. The idea is that the creator can use those initial funds to finish crafting it, but that’s often not the case. Some games remain in a sub-standard limbo, never escaping the cocoon of mediocrity or even mending the broken butterfly wings of non-functionality. Other games might take a surprising direction and turn into final products that the players might not like, but were deceived about with the early claims.

The danger is that people use Early Access as an excuse to get away with games that are essentially unfinished. And whilst in some cases (like the aforementioned Darkest Dungeon) you’ve essentially been given the full game but with some minor balance tweaks and additional content waiting in the wings, other times these things are nigh-unplayable and likely to stay that way for a very long time, maybe indefinitely. We’re not talking weeks, we’re talking months or even years before you might get the final version of Nippletweak Simulator 2015 or whatever, and that’s without knowing if it’ll have the features you were hoping for, like climate control and a full range of clamp and tassle customisations.

The only real upswing that Steam has had recently was the introduction of refunds, and that’s not really a thing they should be too highly praised for. All that happened was that a highly profitable retail agency allowed a basic right to their customers, a right that’s existed everywhere else for decades. For my two cents, I’m still not hugely satisfied with the rules it currently uses for reclaiming your money, but it’s a step in the right direction and better than nothing, which is what we had before.

Though even the new refund system isn’t being managed properly – I happen to know that people started downloading tons of games as an experiment, playing them for as long as possible then requesting their money back before they reached the limit. Once again, Valve didn’t seem to notice anything was wrong and allowed this to happen. Wah, wah.

Oh for fuck's sake

OK, this isn’t funny anymore.

I suspect it’s just easier in the long run to stay out of the public eye and not do anything to raise attention. It’s cheaper, simpler and harder to pinpoint. After all, a person who does nothing can’t be condemned for their actions, because they haven’t made any.

Except that’s not really true. Inaction is a choice on its own, and it’s starting to look like Valve don’t care about what Steam is becoming – the dumping ground, the video game landfill. Where you can’t find one good indie game without having to drag yourself through a hundred shit ones, where you can’t trust the sarcastic review scores, the associated descriptions, even the games themselves, for fear that you’re being deceived in some way. Rules aren’t any good if nobody’s enforcing them.

There is a second half to this piece of writing, one concerning the most interesting controversy that Steam had this year, but I’m sorry to tell you that this article is actually in Early Access, so you’ll have to wait until next time. If you’re lucky. Or maybe I’ll be reviewing something instead, you just don’t know. Welcome to the joys of Early Access and poor management. I can’t even be bothered to pay the internet bill, so it’s fairly likely that this will – CONNECTION LOST.

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