Steam's wide-open content policy draws polarizing response from developers

Steam isn't about to fade away, but its unclear stance is driving a segment of developers (and consumers) away from its platform — and Valve doesn't seem to care.

Valve’s unabashed abdication of responsibility for content on their privately-held platform, Steam, hit the industry like a tsunami. GameDaily reached out to a handful of studios that do business on Steam and collected a number of other responses on Twitter. While I’ve certainly got my own perspective on this matter from a consumer and discoverability point of view, it’s the developers that utilize Steam’s near-monopoly in the PC marketplace.

“People are getting too hung up on the idea that content is barred itself, but that's not really true. All of the first party platforms, including Steam, bar illegal content,” Director of Publishing at Larian Studios, Michael Douse, said in a conversation with me. “The issue in many cases is distasteful content. Distasteful content can potentially make it on to any platform, but the barrier to entry on PC is much lower. This is partly due to the Technical Requirement Checklist (TRC) process on consoles, which is much more technically challenging and requires structure that many developers on PC cannot handle without some experienced help.”

The console certification process thatDouse is talking about is lengthy, technically challenging, and extremely nitpicky. Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett wrote about what that process looked like a decade ago and while things have changed for indie developers on console, the red velvet rope is meant to ward off developers that don’t fit the platform’s mission. But on PC, the barrier to entry is almost non-existent. Even with the now deprecated Greenlight, Steam has remained an inconsistent “hands off” platform, where they’ll publish almost anything as long as you pay them 30 percent of your revenue.

Valve turning its platform and its curation (or lack thereof) over to the consumers isn’t as altruistic as they believe it to be. Nicholas Laborde of Raconteur Games believes that Valve needs to be held responsible for curation, not the users. “It demonstrates core values, and here, the core value is clearly profit,” Laborde said over email. “itch.io will gladly remove hateful and repugnant content, and it's easy to see what they stand for; in this case, we see that Valve stands for profits.”

Brenda Romero sees Steam’s “hands off” policy as a step in the right direction for removing censorship in games.

Making the choice not to see or engage with content that is actively hateful is the epitome of the privilege that beats at the heart of the modern gaming community — as long as we don’t have to see something, it means that it has no power. Without an explicit set of rules, Valve could find itself at the mercy of abusive developers, not unlike what happened to Facebook.

Douse believes that the kinds of issues we’re seeing on Steam are the result of inexperienced developers just making whatever they want. “Experienced developers don't tend to make distasteful games, since with experience comes a burn-rate and with a burn-rate comes a sense of good business practice,” he noted. But the problem here is that these kinds of objectively offensive and distasteful games aren’t designed to turn a profit — they’re hobbyist.

“The idea behind their decision seems to be to have a platform that's open and relatively unregulated with the market correcting itself based on customers voting with their wallet, which is laissez faire economics,” Laborde stated. “The original purpose of Greenlight was not to deregulate things, but have the community do the regulating for them. Their messaging was literally, ‘We don't have time, do it for us.’ When the move to Steam Direct happened, my gut response was that it was a move to guarantee more revenue -- not to better the platform, increase quality, or deregulate. This market won't regulate itself on its own, and honestly, it feels like a decision that guarantees more revenue.”

This level of openness is a double-edged sword, as we’ve learned from games like Active Shooter and White Power: Pure Voltage ending up on Steam. And while Valve considers these games to be “trolling” and therefore subject to removal, this is a broad stroke that does little more than insert a shrug emoji every time something terrible ends up on their platform.

Valve hasn’t defined what it considers to be “straight up trolling,” leaving them room to be capricious in their decision-making. It follows what US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said back in 1964 to describe the threshold for an obscenity test: “I’ll know it when I see it.” For a platform that clearly doesn’t want to be held responsible for the content being distributed on it, it’s an odd stance to take.

“Valve [is] not the guardian of content distributed on the PC — it is not their ecosystem,” Douse reminded me later in our conversation. “It's probably a good thing that they don't think of it as their ecosystem, because if they did they'd be more inclined to close it. And closing an ecosystem is probably the first step to curating it. You can curate an ecosystem, but that would give rise to alternative platforms that accept content that is perhaps the content people are complaining about. So by not 'taking a stance' — which I think they actually do to an extent — they're actually offering incentives to people to be respectful of the law if you want to be on the biggest distribution platform on PC, rather than giving rise to fringe platforms that might accept this content.”

Itch.io isn’t a fringe platform by any stretch of the imagination, with 68,526 projects published in 2017 alone. Itch.io’s founder, Leaf Corcoran, took to Twitter to remind the game development community that they take a hard stance on hate speech and games that capitalize on those kinds of practices.

Steam’s share of the PC marketplace won’t be dwindling any time soon, but there are definitely developers that don’t hold a lot of faith in the platform, especially since Steam Direct.

“I think the PC market already has plenty of ways to distribute content freely that isn’t Steam, and with the mass saturation since Steam Direct, being on Steam is no longer a necessity,” Laborde remarked. “There are plenty of avenues to distribute your game; find the platform that makes the most sense for your title, but opening the floodgates with the idea that it's going to self-regulate is just plain stupid. Have you seen the Steam Community? There are literal Nazi groups that Valve does nothing about. Are these the customers they hope will decide what's appropriate? Does that give anyone reasonable faith in Valve?”

Valve is at a crossroads with its platform. In the wake of the Active Shooter debacle, which created a prominent outcry from the mainstream media in addition to activist groups, their decision to open the floodgates further, rather than clearly define their “straight up trolling” ethos, is baffling. But the development community is split on what should happen next. There must be room for discussion, of course, but the flood may become an unmitigated disaster before a course correction is enacted.

Managing Editor

Amanda has been meandering around the game journosphere since 2010, mostly covering indie games, culture, and industry news. These days, she talks about the business of making games through a critical cultural lens. She adores RPGs, weird narrative indie games, and strategy games that take forever to learn. Amanda is also the managing editor of SuperParent. You can find her on Twitter as @AmandaFarough or you can email her at amanda.farough@gamedaily.biz.