Developers' opinion on Steam: maximum revenue and minimum responsibility for Valve
Not long ago, every PC game developer dreamed of getting into Steam. The release of the game on Steam - if you somehow managed to contact Valve and impress the company with your product - was a guarantee of sales and success.
According to the 20 developers I spoke with before writing this article, this time is over. Although selling games on Steam today is as easy as ever, only the “favorites” are lucky enough for the mysterious algorithm to allocate them valuable screen space, or popular enough for a Valve representative to personally help them with a tech support ticket. To all the others, it often seems that they are left on their own.
According to many Steam-developers, such a two-tier culture with algorithmic supervision in the style of "one Steam for popular, the other for all others" leads to frustration, discontent and confusion.
How did this story begin
I started receiving letters from developers who wanted to share their thoughts about Steam after writing an article about the cold corporate reality behind the scenes of the “good guy Valve” illusion . The last few months, I was in correspondence and talked with 20 developers, from small to well-known “AAA-indie”. I was trying to understand why these once enthusiastic Steam evangelists became so reticent or caustic.
Very few of these developers wanted to subscribe with their own words, and some were even scared to offer a confidential conversation in Discord. Almost as a community of authors Steam Workshop, living in fear of the fact that Valve can at any time deprive him of income, game developers for Steam understand who in their relationship has more power.
This is what the developers wanted to share with me.
Review issues on Steam
Almost five years ago, Steam introduced a review system . From this point on, millions of reviews were left on an infinite number of Steam pages , a completely new genre of gaming journalism emerged, and a radical rework was carried out just to cope with the reaction of angry Piedipai fans .
Steam users liked the simple and convenient opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions, and Valve successfully implemented a system that encourages users to invest unpaid time and work in support of the Steam ecosystem. Valve never pays for what it can get from users for free. Don't forget that Gabe Newell himself described Valve as a company that“Gets more revenue per employee than google and apple” .
However, for some developers, the past five years of Steam reviews have been a real nightmare.
"The whole system of working with reviews on Steam is very cruel and exhausting towards developers," one developer told me, whose last game collected more than 500 reviews. “I’m afraid to even talk about it, because players can find out how powerful they are.”
If you get too many negative reviews, the automated Steam system changes the font color on the store page from pleasant blue (“positive reviews”) to unpleasant brown (“mixed reviews”). Before writing this article, I assumed that the threshold of transformation from “positive” to “mixed” should be somewhere in the middle, about 50 percent.
It turned out that to get a positive rating, you need to keep a surprisingly high rate of 70 percent of recommendation reviews. Therefore, just a few negative reviews (according to some developers, in the case of small games, “only three, four, maybe five”) are enough to turn a page from blue to brown. The developers with whom I spoke, say that such a change leads to almost an instant drop in the number of sales.
Players have tremendous power, but it would be normal if the review system was used only for reviewing games. However, the system is used in a completely different way, and as a result, it has become a big headache for developers who have to play according to the unbalanced rules of Valve.
Reviews is a new tech support
The Steam Review System is often used as a support line - players ask for a variety of help - from computer compatibility to lost passwords. This creates huge problems with the legitimacy of the “reviews”, because developers have very few tools to work more efficiently.
“If a player shares any problem on the forums, I don’t have any support tools other than answering him in a public forum,” one of the developers told me. “This is not a good way to provide support. I can’t find out anything about his account, or about the computer, or about anything else. As a result, they use the review system to get support. I can’t even count how many reviews I received due to problems that were not related to the quality of the game. Forgot password? Negative review. Blue screen of death? Negative review. All these things are obviously questions of support. ”
I asked to tell what support tools are available to them, and another developer described the same problem.
“The only tools are the review system. There is no ticket management, no way to assign tasks. And if they are, then I do not know where. We tried to send people to our technical support for Freshdesk, but this is a difficult task. I also tried to write messages to people in PM to fix problems and learn more about them, but they do not always read them and answer, it depends on luck. ”
Other developers had to use the forum as a starting point in order to redirect users to Discord or to other third-party communication channels in which useful support could be provided. Strange, but Steam often becomes the worst way to interact with players.
"I opened a channel in the public forum for reporting bugs, but I don’t receive notifications about messages, so you have to check it manually," the developer of the hand-drawn RPG Nepenthe Yitz told me by mail .
“Usually I’m very active in communicating with the players because the fan base is too small to break up friendships with them,” adds Yitz. “Most people understand this very quickly, and I often understand bugs in the Discord chat. Steam has too few options for this. ”
But it is not all that bad
“Sometimes the review system is used to get support, but most reviews turn out to be real,” said Paul Turbett of Black Lab Games, who recently released an incredibly positively perceived Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock .
“We see that in reviews there are topics about aspects that players like or dislike in our game,” explains Turbett. “What they like makes it clear that they appreciated our work, and what they don’t like will be useful to consider when creating updates for the game.”
Defiant Development's Morgan Jeffit, who successfully released and supports Hand of Fate and Hand of Fate 2 , was also happy to write his name on the list of Steam defenders.
“I would like the review system to have a pop-up window with the text“ If this is an error report, first send it to the developer ”so that users are less confused,” Jeffit told me. “But this is because I like to solve the problems of our users, and not because I am against people who leave negative reviews. Reviews are an honest, generic answer to the question "how satisfied are people with their purchase compared to other games on Steam?". This is exactly how the indicator of rating reviews should be perceived. ”
But even those developers who have found a kind word regarding the system, recognize that some kind of opportunity is needed to open a dispute about a random review, in which there is an obvious trolling or an attempt to cover up with dirt.
What happens if a developer wants to challenge a review? Would you believe if you knew that there is no clear system for such an action?
Steam does not agree
Although the developer may try to remove a negative review, this process often looks mysterious, developers and publishers do not have any clear instructions.
“Valve doesn’t do anything about negative reviews that are obviously questions of support,” one developer at Discord told me. “Valve doesn't even give users any tools! And users know that a negative review will receive attention, they understand that developers do not want negative feedback. In addition, Valve does not react to trolling, even if it is obvious. I reported negative reviews in which someone said that they would not recommend the game, because our online service has its own EULA. ”
For some developers, this is a serious issue for controversy.
“I reported this. My ticket was rejected, ”he continued. “Then I mailed my contact from the Steam list. He replied: "Your task is to maintain open communication and set expectations correctly, then there will be no problems with negative feedback." Seriously? And this is the answer? This user has given a negative review because I did not allow him to use the word FUCK in the name. Is this a problem of managing expectations? ”
Apparently, representatives of Steam, soothing frustrated developers, very often tell them that“ many of the top ten games on Steam have negative reviews. ” This point of view is considered ridiculous by my interlocutors.
“These are games with a budget that allows you to buy advertising on television,” one of the developers said in response to my question. "They attract users through sources that are not related to Steam, they seem to be in a completely different universe."
Compulsory discounts, or "regional pricing"
Anyone who sells their game on Steam can expect it to be available for purchase at sites around the world. Steam boasts to developers that it will work with local currencies in a way that is convenient for them, allowing them to engage only in the creation of games.
However, there is a trick. Not many developers know what Steam does in other markets for a discount - when selling in euros, rubles, won, and so on, the decline is about 30 to 60 percent of the original price in US dollars. This is a huge discount, and the developers do not even know about it.
Valve wants you to evaluate your games in a certain way.
If you are a developer, you can check it out right now in the “Store Packages, Pricing & Release Dates” section: click on the dollar / pound icon on the right, next to the package. There you can compare the numbers that Valve uses as a currency exchange rate and see the difference.
This policy of huge discounts spelled out in the documentation Steam. Valve states that it “recommends pricing strategies based on its own experience and can offer prices based on exchange rates and other factors.”
Of all the developers I talked to in the process of writing this article, only Jeffits from Defiant was aware that Valve was practicing such “recommended pricing strategies”; he helped me find the appropriate place in the documentation.
“Regional pricing was not invented by Steam,” explains Jeffith. “In our experience, it leads to an increase in sales. There are more than 10,000 games on Steam, and of course there is no “only right decision”. Although I believe that the standard settings are suitable for most developers, but at least they should know that such a system exists, and that they can make changes that are appropriate to their game. ”
Most other developers perceived the pricing system with less enthusiasm - as soon as they learned that this was happening.
“I had no idea that prices were so low,” said one developer who had experience working with similar regional prices at Apple, Google, Nintendo and other companies. "They could just emphasize this and tell us the developers by mail."
In fact, Valve offers developers a bad choice and tells them that they have complete freedom. If they do not want their games to be sold in other territories with huge discounts, then they have the right to spend several hours every week, checking 40 different exchange rates and manually setting 40 different prices. Or they can leave things as they are, let Valve do it on their own, and accept the consequences. "
For some developers, the consequences are worse than others. One developer told me that he had lost the contract for local distribution of the product in South America because of the discount that Steam had entered without his knowledge.
“Negotiations were wonderful,” says the developer. “We went very far and the prospects were promising. But then our local partner said that in order to complete the transaction we would need to increase the price on Steam in local currency, because there the game was sold at such a big discount that they could not compete with it. ”
For his team this was a surprise.
“I stopped and asked:“ Wait, we do not sell the product at a discount. What are you talking about? “And they showed me the local price. I was shocked. She was more than two times lower than what I expected. ”
Valve explains its pricing strategy, just need to know where to look for it on Steam.
In a sense, even though Steam provides a greater level of price control in different regions than other sites, this control has its price - your constant care. You just can not tell Steam that you want to sell the game at a real currency rate, or that you want to sell for 60 percent in one currency and 80 in another. There is no API to manage it. Either you do as Valve decided, or you can look for another place to sell.
For example, if you decide that your game for $ 14.99 is worth selling at the real rate for 945 Russian rubles, and you manually specify this price, then you can only hope that the exchange rate of the dollar to the ruble will not fluctuate too much. Steam does not warn if it changes, and you will not know why sales in this region have fallen until you visit the site and check the currency settings.
One developer selling his game for $ 14.99 allowed me to log in to his Steam account so that I could be sure that I was informed about the regional pricing model with discounts.
Together we went to this page, looked at the various local prices set by Steam, and compared them with current exchange rates. Almost without exception, they all had big discounts compared to the true dollar rate.
“Damn it,” said the developer, looking at the numbers. "I had no idea about this."
Developers want Valve to tighten control
Although it is logical to expect the opposite, but I found that the new approach of Valve with a complete lack of control did not receive the support of the developer community. Steam users have already complained about dozens of games-copies with replaced resources, trojans and scam mining cryptocurrencies , but even developers who have the opportunity at any time to release anything, believe that we need more strict control.
“There are people who create quality games and get the same level of support as trolling games created in a couple of days,” says developer Pillar , Path of Motus and other indie games. “In addition, Valve takes a 30 percent share, doing almost nothing. This is the main problem of the system. ”
Other developers are concerned about the level of order on the platform.
“This is dangerous,” another developer shared with me. “There must be some level of control so that different garbage (and I mean real garbage that doesn’t even work) doesn’t get into the store. Walmart does not allow anyone to put goods on their shelves, so why is it possible Valve? "
Valve protects its decision to switch to Steam Direct, saying that" the games we allow in the store will not be a reflection of Valve's values. " But at one time this point of view was criticized as tantamount to refusal and evasion of aid . Developers are happy to share their thoughts on this.
“I am a passionate advocate of free speech,” says one developer. “Commercial products, in my opinion, are also a form of self-expression, but they still differ from it. “The fact that we sell a game does not mean that we encourage it” - this is a slop line of defense! You have to admit that you indirectly encourage everything you sell because you have your share of it. ”
Is the 30% share of Steam worthwhile?
Almost all the developers interviewed for this article answered the question about the justification of the 30% share of Steam in the negative. Many warmly recalled the good old days, when Valve "really did something" to work out their money. Today, most developers suspect that those days have passed.
"Then there were other companies doing the same thing as Steam, managing updates and transactions, such as BMT Micro," said another developer. “Most of these companies took 4-5 percent from each sale. For its additional 25 percent, Steam should have provided access to "all these buyers," but he does not do this, but in fact sends you toxic buyers who leave negative feedback and worsen your situation. "
Hicks said that in his opinion, the difference between 30 percent of Valve and 30 percent of Microsoft or Sony lies in the level of personal support and care provided by companies.
“Both Sony and Microsoft provided me with personal contacts with whom I could discuss ideas. They also provided people with whom I could discuss marketing, and in order to arrive at the idea of a good advertising campaign, I could at least discuss it with someone, ”explains Hicks. "In addition, they are doing everything possible to provide each game with a fair share of attention in the store at the time of release."
Steam does not provide the same level of support.
“Valve has none of this,” Hicks continues. “The company has ceased to allocate personal assistants to developers, the resulting amount of banner support depends on the popularity of the game, so there are no guarantees. In addition, no one to discuss marketing. If they are going to completely give up control and will redirect small developers in case of problems with support to the forum ... then no, for me it will not cost 30 percent. Frankly, they do the same thing as itch.io, and itch, by default, takes only 10 percent! ”
In addition, many developers negatively responded to what they perceived as an existing and in fact indestructible monopoly that Steam retains in the PC games market.
“I don’t think that any digital store, which takes 30 percent just for storing downloaded files, justifies such a share, but the problem is wider than just Valve / Steam,” shared Paul Turbett. “Unfortunately, today it has become an industry standard, and changes are unlikely - especially given that on most platforms there is a single dominant store or monopoly, which is why they have no incentive to offer developers more.”
Jeffith has the opposite opinion; he considers 30 percent a good bargain, especially when compared to alternatives.
“For some games, Steam provides a huge amount of free marketing (and not for others). Now the games for demonstration on the main page are selected algorithmically, that is, the site is trying to show users of the game that they will buy. If you are on this list, then Valve provides you with a truly huge amount of free marketing for its 30 percent. ”
Regardless of our desires, the 30 percent share today is the standard, and the situation will be difficult to change.
“Taking into account how web marketing is dependent on metrics, it’s easy to evaluate, and in general, this price will be approximately equal to the 30 percent that Steam receives,” continues Jeffit. “In other words, if you have to buy marketing from Facebook and Google, you will pay more as a result (and probably sell less, because people usually have less trust in going to your site than a link to Steam).”
One Steam for successful, another for everyone else.
The more developers I talked about problems with Valve, the more clearly the story of the two Steam sites.
For developers with large sales and many positive reviews, Steam was a good investment, a convenient and pleasantly transparent tool that responds promptly to inquiries and tickets.
Developers who had problems with sales or when working with online services that require additional support felt confused because the marketing mechanism was “almost impossible to understand.” They had to spend days fruitlessly waiting for answers to the tickets and getting annoyed while reading one more formal reply from Valve in the spirit of "you need to learn to better manage the expectations of customers."
Valve is said to have stopped its personal contacts at about the same time that the service was open to anyone who would like to pay an entry fee.
“On this platform, I don’t feel like a developer, whom I appreciate, I’m just another element of statistics that is processed by an automated process,” says Hicks.
When developers communicate their problems with Steam directly to Valve, the company often ignores their difficulties. According to my information, the developers selected for the Indie Megabooth booth at PAX conducted two detailed surveys about their experience and sent the results to Valve. According to these developers from Indie Megabooth, the company did not even bother to answer, and absolutely nothing has changed. After that, many refused to attempt to reach Valve.
But even angry with the company, the developers quickly explain that the blame for this, in their opinion, lies not with ordinary Valve employees, but with the notoriously clandestine leadership . Developers fully support ordinary employees and understand the burden on them.
“I have never had a problem with people from Valve,” one developer told me. “It seems that they conscientiously do their work. In fact, they even exceed it. It seems that each of them works for four thousand people. It shocked me. Valve management maintains a corporate culture in which it refuses to hire new people. Managers want them to have an automated solution for everything. It seems to me that employees recycle and they are forbidden to do what they want. ”
Even when developers lose, Valve wins
Just as in the case of marketing, community content, localization and a bunch of other things, in a situation with developers, Valve also seems to position itself so as to maximize revenues and minimize responsibility.
The structure of Steam itself ensures that Valve remains as invisible as possible and cultivates a system of relations in the style of "binding platform" in which errors, guilt and suffering always fall on the developer. One of the developers called it "cultist beliefs."
While major publishers and AAA-indies are pushed up by an algorithm that seems to be incomprehensible to small developers, the future of those who cannot break through this informational noise on Steam seems bleak.
“I think that the course taken today by Steam will lead to the fact that small developers will go to places like itch.io,” one of the developers shared with me. “Steam is no longer the golden opportunity it used to be. He is not her for many years, but for small indies the situation is constantly worsening. ”
However, none of this worries Valve - the company gets its share anyway.
“One gets the feeling that Valve hopes that less popular games will simply fail,” one developer told me. "But the company does not mind taking a share of their tiny earnings."
We contacted Valve to get comments on this topic, but no one has answered us yet.
About the author: Tim Colwill is an Australian union worker and organizer fromAustralian chapter of Game Workers Unite . He is also the founder and editor of the satirical game publication Point & Clickbait .