What To Expect From Steam’s Open Future

Steam’s Greenlight submission process has always been an imperfect solution to a hard problem: How can Valve present users with a reasonably curated storefront, resulting in a good experience, but still avoid placing unnecessary barriers to market for creators hoping to sell their games on Steam. It’s somewhat achieved that goal, but there’s huge scope for improvement.

There’s still dozens of fantastic games that have been languishing on the service for months, and even years in some cases. The $99 fee is a bit of a joke when likely it’s the developers with the least access to finance that will be coughing it up. It’s outright insulting that developers who have the right industry connections are able to bypass Greenlight entirely, whereas devs with a game of equal quality but without the friends in the right places are told to jump through hoops of a silly popularity contest. Valve have also given out misleading information, telling devs not to sign to a publisher in order to bypass Greenlight, but then allowed many devs that have signed to a publisher to bypass Greenlight.

But it’s far from a total failure. I think to some extent the flaws in Greenlight as it stands today highlight that the Valve employees responsible probably have a fairly privileged worldview. There are many fantastic creative people that don’t have $99 lying around to burn, just to show Valve how serious they are. Overall, it’s probably an improvement from the previous system, and just shy of 400 games have been released after being voted in by the Greenlight userbase.

Valve have never said that Greenlight would be around forever though, and they’ve even dropped hints that it might be gone sooner than later.

Timeline wise, the most concrete statement made by anyone from Valve about Greenlight’s expiry comes via Curve Studios’ Jonathan Biddle, who was told by a Valve representative that Greenlight would be gone “Within the year” back in March of this year. This echoes words spoke by Valve Managing Director Gabe Newell, on stage during their Steam Dev Days conference, where he said “Our goal is to make Greenlight go away”.

But what will a post-Greenlight Steam look like? What will the submissions process be for devs? How will they avoid making the store front page being filled with low quality products?

This was actually largely addressed in a January 2013 economics lecture Newell gave:

The entire lecture is worth a watch if you’re at all interested in Economics, or just the games industry in general, but the portion of the lecture relevant to Greenlight starts at 43m47s.

He says the following:

Right now Steam is essentially a curated store. It’s a bunch of other things, but you can also think of it as a curated store. We have these really hard working people that other companies call up and say “Hey, would you put my game on Steam”, and we’re putting up three games a day right now, and we have to put up these capsules and blah blah blah. Essentially, whether we want to or not, we’re becoming a bottleneck, in terms of content being connected with users. Now, there are reasons why you might want to create an artificial bottleneck between content creators and consumers, for example if you want to shift where relative value is towards controlling distribution, it’s great if you can create artificial shelf space scarcity, but that’s not really what we’re trying to do.

So rather than having this curated store, we’re going to say “OK, it we’re thinking about this correctly, it really should be a network API. There should just be this publishing model.” Yes you have to worry about Viruses and Malware and stuff like that, but essentially anybody should be able to publish anything through Steam. Steam is just a whole bunch of servers and a whole bunch of network bandwidth, and if people are interested in consuming the stuff that you’re putting up there, then a collective good is going to be there. So rather than us sitting between creators and consumers, we’re going to get as far out of that connection as possible. Steam stops being this “Calling up Jason Holtman and yelling at him until he puts your game up on the Steam store”, and instead just becomes a network API. That’s a consequence of our perception of the direction that the industry is going.

So on top of that, we’d also say: Right now, with Team Fortress 2, we say “anybody can make content”, so people make goofy Ushankas for all the characters (I didn’t even know that word til I saw it appear in TF2). There’s no notion of privileged content. Right now, in Steam, the store is privileged content. The store is a collection of editorial perspectives on stuff. What it should be, is user generated content, that means other companies might create their own stores that are connected to the Steam back-end, but anyone would be able to create a store, and there’s some market based mechanism for determining the price that a store gets to impose, so anyone that tries to charge too much for the goods that are falling through that, the store will get priced out of the market. But if you have a collection of games that you own and you play, and one of your friends decides to buy a game through your trivially created store, then you should get a percentage of that revenue. Now, most people won’t have interesting collections of games, or interesting friends, I don’t know. But some people will go to a lot of effort. Treating a store as another type of experience. The guys I would have loved, Old Man Murray, would have done an awesome job. Yahtzee would be another person, where either through affiliation, or through his editorial process, I’d actually purchase a product through him than in some other way.

So you take two things which you intend to think of as super valuable assets that have to be guarded really carefully, deciding who gets to be on Steam, and deciding how stores are presented to consumers, and this is how we rethink them. It’s a generalized network service, and the store rather than being some unique special thing, that represents Valve have control of this, instead it turns into “Oh, lots of people will add a lot of value to that process”. Through the market mechanism, the audience will reward, or not reward, people for building entertaining stores.

We take these high level concepts of how we’re going to change, and we turn them very concretely into a set of product changes and system level changes.

There’s a fair bit to unpack, but the core of the ideas represented here are very similar to Affiliate Commission. Retailers paying a small percentage of a transaction to a third party who was responsible for generating the sale. This is a tool that many retailers use, as it’s typically a cost effective and low risk tool for marketing.

The big difference to me seems to be integrating affiliate commission with a smart system for handling curation, and building that into the platform. The data generated by a large group of curators and users interacting has the potential to do a far better job of determining which items should get which store placement than a team inside Valve attempting the same.

The reality is that if Valve were to entirely open the floodgates to Steam, letting anyone release anything they wanted on Steam, there would be a lot of bad or uninteresting products made available to buy. It would probably be beyond Valve to play everything released, never mind decide which games to give prominent store placement to. By outsourcing the process of curation, they are able to remove the bottleneck of Greenlight, whilst protecting the user experience, and potentially improving it.

But why am I talking about all this now? It seems that these changes to Steam could be happening very shortly. The clever folks over at steamdb have found a whole host of evidence that a major update to Steam, including changes that might lay the groundwork for retiring Greenlight, could be with us before long. All the stuff here about “curators” strongly hints at the kind of “Open Steam” Newell talked about in his economics lecture.

It’s not entirely clear what the user experience will be. It seems part of the process will be allowing users to “follow” curators, and presumably when a curator recommends any given game, that recommendation will (somehow) be pushed to the user. The reference to a “Dynamic store” strongly suggests a storefront that will adapt to a given users preferences, perhaps integrating recommendations from followed curators, friends, and individuals with similar taste.

The Steam store as it currently stands was clearly never designed to handle the volume of games it’s currently dealing with, and I think these changes seem to smartly address the issues currently caused by it’s outdated layout. It’s hard to know for sure exactly how these changes will impact the market, but I’m optimistic it will be a net improvement.

I’m personally quite looking forward to curating my own Steam storefront. In many ways, SavyGamer is like a curated storefront for the entire market, and the idea of a platform built around empowering and financially rewarding curation is highly attractive to me, although it’s still to be seen exactly what control curators will have over store layouts and pricing.

The big unanswered questions, as I see them:

  • What impact will offering a percentage of sales generated have on objective games media?
  • What will the percentage given to curators be?
  • Will the cut given to curators come from Valve’s 30%? (almost certainly yes on that one)
  • Will the $99 submission fee remain in place?
  • Will devs have the ability to opt in/out of this system, or will it be a requirement of selling on Steam?

Exciting times for everyone involved. I don’t have much more insight to offer, this is just something I have spent far too long thinking about, but stick any questions you have in the comments, and I’ll see what I can do.

8 Comments Leave yours

  1. Greg #

    Lewie, you did not address the issue of subscription to games as a service. The whole industry seems caught in this idea. I applaud the curated store idea, still not like the owning of games as licenses but I always wondered what would happen if the PS+ model came to steam. Would we pay 3-4eur/month to have a curated experience of 80+ games given free by Valve every month? How would the industry react to this? Would users leave the steam ecosystem and flock to GOG? Steam as a subscription service with free monthly games?!? Seems EA likes the idea…

    • Lewie Procter #

      Yeah, “games as a service” is somewhat tied up with the Open Steam stuff, but tangentially so. Valve are obviously pushing devs to make a bigger deal of updates. Encouraging them to arrange discounts to coincide with major updates etc. Will be interesting to see how this develops.

  2. Delusibeta #

    I think the plan has changed, honestly.

    I suspect Curators will turn out to be an evolution of the Recommendations system, whereas things that get the thumbs up from your friends (and people who you follow) will get an increase in visibility while things that get thumbs down get buried. Under this system, there’s no affiliate commission, since there wouldn’t be individual stores controlled by each user. Media companies, if they use it, would probably link through to the full review and hope to get click-throughs and hence ad money.

    It makes sense, because there’s still a central storefront for Valve to highlight the big sales and whatnot, while giving an increased amount of control to the end user as to what they see. If they want just the popular new games, they can do that. If they want to see things their friends recommend, job done, and so on.

    Will this solve the visibility problem? Probably not. It’ll probably be partly based on popularity, so the rich will still get richer. That said, I suspect it’ll be far better than the current store, since a couple of positive recommendations from your friends/followers would probably pop a game into view.

  3. golem #

    This whole game as a service thing is something I have envisioned for a good while now, and EA just made the first step. Since basically everything is going flatrate, I think it will only take another 10 or 20 years (that’s not that long, guys) until I pay 20$ a month for access to the whole steam library.
    Since I’m currently treating my steam purchases like a way of archiving games, this is something I am thinking of more and more. What if I’m buying games now to have them available to me in 15 years, but in 15 years, I’ll have access to them all anyway…

  4. Damn,
    If I had known that, I probably wouldn’t have put my game on Greenlight 10 days ago…
    90€ is a lot of money for me, and I’m pretty much broke for the rest of the month now.
    But then again, Greenlight has been really great for exposure and feedback… I didn’t really know how people would react to it if I don’t show my game to them face to face.
    But I’m quite happy with the reactions so far.

    My game is called quadrant, check it out if you like:

    And thanks for the news, Lewie!

    • Lewie Procter #

      Game looks neat. Could you drop me a line at the contact form linked at the top of the page please?

    • NRool #

      Mate, that looks crazy as heck.
      Would definitely play it if it makes it onto the Steam service, I love me some Rhythm games .

      Is there a demo available?

      • Thanks mate!

        I would like to release a demo in the coming weeks.
        I’ll try to get it done as quickly as possible – it’s pretty hard getting people to talk about your game if nobody can play it.
        I will definitely announce it on greenlight/twitter/indiedb once the demo is out, so stay tuned 😉

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