Fairness

Just in case you’ve somehow napped your way through the past week or so – one of the big messes in games right now comes courtesy of Epic, who are having a bit of a spending spree to buy a stint of exclusivity for games that you’d generally expect to release on Steam. Including, erm, games that have already been announced for Steam and in the case of Metro Exodus, a game that’s been running a pre-order campaign on Steam and was due to launch there in a few weeks.

Big mess then. Crap everywhere, lots of finger pointing, shouting and as usual, a lot of people not quite understanding why there’s upset when “it’s just another launcher away to get the game” or whatever.

I don’t really need an article to explain why this has caused upset in games. PC gamers are well trained to expect someone to come along every few years and throw money at putting a videogame, exclusively, onto another store. That this money can be the difference between a game existing or not, between survival for a studio or closure, between being able to make the game to the quality a developer wants or not, all that is neither here nor there to the audience.

To them, it really is as simple as every few years someone will come along and try and take stuff away. Maybe it’s Sony throwing money at indies as per a few years ago, maybe it’s Microsoft’s repeated attempts at making their awful store happen, maybe it’s a publisher moving their catalogue wholesale to their own store.

This stuff is deeply entrenched in PC gaming and it wasn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things that publishers were abandoning the PC wholesale because (in their minds, not mine) the platform was ripe with piracy, just not where you went to make enough money and blah blah blah.

PC videogame buyers are used to having things taken off them and you can’t really expect them to just go “oh yeah, this is fine”, right?

That Epic have gone down this route seemingly without any sort of counter to people’s discontent and to undertake this strategy in a way that focuses the ire on individual developers or publishers is ridiculous. Not surprising – I’ve been around games a long time now – but absolutely ridiculous. It’s not helping, that’s for sure.

But big business does as big business does. And this time big business has prodded the Valve bear into responding, which is unusual enough in itself. A lot of games have been moved from Steam over the years but not really two weeks away from launch and having undertaken a major preorder campaign *on Steam*. From the POV of big business, it doesn’t take much squinting to see how this can look grim.

With Valve though, they’re putting forward the argument that this is not fair to their customers. On a quick scan, this can easily sound like Valve being a big babby and stamping their feet because they couldn’t get their own way. I’ve seen multiple “but big business isn’t fair” takes and NO SHIT, GENIUS. *ahem* but when Valve talk about “fairness to their customers”, this is the one rule that underpins all games being allowed to sell on Steam right now.

This isn’t just a shot back at Epic, this is a very public reminder to other developers about what they sign up for when they sign up to distribute on Steam.

It’s a corporate perversion of fairness, definitely. You’ll see no arguments there from me. Being fair here really does mean following what Valve say is fair, not what anyone else might consider fair.

Which is, you know, not great. But to anyone who hasn’t signed up to distribute on Steam, to anyone who isn’t aware that Valve absolutely will reinforce their concept of fairness and to anyone who hasn’t read their selling on Steam guides which repeatedly reminds the seller that Valve absolutely expect you to “treat Steam customers fairly” it can seem out the blue. It’s really not out of the blue.

“Fairness to our customers” is how Valve shore up Steam’s defenses.

When a developer asks for an incredibly large amount of keys to give away or sell on another store, Valve will ask for fairness to their customers in return for the inventory. When a developer sells their game on Steam for £4.20 but on Humble for 69p, Valve will ask for fairness to their customers. If a developer wants to give huge amounts of copies of their game away to a subscription service or to run one of those absurdly rubbish giveaways through a small bundle site or whatever, Valve will ask for fairness to their customers in return.

Valve are very aware of how easy it is to use the systems they provide on Steam in ways that can see their fee either unpaid or massively reduced whilst another company that may not be the developer or publisher profits. And Valve want that fee, right?

So maybe fairness is price matching a sale, maybe fairness is giving away your game on Steam at some point too, maybe fairness is not doing that thing Valve aren’t happy for you to do using Steam’s systems at all. It’s in that context that Valve talk about fairness, not whether the world at large deem something fair or unfair.

And in that context, a public statement on a games store page stating that Valve believe a developer or publisher is being unfair to their customers takes on an entirely different tone.

In the case of Metro, this is Valve saying they gave the game access to their customers (Valve sees all Steam users as “their customers” not as belonging to developers or publishers), they let the game collect pre-orders and build anticipation through the systems Steam provides, collect news on their hub, have it discussed on their forums, occupy real estate on their pages. To have all that and then not sell the game on Steam for twelve months is, in Valve’s parlance, unfair to their customers. Whether it is fair in the grander scheme of things isn’t something Valve are arguing.

With Metro, it’s nothing more than a reminder that Deep Silver haven’t held up their end of the bargain here. That the publisher isn’t doing what they agreed to do. And this is serious enough, in Valve’s eyes, to be taken public rather than dealt with through back channels.

And with all that, it’s a reminder to other developers selling on Steam that everyone there selling a videogame on Steam has agreed to “be fair to Valve’s customers”. They’re just saying, you know. It’s a reminder. I hope you haven’t forgotten.

It’s about more than griping with Epic. It’s about the deal everyone who sells on Steam is bound by. And whatever happens next, if anything happens at all, this stuff isn’t just about Epic or Valve, it’s about all of us who sell on their stores.