Is Steam Broken?

Whilst there’s no denying that the Mac version of the Steam client is arguably broken, with various bugs and performance issues that seem to persist, what I’m really asking here is if the Steam service is broken.

We’ve noted before that there are various issues that small developers face when trying to jump the various hoops in Steam’s approval process, most notably the sheer lack of feedback. When submitting a game to Steam for approval and subsequent availability on the service, developers are often given a terse reply:

We have taken a look at the information provided and determined that Steam is not a good fit for distribution. It is our company policy not to provide specific feedback on a submission but we would like you to consider Steam distribution for your future products.

Also of note is that some games are undeservedly making their way onto the platform. A recent debacle surrounded the game “The War Z”, which many claimed was both broken and a cynical cash-in, and certainly not something that should have been made available on a curated system. This can leave developers out in the cold, uncertain why their game didn’t qualify for inclusion on the service, and with no-one to ask, a situation that must be frustrating for developers on the receiving end. In an article this week at IndieGames.com, developer Jools Watsham paints a poor picture of the digital distribution giant’s approach, specifically targeting the recent Greenlight initiative that was thought to solve these problems, by having the community at large upvote games they want to see on Steam:

Greenlight is, after all, a popularity contest. Some seem put-out by calling it this. There is nothing wrong with it being a popularity contest. Isn’t that the point of asking a community of thousands to vote? It is what it is. But, now do I need to launch a dedicated PR campaign to get my game(s) noticed and accepted on Steam? I respect and commend those teams that have had their games greenlit. Nicely done, ladies and gents!

Mutant Mudds sits at #82 on the Greenlight list right now. It has hovered around there for some time now. It was at around #40 or so at one point. About 30,000 folks have voted either yes or no for Mutant Mudds to be included on Steam, with a 54% / 46% split in favor of yes. Yep, those numbers pretty much sum up what the Greenlight community thinks of Mutant Mudds: polarized. At this rate I can’t see how Mudds will ever be deemed suitable for a Steam release.

It is puzzling though. How can a game that has been accepted with open arms on one platform be shut out on another? It is truly a fascinating case study. The 3DS audience is more-than-likely very different than the Steam audience, which is one factor for sure. I suppose Steam’s original rejection of Mutant Mudds is somewhat justified now that the community itself has also not accepted the game. Perhaps this means that a game like Mutant Mudds is not suitable for Steam. But, hang on… there are games like VVVVV, Offspring Fling!, Capsized, Beep, Braid, Serious Sam Double D, Super Meat Boy, and even Commander Keen available on Steam right now.

But does being accepted on the service justify the effort? Slerbal, a commenter on Rock, Paper, Shotgun (and an alleged former games developer) doesn’t think so:

Especially once you do make it onto Steam they are again completely arbitrary about which games they promote on their front page – you can be #1 in one or more categories and they still won’t promote you, and good luck being found after you are gone from the front page.

Another complaint I have is that they can arbitrarily change the price of your game – I’m not talking sale price, I am talking base price. They applied a 50% cut on our game without telling us and would not change it, which was a death-knell for the studio.

So after failing Steam’s mystifying curation process, and then being unable to drum up enough flying monkeys to help get it to the top of the Greenlight list, what else is there? The obvious choice is the Mac App Store. Any developer publishing games for the Mac OS should at least consider the possibility of using Apple’s system, which has fewer barriers to entry for would-be publishers. Apple does curate apps and games that are allowed on its store, but will provide feedback as to why an application has been rejected, which is usually for technical reasons, with the developer able to address the issue and resubmit. The only cost is a $99/year developer subscription, and a 30% cut of sales to Apple.

Is Apple’s approach really that much better though? Aside from the long wait times for developers, what began as verifying that apps available through the App Store were technically sound, soon became about Apple passing judgement on whether the content is to everyone’s taste. As former Apple engineer Bruce Tognazzini puts it:

Apple is displaying the cowardice so in vogue among large corporate entities today, instantly swayed by any pressure group that wants to feign outrage, holding to the most bland, dumbed-down, middle-of-the-road content in order to avoid upsetting anyone about anything.

In an effort to protect consumers from themselves, Apple considers itself responsible for the content allowed to be downloaded for its devices, ranging from mild pornography to mild controversy to mild satire.

Clearly some sort of middle ground is needed. Perhaps this will be addressed with the rumoured plans to remove Valve from Steam, essentially allowing anyone to create their own store, or perhaps a third-party will rise to fill this void.

(As a footnote, I find it very telling that EA’s Origin platform has little to add to this debate).