In 2005, Mark Healey, working for Lionhead as an artist at the time, got the mad idea to use his programming skills to marry rope physics code to kung fu fighters. Then he wrapped the whole thing up with footage from an ultra low-budget chop-socky film he had made with his friends. The result was Rag Doll Kung Fu, a goofy indie game that implausibly wound up as the first non-Valve developed game to be offered on Steam. People Make Games interviewed some of the folks involved, and the story is a mix of luck, good timing, and a lost wallet.
Healey left Lionhead in 2006 and founded Media Molecule with Alex Evans, David Smith, and Kareem Ettouney. Rag Doll Kung Fu continues to sell on Steam, but new versions were made for PlayStation and iOS. Steam published 7,672 games in 2017.
The indie game scene on Steam, once filled with rags to riches stories, has become a place for dreams to die. Mike Rose of No More Robots, told attendees at the 2018 Game Developers Conference that their wide-eyed optimism for success on Steam was an error. According to his data, the average game on Valve’s PC gaming service makes about $30,000 in sales in its first year. Sales decline from then on. For small studios with more than one person working a ton of hours to bring their indie vision to life, this is sobering news.
“A lot of people are coming to me saying things like ‘our game’s a bit like Limbo, and Limbo sold millions of copies.’ Oh god, that’s not how it works.”
The problem, of course, is an over-saturated platform. In 2017, over 6,000 games launched on Steam, and thus far 2018 is looking to double that figure. Rose’s advice for indie developers? Have a plan to sell on other platforms, and make your product stand out from the overcrowded space. Even then, Rose cautions indies to prepare for less-than-stellar sales.
On January 8th, Steam hit 18 million concurrent users, a new record for Valve’s PC gaming service. (18,363,471 to be exact at around six in the morning Pacific Time.) That’s up about 4 million from a year ago. About 3 of the 18 million souls were trying to get into PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, making it the most popular game on the client. In second place, Dota 2 with approximately 765,000 players, has a long way to go to catch up. If Valve doesn’t watch it, this Steam idea may catch on.
Valve is cracking down on shovelware and games that violate their sales policies. Last week it was reported that Valve quietly de-listed hundreds of games from Steam. Most of the affected titles were part of the “asset-flipping” scene, that is, games made very cheaply by using pre-made textures, models, and sometimes whole game systems offered from various sources such as the Unity Asset Store. While there’s nothing wrong with using community-made assets, many of the games in question did so to meet the bare minimum requirements for being sold on Steam and offer trading cards. As explained by Valve in May, these developers primarily intended to profit off trading card sales over the sales of the games themselves. In fact, the “card-farming” scheme usually started by getting the keys into as many gamers hands as possible via cheap bundles or even giving them away to seed the card generating population.
Polygon communicated with Silicon Echo Studios, whose entire catalog of more than 200 games was de-listed as part of the sweep. (You can see a pitch for one of their games here.) According to the studio, they were unfairly targeted and their games were sold with full disclosure to their customers. The studio did acknowledge that they played fast and loose with the letter of the rules, but no harm, no foul.
“We are no heroes, we have indeed sometimes been conducting our business with some practices people may call shady.”
Silicon Echo Studios has since closed their doors, presumably because their business model was destroyed. It’s a wake-up call to indie developers determined to game Steam. You can get away with a certain amount of goofiness thanks to the company’s reliance on community policing, but there is a limit. Valve is watching, and at least in terms of messing with their money, they do not abide tomfoolery forever.
The larger debate on whether or not Valve is acting fairly continues. It’s their store and their rules, but some people have expressed displeasure over the fact that Valve changes the rules without warning. How then should others trust that the rules won’t change against them? In the short-term, just what is Valve doing to combat shovelware that doesn’t violate their card-farming rules? Steam is a large enough presence in the industry that anything Valve does can have wide-ranging effects on gaming. For example, Valve can close a studio with relative ease.
There’s nothing like seeing pitchforks and torches held aloft while a mob clicks a thumbs down button. Review-bombing is an issue that has been plaguing Valve’s digital store since user reviews were enabled. A developer says something controversial, or a popular streamer goes all in on a game, and the result can be thousands of negative reviews that drop the average score. Valve acknowledged that users will sometimes score a game based on factors outside of the game content. In the case of review-bombing, this skewed average score can mislead potential buyers if the issues at hand aren’t pertinent to their buying decision. Valve now thinks it might have a solution. Starting today, Steam will display a histogram of the positive to negative ratio of reviews for each game. Consumers will be able to easily see if reviews suddenly took a drastic downturn for a temporary condition, and then click to see a sample review of the time period.
Neill Blomkamp’s new short film is Rakka. You can watch it on YouTube, or on Steam for free right now. On Steam, you may notice a curious offer for optional DLC from Oats Studio. The Volume 1 Assets pack includes a 5.1 audio sound mix, a script, 3D models, and concept art for the film. The studio plans to release dallies, sound files, and visual effects documentation to purchasers at a later date.
“I just wonder if there’s a different way to have a one-on-one relationship with the audience.”
Blomkamp, the director of District 9, Chappie, and Elysium, started Oats Studio to focus on short films for himself and other filmmakers that wouldn’t get financed through the studio system. He plans to pay for it through donations and Steam DLC. His scheme sounds a lot like early access for games, in fact. Release an initial “volume” of a movie, get feedback from customers, then possibly adjust and continue. Additionally, Blomkamp expects buyers of the assets to use them for their own projects tied into the film. A bit like allowing users to create workshop mods for games, although there’s no word on if those audience collaborators will get a cut of Oats Studio’s revenue.
Think back to 2003 when Steam was first required to play Half-Life 2. It was awful, right? This bloated, unnecessary, digital rights management software was a blight on your PC. You just wanted to play basketball with Dog and flirt with Alyx Vance, so why did you need this? What good was it to you? Fast-forward to now and the PC gaming industry is unthinkable without it. In fact, it’s probable that you’ve purchased games that you otherwise never would’ve heard of thanks to Steam.
The same process is happening in China. Lisa Hanson of Niko Partners explains in a Gamasutra blog post that thanks to some unique business conditions, Steam is flourishing in China. Because Steam is required to play Dota 2, and because Steam is puzzlingly exempt from the kind of Chinese government censorship that other software distribution platforms must endure, China’s gamers are gaining access to games they otherwise could not purchase.
The fact that Steam had banned games peaked the curiosity of a few Chinese gamers who wanted to try out this platform and this led to many of them purchasing their second game on Steam, Grand Theft Auto V. Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) already had a huge presence globally and was marketed as the game to experience the American way of life. GTA V had a localized Chinese version and was considerably cheaper than the Western version of the game. The popularity of the game in China led to many live streamers playing the game on their channel and this in turn led to many more creating Steam accounts to buy and play the game.
China is the second largest region for ownership of Grand Theft Auto V on Steam. Hanson notes that in 2015 Steam began accepting Chinese currency and AliPay, the regional equivalent of PayPal, which boosted the popularity of the storefront.
In fact, there are now more than 10 million Steam users in China, which makes it the second largest Steam region. It also allowed the average number of games owned to jump from 2-3 per user all the way up to 11 games owned per user in China. Removing these barriers had a hugely positive impact for game sales on Steam. A Chinese New Year sale went further towards growing the Steam user base.
Tencent, the publisher behind Riot Games, is taking on Steam in China with its own Tencent Games Platform. (Check out a commercial for the service here!) The publishing giant is bringing third-party games to their store from developers and publishers around the world.
Some prominent Counter-Strike: Global Offensive players were accused of posting deceptive videos related to a site they apparently own on which people can wager cosmetic CS:GO skins. These personalities claimed to have found this site that lets them put up their CS:GO weapon skins against others and win easy money since some of the skins are potentially worth hundreds of real dollars. Unfortunately, the videos failed to disclose that it wasn’t so much that the hosts “found” the site, but actually “founded” it. They were registered as co-owners since the company’s inception. In the wake of the scandal, another popular YouTube CS:GO player made a troubling confession admitting to showing rigged bets in his CS:GO skin wagering videos for another similar site. Ugly all around.
While these specific incidents may break various truth-in-advertising laws, and raise questions about the legitimacy of the supposedly random payouts, they also highlight an issue that has been growing since Team Fortress 2 started the cosmetic skin craze. Steam has become a catalyst for underage gambling. Because these in-game cosmetic skins don’t have a fixed monetary price, the in-game random distribution of them through loot drops or boxes defy conventional gambling laws. At the same time, the rarer skins hold high value and can be traded for Steam items (including other skins) that do have cash worth. Thus you end up with lucrative businesses like the CS:GO betting sites that encourage gambling for kids as young as thirteen.
While Valve doesn’t directly participate in this grey industry, a pending lawsuit accuses the company of turning a blind eye to the business and facilitating the corruption of minors by allowing these third-party sites to use Steam’s data. The suit further alleges that Valve benefits from the betting by gaining a percentage of the skin value traded during each transaction.
If you live in the North American part of the world, then lucky you! Steam just got a whole bunch of new movies for your area. Valve’s gaming service has had movies since March 2015, but unless you wanted to watch a lot of ultra indie films like Coffee, Kill Boss or Steve Chong Finds Out That Suicide is a Bad Idea, then there wasn’t much to recommend. (The Mad Max movies were added a little later, but that was a promotional deal that coincided with the release of the game from Avalanche.) Steam just took a big step into the space carved out by other media streaming services by signing a deal with Lionsgate. Check it out! These are legitimate movies that you’ve probably heard of and may have paid to see in a theater. Leprechaun 4: Lost in Space. Return of the Living Dead 3. Cyborg 2. Even Gamer, starring Gerard Butler, is available. Synergy! Variety notes that Lionsgate will push more titles to Steam as the deal expands to other territories.
“With over 125 million users, Steam represents a unique, exciting and disruptive opportunity to expand our global distribution business.”
The movies from Lionsgate are only available as 48-hour rentals for now. It is unknown if the deal will later make “permanent” digital ownership possible.
Rust has rolled out a Steam storefront for in-game items. Not a big deal you say? Certainly, it’s not the first Steam storefront to offer virtual gewgaws for money. What makes this notable is the fact that unlike the Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike: Global Offensive workshops, Rust’s store is not curated by Valve or modders. Facepunch Studios owns the content and gives a cut of sales to Valve, while sharing revenue directly with modders. The items featured in the store can be obtained through random drops in the game, but varying levels of rarity make some items more desirable than others. These items can be used by the player or bought and sold between players, with Valve again taking a portion of the sale. Studio head Garry Newman explained why this was a good deal for everyone, including the players that don’t have a lot of ready cash.
So you’ve got the poor guys with no money. They hate traditional microtransactions because it’s a paywall. But on Steam they play the game and get random drop items, and can then sell and trade those items on the marketplace. It’s not unfeasible that a player will make more money selling items than the game itself cost.
They’re happy because they can sell the stuff they get randomly for free, buy games from Steam.
They’re making people happy because they can buy stuff from them.
Newman added that not offering the items in the store would be “screwing” the community.
Go into a Gamestop and check out the PC gaming area. It’s probably one freestanding shelf section way in the back of the store facing towards the far wall. The area may have a laughable selection of points cards for various free-to-play games and download services, with a couple of older boxed games that are horribly overpriced, if it has any boxes at all. It’s been that way for a couple of years, and the only thing keeping the PC gaming section from dying out in retail is the audience that still picks up a copy of The Sims or World of Warcraft every now and again.
Thanks to Steam, you may see a revival of the dedicated PC gaming space at retail. Valve has announced that in partnership with Gamestop, Game UK, and EB Games, you’ll soon be able to find a Steam-branded PC gaming section at participating stores. The prepaid cards aren’t going away, but Steam Controllers, the Steam Link, and Steam Machines will soon be stacked on the shelves alongside the off-brand PS4 controllers and expensive fighting game joysticks.
“Steam has helped grow PC gaming into a leading platform for games,” said Bob Puzon, senior vice president of merchandising at GameStop, the exclusive retail partner in the U.S. for Steam Hardware. “With millions of gamers already enjoying the Steam desktop experience, we anticipate a strong demand for the upcoming Steam Hardware products and are looking forward to serving as the exclusive non-digital retail launch partner.”
If you missed the preorder period for Steam hardware, this may be a viable way to get your hands on one of these devices for the holidays.
Valve is disabling the ability to set pricing on mods. According to this official announcement, Valve is turning off the feature they rolled out on Friday that allowed modders to set pricing for their creations in the Steam Workshop. Even though modders have generated significant profit for Valve’s own Team Fortress 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and Dota 2, gamers voiced their displeasure at the new revenue sharing system as soon as it was launched. Negatives cited by detractors included copyright concerns, sketchy future support of broken mods, poor quality control, and modders getting too small of a cut.
We understand our own game’s communities pretty well, but stepping into an established, years old modding community in Skyrim was probably not the right place to start iterating. We think this made us miss the mark pretty badly, even though we believe there’s a useful feature somewhere here.
Earlier in the day, Bethesda had posted an explanation of their strategy on paid mods, but their reasoning did little to stem the arguments against the feature.
Valve made a slew of announcements at GDC. First, Steam Link is a small hardware device meant to facilitate Steam game and media streaming to your TV from a local PC. It will be available in November for $49.99. A Steam controller can be added for another $49.99, giving us the price and rough launch period of the elusive Steam-centric gamepad. Valve also announced Source 2 would be free for all content developers to use, but did not give details of royalty or Steam exclusivity requirements. Finally, Valve unveiled Lighthouse, which is their VR room tracking technology meant to work in tandem with the HTC Vive VR headset that was revealed yesterday. More information on all of these items will be coming at GDC and the weeks ahead.
Steam Controllers, Steam Machines, and now we’re looking at SteamVR. In a small, almost stealthy notice, Valve announced that they will be showing off some of their hardware projects at GDC 2015, including something called SteamVR. While Oculus Rift piffles about with Facebook and the NBA, Valve seems ready to hop into the growing VR space with their own setup. Steam VR is part of a “family of entertainment devices” according to Valve. See? While everyone was watching Sony and Microsoft battle over control of the living room, Valve ran around straight to the den. Like Oculus, Valve is reaching out to the community to start working on stuff to actually use with their hardware.
With the introduction of SteamVR hardware, Valve is actively seeking VR content creators. Are you a developer or publisher interested in experiencing the new SteamVR hardware?
Interested in trying the SteamVR Dev Kit? Space is limited – schedule your demo today!
GDC 2015 starts on March 2nd. Previous glimpses of Valve’s experimental work in VR headsets have been limited.
Stop buying votes with free game keys. That’s the notice Valve has given to developers in their Steam Greenlight program. The initial idea for Greenlight was that developers would submit their projects on the service and people would vote on them. If they got enough votes, Valve would approve the game for regular sale on Steam. Simple, right? Life being what it is, things aren’t that easy in practice. First, a lot of submissions were rip-offs and copies of other games. Second, almost every game is just an early access pitch, which brings additional issues. Finally, developers have found ways to game (pun intended) the system with freebies. It turns out that voters like free stuff.
“We understand that running contests and giving away copies of your game can be seen as a form of marketing. But for the purposes of Greenlight, we don’t think that giving away copies of your game in exchange for votes accurately reflects genuine customer interest.”
Let’s have some clean voting! Get on Steam the old-fashioned way – with false advertising, over-promising features, and flat-out lies.