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Steam’s curse

Din’s Curse is not on Steam.

Soldak’s first game, Depths of Peril, is available on Valve’s digital distribution service but not Soldak’s second, Kivi’s Underworld, nor Din’s Curse, its third and best yet. The game is available on Impulse and GamersGate but Valve rejected it for undisclosed reasons. Soldak itself has no idea why.
The Heavy

(Original image source.)

Din’s Curse couldn’t have been rejected because it isn’t good. Game reviewers with over a decade of experience have been generally positive with their comments. Anyone who puts stock in Metacritic’s subtly massaged Metascores might take something away from the fact Din’s Curse Metascore is higher than a lot of games on Steam.

But then the Metascore doesn’t actually matter because Valve doesn’t seem to have much in the way of standards for games it accepts for its digital distribution service. For example, take this title. Comments from various reviewers include “… it’s best to skip this one …”, “… 90 percent first-person shooter, 10 percent strategy game, and 100 percent bad …” and “… a complete failure … I couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that this game exists.” This “complete failure” of a game is somehow good enough for Steam.

Din’s Curse couldn’t have been rejected because it’s a broken, unplayable mess. Soldak has been particularly outstanding with its post-release support. As an indie developer, it cannot afford to support games indefinitely yet it still has put out multiple patches for Din’s Curse in the year since its release to fix minor bugs, fine-tune gameplay and even add new features. There’s nothing in the game that qualifies as a major bug — not a single crash to the desktop, nothing that prevents play. There are buggier games on Steam — the Known Issues thread for Magicka now spans 57 pages — yet Valve has no problems selling them.

Din’s Curse couldn’t have been rejected because the digital distribution service lacks physical shelf space to stock it. The game’s installer takes up less than 200MB of hard disk real estate so it’s not going to overload Valve’s servers or strain Steam’s bandwidth pipes. Valve can afford to allocate 1GB for each of Steam’s 30-million-plus accounts to store screenshots so it’s clearly not short of storage space.

So what is it exactly?

Hegemony and survival

When Positech Games’ Democracy 2 was rejected by Valve, the reason given was, “This is just not a good fit for distribution on Steam.” This should raise eyebrows if not alarms.
It certainly raises all sorts of troubling questions. Why exactly is it not a good fit? What kind of game would be a good fit for Steam? Who gets to make this decision? How long does this decision take? Is there a committee that sits solemnly in a darkened conference room passing judgment over games, deciding which games pass muster with a show of thumbs? Does ominous music play in the background?

This will never be a worry for major publishers, of course. Valve isn’t going to turn down a game from a major publisher no matter how wretched it is if that might jeopardise the chances of a future AAA title appearing on Steam. More to the point, Steam really isn’t a critical channel for the major players. Electronic Arts can afford to delay releasing its major titles on Steam. The Sims 3, originally released in June 2009, was only made available on Steam 19 months later. Blizzard, another PC gaming powerhouse, doesn’t even bother with Steam. It’s been so successful at establishing itself as a brand it can rely solely on retail and its own digital distribution service.

It’s the little guys who are going to pay the price of Valve’s vagaries. The smaller development houses could really use Valve’s help in getting the word out to the six million gamers who use Steam every day. It cannot be overstated just how important this exposure is to developers with tiny or nonexistent marketing budgets. Cliff Harris of Positech Games noted sales of Gratuitous Space Battles went up 1000% the day it was promoted on the front page of Steam. Team Meat’s Super Meat Boy sold more in two weeks on Steam than it did on XBLA. Exosyphen Studios revealed Hacker Evolution sold more copies in its first two days on Steam than it did previously in its best year. Mark Morris of Introversion credited a Steam sale for saving the company. There can be no doubt Steam is incredibly important to smaller developers.

And these smaller developers are incredibly important to gaming – perhaps more so than the major publishers over the long run. The major game publishers, set in their stodgy ways, are going to stick to the same safe formulaic designs they know will sell three to five million copies.

Smaller developers can’t compete with the big boys when it comes to flash and razzmatazz but they can compete in terms of ideas. These ambitious young bloods are more likely to take the sort of chances the major publishers shy away from. They are the ones who’ll take stale formulas and add some new twists like Din’s Curse or mix up whole genres like sim, roguelike and RPG to create a sui generis title like Dwarf Fortress. They are the ones who’ll come up with innovative games gamers have never seen before. They need a chance to prove themselves, they need gamers’ support, and most of all, they need some attention — the kind of attention Valve can provide through Steam.

The problem is getting a game on Steam depends mainly on Valve’s ability to recognise the game’s quality. Though Valve is stellar as a developer, it’s considerably less assured when deciding what games it accepts for Steam. Remember, Valve once turned down Braid and only made the game available on Steam after it hit big on the consoles.

Yet blaming Valve would be taking the easy way out. The responsibility ultimately lies with gamers.

Choose your own adventure

The most disappointing thing about all this is gamers’ attitudes and how it contradicts the very spirit of gaming.

Games are fundamentally designed to reward curiosity, exploration and experimentation. Every game offers a fresh new world with new challenges with multiple systems and game mechanics to investigate and master. “Go forth and be adventurous,” has always been the mantra in games — no platformer was ever beaten by a character who decided to stay put, no RPG was ever completed by a hero who decided to stay home — and one would think that gamers would be consequently inculcated to always try new things and be always open to new experiences.

Yet the opposite is true. Gamers tend to be some of the most conservative, most predictable, most unadventurous people around. They tend to be very resistant to change and very reluctant to get out of their comfort zones. They might be open to new technology — consider the quick adoption of motion and touch controls — but they’re still playing the same games they always play. The first and loudest reaction to any major or minor change in a long-running series is still invariably, “Oh god, they’ve ruined everything!” Change the core gameplay mechanics and there will be total panic; change the colour palette and gamers will scream blue murder. They steadfastly stick to the same franchises, same genres, the same publishers and yes, the same digital distribution services.

So, it’s not really surprising there are gamers who go, “I’m not going to buy it if it’s not on Steam.” It’s entirely understandable, of course. After all, Steam is safe. Steam is a known quantity. Steam is convenient.

But the great thing about PC gaming is gamers have always had a choice. PC gamers have always been free to choose their own hardware or software, free to choose the price/performance ratio they were most comfortable with and even free to choose how they experienced their games by customising them to suit their personal preferences.

Gamers must exercise this freedom of choice if they want to play the games they are keen on. If they do not see a game they want on Steam, they can choose to let Valve know they want it, they can choose a competing service or they can choose to purchase the game directly from the developer. Giving up this freedom by letting a single monolithic entity dictate what and how gamers should play would be a senseless thing to do since it means giving up what makes PC gaming special.


The great danger here for PC gaming is Steam might eventually turn into the Wal-Mart of digital distribution services. To understand why this should be worrying, consider Wal-Mart’s effect on the toy industry, another industry dealing with the business of play.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, has massive clout thanks to the fact 100 million customers visit its stores every week in the US alone. Toy makers need Wal-Mart and have no choice but to accede to its demands because if Wal-Mart doesn’t take a toy line, it’s a massive blow to its chances of success. As Wal-Mart is extremely price conscious, toy makers usually end up removing ambitious features in order to reduce the overall cost and thus the price. Low prices might be good for the consumer in the short term but this will result in unambitious, predictable, safe and dull designs in the long term. It results in toys designed for Wal-Mart instead of toys designed for consumers.

Valve would be well-advised to pay attention to how Wal-Mart itself seems to be suffering the effects of its ruthless policies. The corporate juggernaut has experienced declining sales in the US for seven consecutive quarters, something one toy industry expert partly attributes to consumers looking elsewhere for the smaller brands they were keen on.

Valve may not be sweating this today since it is, as Gabe Newell boasts, more profitable per employee than Google and Apple. But perhaps someone will come along and do to Valve what Wal-Mart once did to Toys ‘R’ Us and what Toys ‘R’ Us previously did to Kiddie City and Child World. All domineering giants get humbled eventually.

Nobody describes a PC as an “IBM-compatible” today, do they?

Posted in Games.

One Response

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  1. Elori says

    I really liked the read.
    Agreed with the article but as of now, Valve is still quite humble as a private corp and do provide decent service, so i’m still going to trust them with my purchases.

    Though not efficient enough due to their internal manpower but I would assume they do not want to expand rapidly, as as one might know, you tend to fall faster when you expand your portfolio – allowing games/employing/upgrading – too quickly.

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