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"Valve is damned if it does, damned if it doesn't"

"Valve is damned if it does, damned if it doesn't"

As you have no doubt seen, Valve has opted to change the way it approaches content. Where before, every game on Steam - surprisingly - underwent some degree of human curation.

Now, the company is opening up its platform to any and all content; something that has caused a massive divide in the games community. We've spoken to members of the development and publishing sectors to see how they feel about these changes - most of these sources are anonymous to protect their careers. 

One anonymous developer relations rep from an indie publisher says that the only way that Valve can get away with this is due to the sheer power the company holds.

"If this was any other store, there would be an outcry from the people that do not want a part of their earnings to help fund a place where racist games are now given a free pass," they say.

"Unfortunately, Valve holds an incredible amount of power over the games industry, and angering them can literally mean the death of your studio."

They continue: "This is another way for Valve to earn money, this time by selling games that promote racism and extreme violence. That is not the kind of company I want to work with, but I have to."

Other criticism is with regards to the rather vague language used to describe how it will be policing content. Games with 'illegal' or 'trolling' content will get the axe, but what does that mean?

"Whilst I appreciate all art having a platform to be shown, Valve's terms “not trolling” or “illegal” are very vague," an anonymous indie developer told PCGamesInsider.biz.

"For example, homosexuality is illegal in some countries. Their post reads like a blog post from a start-up company."

Meanwhile, Thomas Bidaux of Ico Partners says ultimately he is disappointed that a company as big and influential as Valve isn't able to implement a proper content policy. 

"My initial reaction to the newly announced policy for the content on Steam was one of disappointment," he says.

"The company expressed, rightfully, that this is a complex issue they are trying to tackle, and the essence of the blog post describing the policy is "we give up". Considering how influential Steam, and how widely used it is, and, yes, also the fact that Valve could not find a way to use the money they generate from the platform to put in place a proper, scalable content policy, I have to say I am disappointed they end up giving up."

Cliff Harris of Positech argues that this isn't the monumental shift that people are saying it is; in addition, the development vet says the because Valve is selling games around the world, so why should a company based in America get to decide what is right for its consumers.

"This [post] is a clarification if anything," he says.

"I don't see why people are so keen for Valve to decide what constitutes a game that should exist. That would be, pretty much by definition, a form of censorship. The values of people in Washington State differ from those in New York, or Texas, or Mexico, or Pakistan or England or Russia. Why should we be so keen for a small group of people in a single company to decide what is, and is not 'a worthy game'. Imagine Valve was based in Moscow, and then decide to ban all games featuring Gay characters. Would that be fine?"

Meanwhile, the head of publishing for another indie label simply says: "They're damned if they do, damned if they don't."

Harris says that letting the consumer decide what appears on the storefront is a smart move.

"If it was a small niche store that prided itself on being family friendly or had some well-known political leaning, then sure, but Steam isn't your local bookstore, it's like Amazon," he says.

"Let the customer decide what is worth selling sounds like a good idea to me. Do people really think there is a mass of offensive games that would find a huge audience that is currently only being held back by Steam's current policies?"

But our indie development source says that a company like Valve should have some set of values by which it decides what should appear on the store.

"I think [they should]," they say.

"As a visual novel developer, I now worry that my game could be removed on their next whim."

This is echoed by Ico's Bidaux, who says that curation is not censorship - as some critics have claimed - but that its just a platform putting a line in the sand with regards to what a storefront stands for. 

"I don't think this is necessarily an issue about censorship or freedom of speech - a freedom easily misunderstood as it doesn't force any business to give you a voice on their platform - but mostly an issue about curation," he explains.

"We often see curation as the process by which platforms and the stores select which games they want to highlight, but it also defines which content they don't want to support, for whatever reasons. I am not in the camp that says that Steam Direct was a bad move on Steam's part - a lot of the new games that got published since the system was put in place didn't sell. It looks much direr if you think about the ratio of games that manage to sell more than 1,000 copies, but overall, this is because the new games didn't bring a new audience.

"I find it absurd that Valve basically decides to give up on curation, where all the other major platforms manage to do it, including Steam's competitors. I find it worrying that the Valve's team found themselves disagreeing whether a game about shooting students in an American school was appropriate or not. The current stated stance where "the market will regulate which games are successful" is also incredibly tone deaf, and it might be because they are different sensibilities to this kind of speech in Europe, but it firmly gives the image of Valve as a desensitized capitalist corporation, where I think it has proven over the years that they deeply care about the development ecosystem, and despite its quasi-monopolistic position on the PC market, Valve kept policies in place that are incredibly counter to an overly capitalistic company (many of its competitors established their business through the ability of studios and publishers to generate keys for their games at a no cost)."

Our indie publishing source adds that stopping content appearing because it is disagreeable could be a slippery slope; that banning them gives an edge of cool that could even give them greater success.

"Valve should absolutely prevent the sale of anything illegal. But arbitrarily banning any form of media because some find it distasteful is the thin edge of the wedge," they say.

"The examples cited recently sound abhorrent, I don't necessarily think forcing them underground - where their appeal will be amplified - is necessarily the answer. It'd only be a matter of time where being "BANNED BY STEAM!!!!" would become part of a marketing plan"

Asked what impact this new content policy will have on the PC space, our anonymous indie developer source says that they fear the community on Steam is only going to get worse.

"I think Steam has one of the most toxic online communities and it gives games a bad wrap," they say.

"From Valve's latest statement, I fear this is only going to get worse. They have shifted the blame onto the users, rather than stepping up and moderating its community. The company's hands-off approach is basically saying: 'We can’t handle this community anymore so we won’t'. What kind of community is that going to create?"

Ico's Bidaux argues that short-term, this won't have much of an effect on the sale of games. But on a longer timeline it might tarnish Valve's reputation with the development and publishing community. 

"I think it will little impact short term on them. Long term though, they are likely to lose a lot of goodwill from studios and publishers who will be more likely to explore alternatives," he says.

"The timing for Kongregate to launch their own offer is ideal for this, and I am sure the duo Amazon/Twitch is going to push more in that direction too. But, that's the market regulating itself, right? That's what they say in the blog post the policy was meant for.

"The biggest concern I have for Valve though is their image with the developer community, and especially what it means for their recruitment drive. The blog post highlighted opinions within Valve that surprised many of us, and that would certainly make many candidates reconsider what the work environment is like there. I can't help but wonder how the newly acquired Camp Santo team feels about that new policy, and how it was presented."

Meanwhile, Harris doesn't see this having much of an impact on the market, saying that offensive games don't tend to shift huge numbers regardless.

"Really offensive games don't sell anyway," he says.

"Last time I checked, Overwatch outsold Postal by quite a margin. The best way to sell games and make money will remain making a product people actually want to buy."

Our developer relations source agrees that there won't be much of an impact on the retail space, but only because developer are currently so reliant on Steam to sell their games.

"I don't think this will have an impact on the retail space, unless game developers can truly embrace other options for selling digital products," they say.

"Valve overturned their paid mods decision after outcry from the gaming community, if people felt able to speak up, perhaps the same would happen here... but it won't."


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Editor - PC Games Insider

Alex Calvin launched PCGamesInsider.biz in August 2017 and has been its editor since. Prior to this, he was deputy editor at UK based games trade paper MCV and content editor for marketing and events for London Games Festival 2017. His work has also appeared in Eurogamer, The Observer, Kotaku UK, Esquire UK and Develop.

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