Valve’s Terrible Decisions, chapter… who’s even counting anymore.
If you don’t already know, Valve is a games company. They used to be known for making games like Half-Life and Portal, but now their big cash cow is Steam.
Steam is a digital storefront for selling digital games (and to some extent videos and software). It holds such a large market share that in the past it has come dangerously close to being a monopoly. Luckily, alternative services are growing in size.
I won’t go into the details, but they’ve been known to make some poor choices in the past regarding the Steam store (and the ecosystem in general), but a recent blog post they made really takes the cake.
What Have They Done
The blog post in question basically states that, despite Valve being the company that runs the Steam store, they’ve decided that they don’t want to make any more decisions about what games get put there.
They said they will take down content which they deem to be “illegal” or “trolling”, and everything else is up for grabs.
Why is that bad?
Weaselling Past the Issue
This whole thing came about after a fracas last week about a game which billed itself as a “School Shooting Simulator” appearing on their storefront.
This was not something Valve desired to be associated with. Many, myself included, were hoping they would finally lay down some guidelines as to the type of content they would allow on the store and start to clean up some of the problems which litter their store. To name a few:
- Games that don’t even have basic .exes in them
- Asset flips that just repackage pre-made testing and development assets as a game of their own
- Content which is clearly designed to provoke and annoy certain people – i.e. to troll them
Valve’s Steam story is fundamentally broken. It is messy. It is full of software which can barely be called games. It needs tidying up, but in their latest speech, Valve have decided to completely side step these issues.
A lack of Definition
The one, almost redeeming, feature of valve’s blog post is that they said they wouldn’t allow content they deem to be “illegal” or “trolling”. Yet Valve fail to actually lay down definitions of what these terms mean, and how they will handle it.
When Valve says “Illegal”, does that mean they have lawyers on hand to decide what breaks the law – for every single jurisdiction they sell in (which thanks to the internet, is basically the whole world). The fact that valve, up to this point, has done so little quality control makes me doubt this.
Maybe it means that they will just leave things on the store until some other lawyer or government tells them they’ve actually been distributing content which is illegal. I may be mistaken, but that definitely seems like aiding and abetting.
Valve must make it clearer how they will approach the topic of illegal content, especially when different jurisdictions will have different definitions. As the seller for this content they should make these rules clear, as I don’t think placing all of the onus to check these things on the game developer is the right attitude to take.
Valve haven’t defined what trolling means in the context of Steam. As I see it, its already a nebulous enough term that could encompass everything from making a joke on the internet to stalking and harassing someone in real life.
Without a clear definition of what rules they will be following, there’s no transparency in what they will allow.
Far more importantly though – they essentially wash their hands of any responsibility. When faced with potentially controversial media they can stand back and say “well, this isn’t trolling as we see it”, and then they can hide away and do nothing about the problem until it goes away on its own.
Narrator: “The problem did not go away on its own”
Greedy & Lazy
Valve no longer see themselves as responsible for this quality control, curation and so on, but they are still willing to take a percentage cut of all the games and digital media sold on their store.
They make a massive amount of money, largely due to the way they’ve completely gamified the Steam store experience. My opinions on that aside, they have the funds available to set aside at least some kind of rules of conduct, guidelines, quality assurance teams.
Every other digital storefront – Google Play, Apple’s App Store to name a couple, have guidelines as to what goes up. They have teams of people that test things. That is all part of the job of a content curator. Not Valve, though.
Like it or not, they are a curator, as is any other store. They should be reviewing the content that goes up and making sure it isn’t downright broken or designed purely to irritate a particular group of people. They should be making sure it’s actually a game or a legitimate piece of software.
Valve doesn’t want to be a curator though. They do, however, very much want to get all of the cuts from sales that normally goes to such a curator.
The whole blog post Valve put up seems very similar to other arguments I’ve seen Netizens make about “Free Speech” and how companies shouldn’t be allowed to control what people say, make and do on the internet.
I’m (not) being Opressed!
This was never true. Steam is a private site, with private servers owned by Valve. What goes on Steam is directly associated with Valve which means that when an individual posts offensive or broken content, at the end of the day Valve is making the decision to spew that out to the world.
Valve should have the self-respect to prohibit such content from their servers.
They don’t though.
They are hiding behind the argument of free speech, and freedom of expression. Valve are pandering to precisely the groups of people that produce all of the questionable content, which in turn ends up harming what should be their core consideration: Games developers who want to make good games.
A Dangerous Precedent
They’re also setting a dangerous precedent when it comes to dealing with this whole argument of free speech. Other websites, such as Facebook and Twitter often come under fire for choosing what content is and is not allowed on their respective sites.
By setting this precedent, that private companies on the internet shouldn’t be responsible for what their users upload, Valve effectively say that they are beholden to laws of free speech in the same way that governments are.
Not only is this a bad move, but I think its a low blow. A company using the free speech argument to hide away their own problems almost cheapens the concept of free speech as a whole. It also opens the door to other web services washing their hands of any responsibility as well.
The Flip Side
The other side of my arguments, and the point that Valve’s original post seems to be hinting at, is that game developers should be free to publish whatever they want.
Free Speech (Again)
I mention free speech and freedom of expression at the end, and of course that applies. If a game developer wants to make and sell a crappy excuse for a game, they should be allowed. Of course they should.
But no-one should have to host their game for them.
If they want to sell something that is fundamentally broken, there is nothing stopping them from hosting their own website and selling it there.
A storefront that sells everything from AAA titles by multi-million dollar publishers, to indie games that people working from home have poured their all into should not also be spewing out content which drags everyone down.
In the blog post, Valve hints at something especially worrying (without mentioning it directly). Throughout the whole post, they act as if they are the gatekeepers of gaming on the internet. As if they are the ones who have control over what is and is not allowed to be a game.
They act as if they are being benevolent and saying they will permit any game to exist. Oh, how nice of Valve.
They’re not benevolent, they’re not anyones friend (no company is), and they’re most certainly not the gatekeepers of gaming on the internet. They’re one distributor, albeit one that has a ridiculously large market share.
It’s insulting that they act as if they’re anything more.
Who knows. Unless some proper legal action is taken against Valve, or a competitor uses curation as a means to increase their market share, Valve are going to keep hand-waving at any issue that crops up. They’ve done it thus far, and any criticism seems to just wash off like water off a ducks back.
They are happy to soak in criticism, as long as they can soak up the profits that accompany it. Why change?