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The changing face of Steam

A recent Gabe Newell interview gives an intriguing glimpse of possible futures for Steam where democratisation is the key to its future.

Robert Fearon, Blogger

January 9, 2013

10 Min Read

There’s going to be a lot of talk about the interview Gabe Newell gave to The Verge over the next few days and and given we’re starting to see announcements of Steam compatible hardware filtering through, a lot of this talk is going to focus on and remain around the hardware side of things. Because it’s definitely looking like 2013 is the year of the hardware announcement and oh, we do like that.

And that’s nice and all that and I’m excited to see what’s going to happen next.

HOWEVER! The bit that stuck out most for me was on the future of Steam itself. Chunky quote from The Verge, click through to read the rest, it’s worth a gander.

Right now there’s one Steam store. We think that the store should actually be more like user generated content. So, anybody should be able to create a store, and it should be about extra entertainment value. Our view has always been that we should build tools for customers and tools for partners. An editorial filter is fine, but there should be a bunch of editorial filters. The backend services should be network APIs that anybody can use. On the consumer side, anybody should be able to put up and store that hooks into those services.

Our view is that, in the same way users are critical in a multiplayer experience, like the fellow next to you is critical to your enjoyment, we should figure out how we can help users find people that are going to make their game experiences better. Some people will create team stores, some people will creates Sony stores, some people will create stores with only games that they think meet their quality bar. Somebody is going to create a store that says “these are the worst games on Steam.” So that’s an example of where our thinking is leading us right now.

This seems to imply a massively different view of Steam compared to the view a lot of folks and developers have of it. The old wisdom that Steam is for certain people and for certain games and none shall pass and Valve are the gatekeepers, filters and be all and all of what Steam is is starting to feel increasingly short sighted. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this really isn’t how Valve view Steam continuing in the future and I think with this quote, coupled with the intentions of Greenlight, it couldn’t be more explicit that Valve are looking to hand over a lot more to the community than we seem to have assumed.

It’s interesting to ponder over what this could mean in the near future. It’s been less than vaguely hinted at in the past that Valve want to have all things on Steam somehow, during the $100 bar brawl over Greenlight it was often overlooked that one of the intentions behind Greenlight was to help nurture communities from a game's inception and upwards using Steam as a sort of "home base". This eventually manifested itself as a separate and welcome segment of Greenlight. Valve have openly acknowledged that Greenlight has a long way to go before it becomes what they want it to be and what they want it to be is a place where developers engage with the community and where the community choose titles to be sold on Steam.

Then there’s the inclusion of game making software and content made in game making software on Steam and in the workshop, backdooring freeware onto Steam. Although there's a few steps to upload and play currently, anyone with a copy of Gamemaker Studio on Steam can upload their games or demos of their games made with it to the Steam workshop. In a recent interview (I'm quoted in the interview but you can happily ignore that for now), Sandy Duncan of YoYoGames had something very interesting to say with regards to Gamemaker content on Steam.

At the moment, playing a game via the Workshop isn’t as simple as it could be. Curious Steam users are required to first download and then start up GameMaker’s free version before selecting the option to ‘Play’. But if that process proves too heavy a barrier, YoYo Games are willing to cut out the middleman. – Sandy Duncan, YoYoGames

Obviously when you're on Steam, you can't "just" cut out the middleman, this would mean working with Valve to ensure that the games could be played without going through Gamemaker itself and then, well, that brings about an entirely new element of Steam. One where games made in a specific package can be freely through Steam with minimal interference.

Where Valve-think is leading right now is sort of Steam is for everybody in some way. Content creation is democratised, here we have plans for the storefront to be democratised to a degree with multiple stores. The actual process of getting on the store is now democratised (poorly but…). 

Maybe we’ll just see affiliate stores as the portals did before Amazon moved in. Maybe we’ll see trusted partner stores going forward. Maybe we’ll see “Rock Paper Shotgun Recommends…” stores or something, maybe stores will have the ability to pick from Greenlight games also or maybe it’ll be developers and customers having the ability to set up their own corners in Steam with Valve retaining final say on the contents of the main storefront but with all these other storefronts around it too… that’d make real use of the customer as filter, right? It'd certainly be the most interesting

Now I know there’s going to be some worries at the thought of Steam becoming even more expansive in its reach and that’s cool. It’s healthy to worry when someone sets their plans on something so wide reaching and it’s good to look at these things and go “hhhm, I’m kinda worried about some of these things, y’know?”, that’s fine. I’ll be doing plenty of thinking about consequences and stuff myself. But it’s also sort of exciting in a way. I sorta agree with Phil Carlisle (@zoombapup) that this is a massive undertaking to take Steam from closed shop to many shops, Steam as landlord/mall thing. But I also got to thinking just how much is already there in Steam. Some of it dormant or rarely used but there all the same. It wouldn't surprise me anymore if Valve were to bring these things together in a way that's more than just "users get to stock up their own virtual store from Steam content and brand it and sell it".

So there’s Workshop, obviously. You already have in effect a store within a store there and that’s really taken off in 2012. From Team Fortress 2 being the standard bearer and test ground for “making stuff and putting it on Steam”, you now have other big player backed Workshops like Civilization V, Skyrim and Scribblenauts mingling with an increasing amount of indie titles, Legend Of Grimrock, Colourbind, Train Simulator (don’t laugh, have you seen how much content there is for this thing?) and there’ll no doubt be more to come. Now most of these don’t offer cashmonies for user content but TF2 does and I’m fairly sure we’ll see that spread outside of Valve stuff in time or at the very least, the option being there should devs/publishers want to use it. And of course, there’s the recent Steam-credit-for-trading that’s just been announced which brings a fairly real money-ish experiment into the mix. Steam is already shifting away from the traditional storefront model.

There’s Greenlight which whilst I think the current implementation does everyone a massive disservice, from it Valve get to very easily see what happens when users are allowed more control. They can see what sort of collections form (I’ve not checked but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover there already was a “worst games on Greenlight” collection and in the meantime, I’ll make do with the vaguely non-judgemental Greenlight Gold twitter feed) and maybe draw some stuff from that and how that would apply to “what would happen if we let people set up their own shops”.

And then there’s the other, smaller and sometimes obvious things. Steam is very good at taking money, this is fairly well established by now. Steam already has a fairly robust gifting system, certainly the easiest most practical one I’ve used outside of the Humble Bundle. It already has unique hubs for games so things are already breaking down even further from Valve-as-one-controlling-entity for all the things. You have developers able to pass on gift and discount vouchers (a feature that’s not really had much use since coal-a-geddon but if you’re running your own store within a store on Steam, wouldn’t that be a handy thing to have?) And then there’s the store achievements, maybe not that impressive but maybe I, as Lord High Ruler Of Activision Pretend could give you a LOYAL CODFISH award for buying all 10 map packs through the Activision on Steam store should that be a thing that existed? Maybe that would make it more interesting.

For developers and publishers with stuff on Steam, they already have ways of selling their stuff-that-wot-is-on-Steam elsewhere thanks to the retail/steam store key splits. Having a marketplace option also would not be that drastic a technical step from where we are already.

Should Valve choose, the majority of pieces for stores within the store are already in place. Suddenly, maybe this crazy idea isn't quite so crazy.

It's worth noting just how short a time it's been for Steam to become the behemoth it is now. Counter Strike, Half Life 2 and later The Orange Box tipped the install base ever higher but store content was fairly thin on the ground for years. In 2009, there was scant few titles on the store. The real growth taking place in 2010/2011 and at an amazing rate.

Just looking at indie games alone, the catalogue has expanded from just a tiny selection of games to over 500 titles and now, Valve are offering placements as prizes to IGF finalists where once a console platform holder may have taken that lead. 2012 saw the advent of productivity software, utilities and other general miscellany arriving on the store also. And of course, Valve have been moving Steam from being a Windows only application to an account based system that works across different operating systems (where purchases are, with only one less than honourable exception cross platform where other builds are available)

Very soon we can throw in the move to sitting pretty on its own hardware and the hardware of others for good measure.

In the past two years alone, what Steam is has evolved so much. In 2013, it’s only going to evolve further and it's clear that democratisation of content is going to play a large part in this. How far it'll go, how far Valve will take this, I can only guess. I have my own hopes but Steam and the focus of Steam has clearly changed, is clearly changing, yet our definition of what Steam is has remained fairly rigid and constant throughout and more than ever seems at odds with how Valve view Steam.

What Steam is, is changing all the time and that's something it's always done. It's an exciting time, that's for sure and I look forward to seeing where this democratisation of content leads. Maybe it'll be a dead end, a failed experiment or maybe, as Valve seem to be banking on increasingly, maybe it is the future and it includes all of us.

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