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This is a collection of words.

No Epic Win Today

It’s been rather entertaining reading back over the outrageous amounts of noise from when Epic launched their store in a blaze of publicity, more than a year ago.

Oh, the excitement! Finally Steam has a competitor and competition is important! This could change so much! They’re on the developer’s side! Oh gosh, looks like that 70/30 cut is history! Wahoo!

So. Given the passing of time, what major changes have Epic launching a store actually brought?

*checks list*

Ah. The Epic Store now has a wishlist feature.

Well. It’s something, I suppose.

I’m being flippant of course but really, for most people in games, absolutely nothing of use nor ornament changed in any substantial way.

Valve quickly countered the threat of any bleeding out of big name titles by offering improved terms for the biggest sellers (not an insubstantial adjustment if you consider the scale and regularity of money coming in at the top end these days), for everyone else it’s been business as usual. We make a game, we plop it on Steam or Itch or whichever console is most favourable to letting us on and hopefully we shifts copies. We still have largely a 70/30 standard cut. And, that’s it really.

If we’re one of the fortunate literal handful that Epic wish to rain money down upon (an unsurprisingly dwindling number) for exclusivity then there’s still a chance of Free MoneyTM. (Where money is, of course, never free but we go through this at least once every few years with something).

For some of us, Epic continue to give our games away to the public for a brief period of time in exchange for a probably handy small wad of cash and, to be honest, that’s about it. Steam still remain a monopoly, Epic’s store so far remains incredibly bare bones with no sign of any of the more difficult stuff around selling being solved in their corner.

At the time of launch, my biggest worry was that Epic would “do a Microsoft” and just splash money around breaking more stuff than they fixed. Instead, it’s largely just been a case of a few people got some extra money and that’s about it. Perversely, probably the best outcome anyone could have reasonably expected.

It turns out that competition existing isn’t enough. There does, also, need to be some actual competing in there as well. Who knew?

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Rob On Stuff This is a collection of words.

Direction

One of the themes I find I have to keep returning to in my writing of late is the direction Valve are taking Steam in. A lot of criticisms against what Steam is now awkwardly boil down to trying to hold on to a Steam that hasn’t existed for a few years, which I’ll admit I find somewhere between frustrating and interesting.

Frustrating because, like I say, this Steam hasn’t existed for a few years so it seems strange to expect things to be put back in the box. Interesting because, of course, it makes me question whether Valve are doing a good enough job of communicating where things are heading.

I get Valve’s unwillingness as it’s a constantly moving target and a lot of info is out there but as ever with Valve, piecing together anything means ducking into an AMA (Ask Me Anything, it’s a Reddit thing) here, a talk here, an interview there and a blogpost over there. It’s not difficult to piece this stuff together but it’s really quite easy to miss things. And for most people, Steam remains a place where the store itself changes but their usage is still pretty much “open it up and buy a game” or whatever. Why both Discovery updates are really important to how games get sold on there seems to have fallen down the back of the sofa somewhere.

I dunno. As ever, I don’t think you can over discuss these things and maybe a bit more of a public approach to this stuff might be worth Valve considering in time. Often Valve discuss things in developer terms or to a very specific audience, leaving other folks to fill in the gaps with their own brands of speculation which leads us to having to unpick a lot of bad ideas every time we need to discuss things like adults. Seriously, 99% of talking about anything Steam does means having to counter a whole ruck of (predominantly sourced from YouTube) nonsense about it as a platform.

I also understand how it must be kinda confusing to those who don’t keep their ear to the ground (because let’s face it most people don’t need to, never mind anything else).

It’s a thing that people like continuity in their experiences with an app, a store or whatever and Valve do their level best to make sure Steam remains vaguely familiar, changes are often incremental as well as making way for the occasional drastic change. Some tweaks come with little announcement beyond a beta note (for which you have to be opted in, anyway), others big and worth announcing. These are the ones that invariably cause the most fuss.

Whatever. Steam is and has been for a long time, evolving.

For the past five years, Valve have been working towards opening Steam up more and more. Which has meant over that time, there’s been a great deal of changes to how Steam presents games to the public. Again, some drastic, some not so much. Some successful, some not so much. It remains a constant work in progress in how it’s done but the aim is ultimately the same. Steam will be a place where a lot of games are sold. Like, a lot of games.

Because, they sort of have to. Well, OK, they don’t have to but they’ve realised the benefits and where we’re heading. There will still be a place for heavily curated stores but when the de facto place people go to buy games locks a huge number of good games out of sight and view by virtue of them not being available there, it’s a problem to continue down the curated route. Well, for the mass market at least.

To put it another way, they understand how dominant their position is and what that means for PC gaming as an ecosystem as well as knowing that more people buying games is more money in their pocket. Which is sort of a thing businesses and humans like for some unfathomable reason. I dunno, I’m waiting until I get enough to let you know how that feels. Please send me money.

At this point, maybe you’re thinking ‘well, GOG does…’ and yes, I hear you loud and clear but GOG, for most folks, will not do anywhere close to the numbers Steam does. There’s (politely) a huge drop off between First Place Store and Second Place Store in the market. Obviously, not for all titles and some will have narrow differences in sales between stores and that’s brilliant. Unfortunately for everyone else, this is an all too occasional thing.

Which all brings us back round to where we are at present. We are in times where games are in abundance. I wrote about this a few weeks back and I think it’s (hopefully) a useful primer for understanding why Valve are doing what they’re doing. We’ve gone from not many games being sold under our noses to lots of games. We’re all slowly adapting to this new normal. Even if the new normal is about ten years old by now and no-one speaks about just how much shareware existed before but shush. It sort of works.

Of course there are people who don’t appreciate this or like it. There’s plenty of folks who find the changes befuddling, plenty who find them unwanted and whilst I don’t entirely understand that, I can empathise with it. Things in games change fast but you know, it’s been five years since Valve started to kick the doors down with Greenlight – this hasn’t happened *that* fast. But then a lot of people aren’t (and have no need to be) concerned with the future of games, only what’s in front of them right now. This is fair enough.

Just, things are going to carry on changing no matter. So there is that.

Both Itch.io and Steam are building their own solutions to this thing where we now have loads of games being made and sold. Itch, whilst not having the customer base of Steam (yet?) has a slight advantage in being built from the ground up to accommodate where we are sort of roundabout now. Steam has a lot of stuff that slows the process, their backend for one thing, never mind what the public sees.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that Valve are trying to automate everything they can just because they can. As with a lot of things in games it’s true up to a point. In the case of dealing with the flood of games available now, they’ve realised – through some quite thoughtful analysis – that they knew less than they thought they did. Greenlight itself was built on the idea that Valve (or someone else) would be able to spot what would be worth putting onto Steam through some sort of magicks. What they discovered instead was that this, in itself, was a roadblock to things doing well. Because it turns out, you maybe don’t know at all what’s going to do well or resonate or bang with some people.

So they decided to step out the way.

And as they did, it turned out that more games could thrive and do thrive. They have the numbers to back this up. Unlike, you know, the internet.

The downside, of course, is that all this can be a bit needle in a haystack without some systems built to aid rummaging. Not only that but the way videogames were heading, something needed to change to ensure some level of sustainability. The ‘four years to make and have a hit out the gate model’ was maybe alright in times of scarcity but increasingly perilous as tech progressed and folks could speedily throw out really good looking, and playing, videogames.

In other words, we were kinda on a course to fucking it. Grandly. For lots of people.

Now, maybe you’re thinking I’m going to posit that Valve are somehow the saviours here but no, not really – they’re just responding to how things have changed in games. Like I say, Itch are doing the same albeit in a different manner. Console companies are still keeping a fairly tight grip on releases there but should the day come when console dev is properly available on the console someone bought from a shop, they’ll face the same challenges.

I suspect that’s only going to be a few years, at most, before they find themselves with similar quandaries as Valve do anyway if they’re aiming for longer generation platforms this time. Games aren’t going to stop being made, you know, providing we all see 2017 out alive anyway.

But anyway, I digress.

My larger point is that Steam is heading in the direction of opening itself up, removing large portions of human intervention not to avoid hiring people (they have people working there!) but because those people may stop a game finding its audience. And to top it off, because in another few years asking a human to process every single title that makes it onto Steam will be an incredibly complex and time-consuming task.

It’s already complex but Valve do check titles and store pages fairly diligently where they can. I know folks who’ve had their work bounced back and asked to change store page content around, pulled on things in their games and all manner of stuff. It’s only been a few months since they laid down new guidelines for developers to adhere to when it comes to writing their store page and displaying screenshots – these things are checked.

There’s wrinkles though. The same things that make Steam such a wonderful platform for a lot of developers are the same things that can bite them in the proverbial backside. At any point, a developer can update their game. The update process, for a developer, is effective but arcane and to be honest, I’m surprised more developers don’t make a hash of it. Except plenty do, just they’re also knowledgable enough to know to check themselves and quickly push out another update to fix the stuff that they missed from the last one. This is a lesson a lot of new or less thoughtful developers learn the hard way. Essentially, it’s dead easy to fuck up an update, right? And you can update right up until the store actually goes live and after that too.

‘Ahar!’, you might think. ‘Surely Valve can just put a freeze on updates until launch and that would ensure…’, you might continue and I’d have to stop you there because it wouldn’t solve the problem as much as just delay it a bit until later. And maybe you’re like ‘but they could get someone to check updates’ and bang, no, you’ve got the hellscape that is an approval process then and if you’ve ever wondered why fixing anything on iOS seems to happen slowly at times – there you go. If folks want devs to have the ability to speedily patch work, this is the compromise we have. Some devs will make a fuck of it. Because life is like that.

The other, often discussed, side effect is that a lot of things folks aren’t interested in makes its way onto Steam and yes, the quality is quite variable. It has been since around 2009 or whenever Valve first started pushing their doors open properly just folks seem willing to ignore the existence of a lot of games that didn’t find their millions on Steam.

Valve’s technique is to build a system that sinks them. Not entirely, not forever, just on a personalised basis. It’s got some way to go but the sales figures of these games, the amount of eyeballs on them – that most people won’t see them unless someone shouts about them, well. It’s kinda working.

Not that you’d know it from the internet, or course. But really, it mainly is.

Unfortunately, videogames is slow to acknowledge these changes. There are developers who still believe (and in some cases, bank on) launch week being the be all and end all, the key to success. There are developers who still believe that we can have 2009 again and Valve should enable those conditions. Meanwhile, the processes Valve put into place are to encourage longer term success. Updates, communication, development as a responsive and timely thing. It’s working for a lot of people.

It’s not working for a lot of people.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to sort that out, both discovery updates are working towards the goal of getting the right game to the right person, lifting more titles up and into view – of ensuring that launch week is not The Week too. And yes, this does mean de-emphasising the new release list because for the majority of Steam users, it will be just noise now. We saw this in real-time for all too long when an influx of publisher back catalogue titles started to be added to Steam and New Releases became borderline useless without a lot more effort than folks often like to expend.

So that’s where we are right now and vaguely where we’re heading. We’re in a sort of messy transitional stage in an industry that rarely manages to sit still at the best of times. Understanding what Valve are doing also takes a bit of understanding where we are and where we’re headed but the basic jist of it all is that the good games are going to keep on coming and whilst Valve and Itch are preparing for it, there’s a lot of us in games it’s going to creep up on.

Things are shifting at a fairly fundamental level and how we keep up with this will help decide just how healthy an ecosystem we want. And in so many ways, it’s out with the old and in with the new. We just have to figure out what that new is now, y’know?

I’m not sure we’ve got as much time as we think.

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Rob On Stuff This is a collection of words.

Abundance

One of the odder yet strangely regular things I keep stumbling into is the idea that whenever someone discovers a videogame that maybe isn’t all that, that questions must be asked of the storefront that stocks it. How could they let this happen?

It’s difficult for me not to picture the same person in their local supermarket, holding up a cheap own brand equivalent of something whilst insisting that a counter assistant must answer to them right this second, we need answers as to how this was allowed on the shelf.

Even just the most cursory of thoughts shows it to be an absurdity yet it is, like a lot of things in videogames, an absurdity which seems to have gained an almighty lot of traction in recent years. We tie it into an outdated and outmoded idea of consumer advocacy to justify it yet it’s one that ignores the environment we exist in, the stores we have, the choice we have now.

Our old ideas of consumer advocacy are based around scarcity, a scarcity of product, a scarcity of ways to lay your hands on the product, a scarcity of information on the product, a scarcity of access to opinions. It’s hinged, mainly, around an old retail model – a model where not just the product itself could be found at retail but all information and opinion on it also. That we could only divine quality by either purchasing (or sneakily reading, obv) a magazine or having to buy the product itself.

This hasn’t been the case for a decade or more yet our idea of consumer advocacy still revolves around it, it is at the heart of it. The industry and surrounding has long moved on and shaped itself into an altogether different beast.

We live in times of abundance and as a result, the needs have changed.

There is an abundance of games and there is a huge amount of access to opinions on videogames. You’re no longer tripping into a store hoping to find a counter assistant who understands in order to share opinions, you’re no longer tripping into a store and having to maybe wait a week or two or more for a review in a magazine. Even the most lowly of games on Steam will invariably provide enough information to guide a purchase.

In short, the consumer no longer needs protecting from bad games. They’re, largely, able to make that decision for themselves. For the most part, games sink without trace in the sea of noise that is selling videogames in the year of our Molyneux 2017. The larger problem with our current situation being one of abundance isn’t how to avoid the really bad games but instead, how to guide folks towards the games they might be interested in.

Unless it’s a multimillion megahyped entry into a franchise or similar, there’s next to no need to warn the consumer heartily against a purchase as the likelihood of them ever even knowing about the game in question hovers somewhere round the zilch mark.

In fairness, there’s a great deal of folk working in games writing who saw the shift and moved with it. Those engaged in the web writing model and print, for the most part, have moved. By necessity in many ways as the continuing survival of a magazine or a website rests on observing the lay of the land and shifting as necessary. There’s often a bit of institutional inertia that slows things but still, there’s been a noted and noticeable shift in games coverage from outlets in recent years and it’s largely a welcome one.

There are other aspects of game coverage where folks don’t feel the need to exercise such caution and indeed, half the appeal there is having someone let rip on a thing for the sport and entertainment of it all. I don’t especially appreciate this as a trend, especially one that defends itself with ‘I’m protecting the consumers’ all too often despite offering little beyond entertainment and invariably it manages to be hurtful too. Yet, it is what it is and, to my eternal disappointment, it exists.

I maintain that despite the protestations of those engaged in this, it’s wholly unnecessary.

Life in making and selling games comes with the understanding that getting anyone even looking at your work is an uphill struggle and beyond a lot of folks. (Tangentially, this is the same thing that lesser publishers and abhorrent giveaway groups thrive on).

Yes, there are a lot of games appearing on digital storefronts but most aren’t equipped or designed to deal with a substantial amount of games. Some handle this by traditional gatekeeping (hello GOG), some fail to handle their store well at all (hello MS, Sony) and only a few are making the necessary steps towards getting this right for the future (hello Steam and Itch). The issue isn’t as some would have it, that a flood of bad games are driving out the good, it’s that games are sinking without trace regardless of quality.

Games aren’t being lost in the noise or having their ability to take the spotlight taken from them by other games. Bad games are not taking up shelf space (for a start, we don’t have shelves – the analogue of online stores as extensions of retail falls at the first hurdle) and they’re most definitely not taking up attention that other games could get.

The first 99.999999999% of people will hear of one of these so called bad games is when someone decides to make a thing of it. Without that, they would just disappear into the void along with everything else.

Which is to say that unless something is an obvious awfulness that needs to be addressed, as in it contains tremendously offensive works or does something especially egregious like siphoning money off as if there’s no tomorrow or it dumps something terrible onto someone’s machine – there is next to no value in drawing attention to it. No-one is protecting the consumer from it simply because the bulk of consumers won’t see it. And those that do see it will have quick access to the thoughts of the three people who made the mistake of buying it in the first place for 75p and immediately left a review warning others.

Now we have a refund period also, we’re talking next to zero risk and zero danger for these things to exist.

There is no need to be concerned with these things existing outside of a few specific instances – what you could call the Google Play problem (or the Windows Store, natch) where it’s difficult to discern a genuine work from a fraudulent (or poor copy of) one without substantial effort. This is, again, not so much a problem with the games existing than the management of the store itself. The question isn’t necessarily what can you do to stop these things as they are invariably a consequence of opening up a store to anyone who pays a fee, instead it’s a question of what is the store doing to promote the works that aren’t that, over and above the other things. Ask them to earn their cut of sales, right?

Discovery is a difficult problem to solve and one that requires approaching from many angles – ideally a mix of automation and human intervention to help sift. When no-one is looking or finding most of the games anyway, there’s little point in disallowing the poor ones, we need folks to find the good ones. And that’s going to be a far more valuable service as time goes on, especially in light of recent world events which will push even more folks towards making games as an escape.

So instead of demanding stores do something about the bad games, we need to ensure they provide enough information for folks to make a smart purchase – screenshots, videos and a description should be mandatory. Embedded reviews are a more complex issue as they’re prone to review bombing and the ire of online mobs and we do need to build in more protection against that but crucially, we also need to stop encouraging mobs to form over the most minor of perceived infractions. There’s a responsibility there to keep games clean and free of disproportionate aggression that not nearly enough folk are willing to take onboard.

Folks are going to need more people to match them up with the things they love and yes, some of us do actually enjoy these My First Game efforts and want to encourage them. I still remember who sent me my first five pounds for one of my games and the difference it made to me wanting to carry on. It’s important that we build spaces where people can grow, build on their mistakes and missteps and become something better. Some never will but it’s not worth crushing the chances of those who might on the off chance.

It’s unfortunate that folks are now encouraged to grow inside a marketplace but this is the exact same phenomena that helps the things we love thrive. On balance, it works out better not to police heavily or to crush folk under internet mobs just for making something not that great – most of the truly great people I know who’ve worked their trade outside of the big box machine have a bag full of tat as their early work, they learned, they got better. Folks need space to get better.

Some never will get better but oh well. Most shoppers will have passed them by anyway.

In these times of information abundance, of abundance of titles available at the push of a button – the real value is in finding the games with potential, finding the rough gems, finding the smooth gems, matching the interesting stuff up with those who might be interested in it. We still have room for so much more as most of our tastes in games are barely catered for unless we happen to have tastes that align with whatever the current obsession or trend is in gaming.

We don’t need to ask stores to remove the bad games, we need to remind them that stores work best when the interesting, the good, the curious, the bizarre can find a place and folks who are into whatever can find whatever. If we really must do real world analogues, if I go to the shop to buy some toothpaste I don’t want to do thirty laps of the meat section to find it. I need clear signposting. I don’t need the store to remove the meat and I certainly don’t need a mob of people shouting that the meat should not exist so I can get to my toothpaste easier. No matter how funny it might be to review bomb a chicken kiev.

Discovery in the digital age is a big task and it’s one that’s not made easier by making a subset of videogames go away. It requires time, effort, focus on what a whole lot of different people need – from folks buying games to folks making stuff in an environment that near as dammit insists that they must learn in a marketplace now.

We don’t need to raise questions as to how lesser works are allowed on stores, we need to ask how they’re going to help us find the things we want to find. It doesn’t need to be done at the expense of others. There’s so many other, better, ways to tackle this. All of them more useful than that.

Let’s lift people up instead of working to grind them down, basically. It’s much more pleasant for everyone and the long term benefits are much, much better indeed.