Is Steam More Of A Platform Or A Store?


A recent episode of The Jimquisition has levied more criticism at the way Valve currently lets just about anything onto Steam these days. Last year I put up a blog post about why I think Steam’s shovelware probably deserves to be there, but since then a bit more information has become available about the effect Valve’s shift in curation has had.

My main argument last year was that you probably shouldn’t have a handful of people curating games for a storefront as widely used as Steam, especially on terms of personal preference. One person’s trash might be another person’s hidden gem. Just because you really dislike a game doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be available for other people to buy.

At 2016’s Steam Dev Days event I believe Valve said Stardew Valley — one of the most talked-about games on Steam now, probably wouldn’t have gotten through its old curation system. I imagine that might be true of a lot of games on Steam now that a lot of people probably like. The simple fact is that lowering the barrier for what gets onto a platform increases the chances for indie success stories like these. It’s why they tend to show up on PC first and consoles later.

Jim Sterling’s argument on The Jimquisition isn’t quite against games he doesn’t like being on Steam though. Judging by the footage on that episode, it seems to be against games that just look incredibly amateur or might not work as intended. Sterling even admitted Valve probably shouldn’t go back to the old system. Honestly, I’m not completely sure one way or the other on this, but one pillar of his argument seems to be how Steam looks as a storefront. These days I’m actually seeing Steam less and less as a storefront and more and more as a platform. Not only is Steam a platform, but it has become such a big platform that Valve probably decided it was dangerous to be a gatekeeper into that platform.

It’s certainly both a store and a platform, but my current experience with Steam in a lot of cases has been as more of a back-end through which I install and manage games I may get from the Steam store or from somewhere else. One reason I don’t see a most of the “trash” Sterling might complain about is because most of the new games I install through Steam these days I’m not even buying on Steam.

Instead you’ve got a ton of other stores — more traditional stores like Amazon, Wal-Mart, the Humble Store, or Green Man Gaming, selling Steam codes in a more traditionally curated manner. Valve has even been, to some extent, planning for this. I remember Valve boss Gabe Newell in the past mentioning that Valve wants Steam in some instances to be more of a “set of tools” developers and even retailers just use to sell games in their own way. I’ve found out about many indie games through their own websites or other means that then had a Steam widget or a Humble widget which gave me a Steam key. What I’m trying to say is that the Steam store is not the end-all-be-all of Steam itself.

Maybe there are some numbers saying that time spent on the front page of Steam has a real effect on sales, but personally it has almost never been the prime channel through which I become aware of games. Even then, my personal Steam front page doesn’t look that clogged up anyway. It seems to default to the “popular new releases” or games my friends and Steam’s discovery algorithm have recommended for me. On top of that, the refund system seems to work. It worked well enough to turn the abysmal PC launch of Batman: Arkham Knight into a AAA example for other games, developers, and publishers. There have been other high-profile cases of Valve dealing with extremely troubled or outright fraudulent games on Steam.

Then you have the games made by people who are really, well, amateur. Right now the position I’m leaning toward is that if the game is at least functional, who’s to say this kid or that kid trying to dip his toe into game development shouldn’t even be allowed on Steam? Part of me says at least let that kid’s game sink or swim as the market decides its worth. One argument might be that this kid’s freshman attempt at game development should instead be on — a platform specifically geared for dirtier starving-artist developers.

And  that’s another thing: Different platforms within PC gaming are starting to pop up with their own tastes. Itch seems to be where the littlest little guy goes right now. GOG is no longer just a store for old school games but also new PC games from small-to-mid-sized developers, and I believe it is curated somewhat based on a taste. There have already been complaints about good games that didn’t make it onto GOG. Playism caters to the niche of the very smallest Japanese developers. Those to me feel more like storefronts than platforms. They’re technically both, but they’re sort of run more like storefronts whereas Steam was originally designed as a set of tools for distributing games that later grew a storefront.


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