When Steam first launched, everyone hated it.
Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. Steam was notoriously unreliable, buggy, awkward to use, and would often spend a million years patching before letting you into a game. In addition to all of that, it was required to play Valve games like Counter-Strike and Half-Life 2. At the time, the idea of having to load an external program to play a single-player game was unthinkable.
Yet in time, Valve managed to make it work. They fixed up the service, included a number of new features, got large companies and indie devs alike to release their games on steam, and offered numerous sales. For a while, it looked like Steam was going to save PC gaming. It was good for developers, it was good for modders, and it was good for customers. Nobody could imagine a future where Steam wasn’t amazing, and Valve wasn’t the savior of PC gaming.
So why does Steam suck now?
In recent months, I’ve had large amounts of trouble trying to muster any enthusiasm for Valve, Steam, and what they’ve been doing. Every time I look at the Steam front page, I feel a bit depressed at what Steam has become, and how complacent people are about it. With every new project or product Valve announces, I feel a pang of fear in my gut. Nothing Valve is doing fills me with confidence or makes me want to give them my money.
But I suppose we should try to back up a bit, and analyze when things started going wrong.
Steam has always had its weak points. Mostly in the form of its support department, or lack thereof. Valve’s corporate structure largely relies on every employee being able to work on whatever they want. So an artist can work on a bit of code, an intern can sit in on a major meeting, and a programmer could suggest a revision to the script of a game. This system does work pretty well for a small team developing games, like when Valve made Portal 2. But it shows its faults when Valve tries to run a service, like steam.
Nobody likes doing support. Nobody. It’s why you have to pay people a decent salary to get them to do it, or outsource it to places with cheap labor. In a setup like Valve has, where people don’t have to do things they don’t want to, nobody is going to actually work support. So trying to get support from Valve for whatever reason is a lost cause. The one time I tried to get a refund for a broken game, they simply redirected me to the publisher’s site.
But this by itself would be (mostly) excusable if Valve were doing a good job maintaining the rest of Steam. Unfortunately, they are not. And Steam has been slowly sliding down a slope of negligence and disinterest, automating service after service along the way.
The first sign that Steam had problems came when steam began releasing more titles per day. Steam has become a popular service in recent years, but it still rarely released more than a few games a day. However, sometime in 2013 the service began releasing far more titles at a given time, in somewhat irregular bursts. So one day might go by with no released games, while the next day might see more than 10 come out at once. And since the steam front page only displayed the most recent 10 games, this meant that anything released before those 10 games would be shoved off the front page. Sometimes in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
This became an aggravated problem when valve continued to increase the number of games released, to the point where steam had released more games in March of 2014 than in all of 2013. At this point, Valve changed the steam defaults so the front page defaulted to the top sellers, rather than the new releases list. This was merely a sign of what was to come.
Now, Valve didn’t exactly do this in secret. They were very vocal about their plans to redesign the steam front page, get rid of greenlight, and open up the floodgates so any and all games could be released on steam. They did eventually redesign the front page, as planned. But the redesign was hardly the solution people wanted. The front page redesign was largely focused on suggesting games to users based on similar games they had played or looked at, using community-selected tags to do so. The new releases tab was replaced with “popular new releases” and hidden even further down the page, under the sections for newly updated games, a queue for finding games steam thinks you might like, and steam curators.
Everything was left in the hands of the community and an automated system that used tags to decide what to recommend. Valve was very forward on pushing the curator idea, wherein people could suggest games they like or think people would enjoy. Valve was so insistent people use this service that they put quotes from popular curators on game store pages, regardless of whether you wanted it or not. Valve also changed the front page banner, so it now suggests games for you. It suggests games based on two things: If it thinks you might like it, or if it’s a top seller. It even will suggest things already in your account, or things which you have wishlisted. Thankfully, you can turn this off.
What you can’t turn off, however, is the banner’s overflow problem. The front page banner seems to have a hardcoded limit to how many things it can display at once, so if the number of ads exceeds that limit, it will only show a random selection of them. The result being that if you only scroll through the banner once, you will inevitably miss out on a few things. Even with recommended games and top sellers turned off, this still shows up and makes it difficult to know whether you’ve seen everything or not.
The front page wasn’t the only part of steam that got a redesign, however. Valve then went to work adding even more features to steam, many of which nobody asked for. Steam added a music player, which is hidden so far in the options that one wonders why it even exists. They also added a streaming service which would allow people to request to see the game you were playing. You can change the setting so people couldn’t request to see you stream, but it was on by default. Again, a feature nobody asked for.
But this wasn’t the only thing Valve was looking into. Valve was also interested in expanding, and trying to compete with current consoles. How? Through a little thing called the Steam Machine. The Steam Machine, sometimes called the Steambox, is essentially a device which plugs into your TV and plays PC games. The Machine runs a custom OS known as Steam OS, which more and more games are being ported to. In theory, it’s a neat idea. A device which you can easily use to play PC games on a TV, without running a million cords from your PC to your TV. In practice, it falls apart on two major points.
First, the price of the machines are outlandish. The prices range from 460 dollars to 5,000 dollars for higher-end models. For comparison, both the Xbox One and the PS4 retail at about 400 dollars, with the Xbox One frequently being discounted anywhere from 340-350 dollars. Not only are the Steam Machines overpriced for the parts they’re using, but they don’t really present a good argument for why you’d get one instead of a console. So far we have no guarantee that games will run well on the lower-end ones, and anybody who might want to play more powerful games on them is likely just going to build their own PC. In addition, the marketing is all wrong. There seems to be no clear term shared between them, with some calling themselves PCs and others referring to themselves as Micro-towers. It’s unlikely that someone not familiar with PCs already would know which one to pick, leading to them just buying a console instead.
The second failing point comes in the form of the controller. The steam controller, Valve’s long-awaited controller, was originally pitched as a substitute to a mouse and keyboard. For games which did not have built-in controller support, the steam controller would act as a substitute mouse, using haptic touchpads similar to the type you might find on a laptop. While I feel that this would be better solved by making controller support the default for PC games, I can see the logic behind this. The finished product, however, does not fulfill this purpose well at all. The steam controller is not the kind of thing I would want to use instead of a normal controller, nor something I would use for games normally played with a mouse and keyboard. It is a device in limbo, with nothing to make people want to use it. Thankfully, the steam machines can be controlled with a 360 controller, in the off-chance that you would ever want a steam machine.
And now we get to steam as it is right now. The steam front page is a disaster that is cluttered with recommendations, popular games, curators, and just about everything nobody ever asked for. Valve is spending all their time working on a project which is doomed to fail. Every new feature steam adds is either unnecessary or actively unhelpful, like making it so games update at scheduled intervals instead of when a patch is mad available. Steam’s support is still nonexistent, but the problem has become more noticeable with even more broken and/or barely functional games showing up on steam. Trying to get a refund is hardly worth trying. You might as well kiss the money you spent goodbye.
But there are no other options, yeah? Uplay is utter trash and Desura isn’t worth bothering with. There is no alternative.
See, Origin isn’t great. EA’s DRM service has a bad reputation for a reason, between EA’s scummy policies and horrible restrictions. But recently, it has gotten significantly better. EA has fixed the store up, made their service better, begun offering free games and trials of new games, and generally made it a decent service to use. The service lack a few key things steam has, like gifting and a screenshot button, but they do have a very important feature steam lacks: A refund policy.
So why don’t I just jump ship to Origin, if I’m so sick of Steam? Well, here’s the thing: I can’t. Over the years I’ve spent probably hundreds of dollars on Steam. Others have spent close to thousands. I can’t play the games I’ve bought on steam without using Steam. In fact, I can’t really play most games coming out unless I buy them through Steam. Almost every game, from indie titles to AAA games, gets released on Steam these days. Why wouldn’t they? Steam has such a massive userbase that it’s stupid not to, and so many games come out on steam that people can’t leave without missing out. It’s a vicious cycle which ensure that Valve will always be ahead.
Valve, through Steam, has a monopoly on PC gaming. No matter what they do, no matter what terrible decisions they make, no matter how terribly they treat people, PC gamers will still use Steam. Whether they want to or not, anybody who wishes to play games on PC will have to use Steam. Any dev hoping to release a game on PC will have to do so through steam, outside of the few devs big enough to not need to do so. Nobody can compete with Valve, and nobody can even put a dent in their userbase.
Despite all this, despite how many horrible decisions Valve has made and how terrible Steam has become lately, people will still rush to Valve’s defense. People are still clamoring to declare Gabe Newell the savior of PC gaming. Valve has the PC gaming industry in its pocket, and PC gamers will take every available chance to defend their new overlords from any criticism or critique.
Valve isn’t saving PC gaming. They’re ruining it.