Steam Runs the Risk of Becoming the New App Store

Steam Runs the Risk of Becoming the New App Store

How Valve's PC gaming platform is developing something of a curation problem.

Have you noticed a bit of a change in Valve's digital distribution platform Steam recently? You're not imagining things.

According to a report by Gamasutra, more games have released on Steam in the four-and-a-half months 2014 has enjoyed so far than in all of last year. To put this in perspective, the number of games released on Steam per month in 2012 and 2013 was under 50 on average; in January of 2014, there was just shy of 100; in February 2014, this figure broke the 100 mark; in March, it was approaching 150; and April saw almost 200 new releases.

Graph from Gamasutra.

There are two big contributing factors in this situation: Steam Greenlight, the process that allows Steam users to vote whether or not they would like to see a game -- usually a publisher-free indie title or something that is still in development -- on the Steam store; and Steam's Early Access program, which allows developers to release and sell unfinished games on the platform.

Both initiatives have seen notable degrees of success. Greenlight has allowed independent developers who would have normally had difficulty getting onto a high-profile digital storefront to peddle their wares on one of the most popular distribution platforms for home computers -- and Valve is even considering removing the Greenlight barrier altogether in order to make Steam a truly open platform. Early Access, meanwhile, has allowed an unprecedented degree of interaction between developers and players, allowing passionate gamers to feel like they're contributing meaningfully to the development of a favorite title, while developers can solicit real-time feedback from the community rather than just a small pool of testers.

It's hard not to feel like there might be dark times ahead, though. As admirable as Valve's intention to make its storefront a truly open platform may be, even with Greenlight's gatekeeping still in place we're seeing such a torrent of titles released every week that it's difficult to keep up with them. Numerous developers have claimed that in some cases it is less than 24 hours before their game falls off the front page of Steam, and this has a strong effect on visibility and discoverability -- a problem that increases along with the number of available games. While Steam does have a comprehensive browse and search system that has been further refined through the introduction of the user-generated Steam Tags earlier this year, the front page is still an extremely important place for players to discover and learn about new games, and this is infinitely more difficult when the New Releases tab moves faster than Twitter during a reality show finale. Valve has already tacitly acknowledged the problem by defaulting the front page view to Top Sellers rather than New Releases, but this provides a different twist on the same problem: what about the small indies who have new, potentially awesome games? Instead of being pushed off the front page by the 50 "Mundane Activity Simulator" games that have been released in the last hour, they're kept off the front page by consistently popular titles like DayZ, Rust and Counter-Strike.

What happens to promising projects from small teams -- titles like the excellent Assault Android Cactus from the three-man team at Witch Beam -- as saturation increases?

The situation Steam is in now mirrors what has been happening to Apple's App Store and its Android equivalents over the last few years. When the App Store launched in 2008, it was seen as an exciting, bold new frontier for gaming: a platform seemingly tailor-made to benefit smaller-scale, independent developers who consistently failed to get noticed amid the increasing bloat of big-budget triple-A games with overenthusiastic marketing plans. And for a while, it provided just that; we saw the rise of small companies like ngmoco putting out bite-size, enjoyable experiences that were nonetheless considerably more interesting and advanced than anything we'd seen on earlier generations of cellphones; certainly a far cry from the Java games of feature phones, many of which were pale imitations of what you could play on dedicated handheld systems.

Today, however, the App Store is a mess, and companies that once showed a huge amount of promise are now but a shadow of their former self; the aforementioned ngmoco now churns out nothing but derivative free-to-play social games via its Mobage platform. Not only is the store awash with clones of popular games -- the most recent being the notoriously terrible-but-addictive Flappy Bird and the genuinely excellent puzzle game Threes -- but its top charts are all but stagnant. The consistently money-making "games as a service" titles like King's Candy Crush Saga and Supercell's Clash of Clans constantly hang around and divert attention from smaller-scale, more "crafted with love" titles designed not to be never-ending time-and-money-sinks, but instead to be self-contained creative works.

It's easy to point the finger at in-app purchases and blame the growing free-to-play movement for this situation, and to be sure, these things have had a marked impact on the overall quality of titles on mobile platforms and the visibility of the genuinely good stuff; a few free-to-play games make a huge amount of money and suddenly everyone wants to emulate them. But it's a broader problem than that: it's an issue of oversaturation brought about by everyone wanting a piece of whatever the next big thing is this week, and it's a problem that's spilling over from mobile platforms into the PC space. Not only that, it's a problem that a truly open marketplace will make it that much more difficult to deal with.

This is EA's MOBA. Can you remember what it's called? Do you care?

Take the MOBA genre popularized by League of Legends and Dota 2. These games are proven successes, so we're starting to see more and more of them, themed around everything from Transformers to... uh... whatever it is that EA's upcoming MOBA project is themed around. It's understandable that everyone wants a piece of the pie, and competition is good, but as the number of competing products doing almost exactly the same thing rises, you have to question why any consumer would deliberately pick an inferior experience when there are well-established "best choices" for what they want to engage with.

Looking back at the App Store, the permanent ensconcement of Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga atop the Top Grossing charts suggests that consumers simply don't pick these inferior experiences anyway, making it a losing battle to even try and compete. But developers still do, because it's quicker and easier to churn out a match-3 clone or isometric-perspective tap-tap-tap FarmVillealike than it is to come up with a truly original idea that you can't prove there's a market for. The knock-on effect of that, then, is that the truly interesting, original stuff -- much of which is well worth checking out -- gets buried by the aforementioned match-3 clones and FarmVille ripoffs, and with the fickleness and fast pace of the modern gaming market, if it's not a success within a couple of days of releasing, it's not considered a success at all.

It would be terribly sad to see Steam go in this direction. A game launching on Steam used to be a big deal -- particularly for small-scale indie developers who had to work hard to get noticed. And it still is a big deal for small developers, but with the sheer number of games now launching on Steam every month, it's becoming more and more of a challenge for them to do that; it's no longer the guarantee of visibility that it once was, and moreover, it's no longer the guarantee of quality that it, for the most part anyway, used to be.

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