My Love/Hate Relationship With Steam

It is crazy to think that Steam initially launched roughly 12 years ago. While it has existed for over a decade, the presence of Steam as "the PC gaming platform" of choice has really only existed since roughly 2007/2008. The power of Steam as a platform has only gotten stronger and stronger every year. It is to the point that many game players, even the more hardcore ones don't even notice a game on PC unless it has been released on Steam. Having your game on Steam is pretty much make or break for most indie devs just from a sales perspective. At this stage, it has a full command over the PC gaming market.

I'm not going to debate whether I think this is a good thing or not, because honestly that is kind of irrelevant. It exists and does what it does regardless of the opinions of really any of us. However I wanted to talk about my constant love/hate relationship with Steam. There is very few things in games that really passionately push me to both support something and despise something at the very same time. Even concepts that exist inside of steam are things I find something loving and hating at the same time.

You can look no further than Early Access. I love it. But I hate it. On the one hand it is a fantastic idea to allow fans of genres, developers, and games in general to support an ongoing project and get a first hand look into the development of a project. On the other, it basically kills all momentum a game could have on release with a finished project. Very few games that exist early access get any buzz what so ever, and very few of the people who may have tried the project early on ever go back to the completed version. I have had to personally start controlling myself by merely trying out games in Early Acess and jotting them down as a "to get to when completed" just because I feel I owe it to the developers to actually play and try to finish their completed project.

There is another thing that Steam does that is both great and awful. Games. How many god damn games do you think the average steam player has in their library? I know friends with anywhere from 200-500. The numbers are staggering. Steam stales provide us with the ability to buy things at super cheap prices, load up on things we may be interested in. It is fantastic. But it also isn't. While most developers won't complain about sales, how does the gaming industry as a whole get better? Through a development system that constantly progresses. How does it progress? People play the games that are released, talk about, talk about what they like and dislike about them, and developers pay attention to that. How can people talk about things they haven't played? Again those huge Steam libraries may lead to increased sales; though at discounted prices. However so many people don't even touch half the games they buy on Steam.

Then like the entitled audience we generally are, we still complain when things don't change or progress. "How many indie platformers can we take?" "Really another survival style game?" "Oh look a puzzle game." "Another cover based shooter?" It goes on and on. Developers are releasing what sells, what tops the top of the Steam charts. Sadly audiences never really play a lot or any of what they buy. The "I dabbled in it for a few hours but I have so much to play" excuse is becoming constant.

I myself have tried to make it a mission of mine to play and beat every single game I purchase. My mind set now is if it looks like it is something I want to play, I need to give it the fair chance to actually try to complete it. There are some games that you can't actually finish. However I always try now to put enough into the game to get a grasp of what it is so I feel fair to make an opinion on it.

Ultimately my love/hate relationship with Steam stems down to a core idea that I think it both empowers and devalues games at the same time. The benefit and the damage it is doing to the industry has begun to take shape all over. A lot of people who play games have become more impatient with games. If something doesn't grab them in the first hour, they move on. However people are willing to try more and more games. Pricing for games has changed to the point where a lot of time developers and publishers now don't know what they should be pricing. Perceived value is now about more than just the experience. One the one hand some middling AAA titles are now being priced lower. On the other, games that have limited scope/experience get ragged on for being priced to high. They get forced to be compared with other games, even from different genres. The "well this game has 10 more hours of actual gameplay but is 5 dollars cheaper" style of argument you see more and more.

Games can't stand on their own any more. So many are released big or small year to year that rarely do people look at a game as singular. As one project, and evaluate it based on the merits and flaws it has. While I don't think this is the only reason, I do think this does play a part in why games seem to get more middling. Expectations play a role in that, but an inability to give proper criticism to the strengths and weaknesses of a game because it is nearly impossible now to look at a game by itself hurts future development. Feel free to share your thoughts by the way, I'm eager to see what other things Steam has done that people may love or hate.

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Jericho15

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While Steam certainly feels like a double edge sword as they go through growing pains, I feel confident that this is a step in the right direction. As we continue to expand into a digital age of convenience, the ability to purchase games without leaving our home (or before launch) and give consumer feedback to early access is going to produce a higher quality as the industry ages. If we continue to push the limits we can achieve greatness, and Steam is a huge stepping stone for that.

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hylian

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I like it

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ripelivejam

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Edited By ripelivejam

Ask me for my thoughts after i bought another 250 games i'll probably never play.

I would like to see another company Mojang it and sell a game primarily through their site, though it's unlikely we'll ever see something that huge in that way ever again.

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mjbrune

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As a consumer I love steam. Steam is my answer to everything. Friends system that keeps me close to people, sales to keep game costs down and a community/workshop system that allows me to participate in the games I love.

As a developer I hate steam. 30% of the sale goes directly to them. With UE4 as your game engine 5% goes to Epic Games. A publisher will take another 30% minimum and business costs are generally at least 20%. Leaving around 15% for actual paying of the team.

Overall though, and I might be because I am a developer, I think steam is bad. They simply have no competition right now. Anything with a monopoly is bad. You always want strong competitors out there. Even duopoly isn't great but it is certainly preferable all around to monopolies. Worst of all I feel Steam drives down the costs of games below a point where they can be sustained on the budding developer level. Unless you simply save up tons of money and start pushing out games on your own dime you simply can't make it as a developer without a publisher or some sort of investment backing. Steam sales drive down demands for games. Everytime someone says "I'll buy it when it goes on sale." is proof of this. Steam has created an expectation that a game will go on sale in such a little amount of time that it's unreasonable to pay full price for it. Of course you can apply the piracy excuse of "I wasn't going to buy it at that price anyways" but in the long run you don't know that because no one can see into the future. This sale mentality coupled with the 30% take from steam and the rough calculations before can clearly show that steam is in fact hurting developers.

So okay okay, Steam isn't great for developers but consumers are consumers and surely it's up to developers to solve this problem, right? Some people will argue that consumers should worry about what really happens to developers. To an extent they are right. If the consumers really love the industry then they should make sure they take care of it. One way of doing that is of course making sure where your dollars going and making sure you are supporting the right parts of the industry. Developers do have their own side to deal with though and they have to create their own solutions and not push it on to consumers entirely.

Okay so I am a developer and have no solutions on how to survive on Steam. How can I do it? Simply put, look at the guys who are surviving on steam as a budding developer or even some of the major developers. Valve themselves are making tons of money from community made items. Things like Maps in CS:GO and items in Dota 2 bring in tons of money for their games. Explore monetizing your community. With Steam's current setup it's real easy for a low cost to free to play game to make lots of money via items. They don't even need to be cosmetic as long as you balance your entire game around the ability to have items change set attributes. Such as the items in TF2.

Whoa whoa, I am a consumer and I don't like the idea of my work being monetized by anyone but me! Then start paying full prices for games and start paying it directly to the developers where possible. Otherwise this is where the industry is going to end up. If you don't like this idea then push the industry in the other way and show them there is more money in full pay games than piecemeal.

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devise22

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@mjbrune said:

As a consumer I love steam. Steam is my answer to everything. Friends system that keeps me close to people, sales to keep game costs down and a community/workshop system that allows me to participate in the games I love.

As a developer I hate steam. 30% of the sale goes directly to them. With UE4 as your game engine 5% goes to Epic Games. A publisher will take another 30% minimum and business costs are generally at least 20%. Leaving around 15% for actual paying of the team.

Overall though, and I might be because I am a developer, I think steam is bad. They simply have no competition right now. Anything with a monopoly is bad. You always want strong competitors out there. Even duopoly isn't great but it is certainly preferable all around to monopolies. Worst of all I feel Steam drives down the costs of games below a point where they can be sustained on the budding developer level. Unless you simply save up tons of money and start pushing out games on your own dime you simply can't make it as a developer without a publisher or some sort of investment backing. Steam sales drive down demands for games. Everytime someone says "I'll buy it when it goes on sale." is proof of this. Steam has created an expectation that a game will go on sale in such a little amount of time that it's unreasonable to pay full price for it. Of course you can apply the piracy excuse of "I wasn't going to buy it at that price anyways" but in the long run you don't know that because no one can see into the future. This sale mentality coupled with the 30% take from steam and the rough calculations before can clearly show that steam is in fact hurting developers.

So okay okay, Steam isn't great for developers but consumers are consumers and surely it's up to developers to solve this problem, right? Some people will argue that consumers should worry about what really happens to developers. To an extent they are right. If the consumers really love the industry then they should make sure they take care of it. One way of doing that is of course making sure where your dollars going and making sure you are supporting the right parts of the industry. Developers do have their own side to deal with though and they have to create their own solutions and not push it on to consumers entirely.

Okay so I am a developer and have no solutions on how to survive on Steam. How can I do it? Simply put, look at the guys who are surviving on steam as a budding developer or even some of the major developers. Valve themselves are making tons of money from community made items. Things like Maps in CS:GO and items in Dota 2 bring in tons of money for their games. Explore monetizing your community. With Steam's current setup it's real easy for a low cost to free to play game to make lots of money via items. They don't even need to be cosmetic as long as you balance your entire game around the ability to have items change set attributes. Such as the items in TF2.

Whoa whoa, I am a consumer and I don't like the idea of my work being monetized by anyone but me! Then start paying full prices for games and start paying it directly to the developers where possible. Otherwise this is where the industry is going to end up. If you don't like this idea then push the industry in the other way and show them there is more money in full pay games than piecemeal.

This is a fantastic post. I think people often ignore a big reason why so much stuff is free to play now is just from a sustainability perspective. Just because Steam is making games cheaper for consumers does not mean games are in fact becoming cheaper to make. I know I do my best to purchase full price games of anything I'm interested/want to support. Not only does that make it more likely I'll see a sequel, or another work in a similar vein from the same developers. But it keeps them in business doing what they love to do.

I think part of the issue is that fine line when it comes to monetizing your consumer base like that. So often that is viewed as "gross". I imagine some developers out there probably hate the notion that they have no choice but to engage in that. It's quite the tough finding a middle ground on that.

As a developer I'm curious your take on people purchasing, but not playing your games due to the enormous Steam libraries? A problem we see more and more. Do you find it's harder to not get as much feedback/community activity surrounding your game? I imagine word of mouth can play a factor in a games sales, and if people are buying but not playing the game, nobody would really be talking much about it.

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mellotronrules

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i think the whole-cloth devaluation of content is simply part-and-parcel with our full transition to digital media. i get that steam might (emphasis on MIGHT) be potentially altering perceptions of value- but i don't think it's avoidable.

look at television, music, and film- the very concept of ownership is all but eroded with the advent of streaming. old models are crumbling, for better or worse. that might be worth lamenting- but there's no stopping it now.

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esuing

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I don't necessarily think people buying and not playing games, creating a huge backlog, is a bad thing... neither for developers nor gamers. In general, people will play the games that interest them most, and buying a game, but not playing it indicates that their interest was modest at best. Without the sale, chances are they never would have purchased the game in the first place. I know I purchased FTL, Nidhogg, and Speedrunners all for a few bucks a piece and I've played them very little, but I knew that going in. If they were full price, I probably never would have even tried them.... the developers get some money and I get to check out some games I had a mild interest in. Everyone wins. If gamers buy and never play games, that's their problem. The devs still get the money.

I also think Early Access is great. It gets a bad rap for the same reason Kickstarter sometimes gets a bad rap, but it's up to us, the consumers, to use it correctly. I won't back a kickstarter if I don't 100% believe that the group I'm backing can deliver. Same with Early Access... Look at the developers, what they're offering and if you feel the money is right, then you can buy in. I like being offered the opportunity. I don't do it often because I'd rather play the final product before getting burnt out on the Early Access version, but I've gone into a few.

30% of revenue to Valve does seem high, but fortunately, engines are incredibly reasonable and/or free, so that really enables smaller groups to build games, which I like. I think the exposure you get from Steam makes it almost a necessity and really, if you're VERY small (<5 people) you almost don't even need your own website if you have a game on Steam with all of its tools.

I do think Steam is the best online game retailer though. It blows away Xbox Live and PSN by such a huge margin. I have such a hard time browsing for new games on those systems... Steam makes it VERY easy to find something I've never heard of, learn about it, see reviews, metacritic scores, etc... that's why I think users have huge backlogs of games... Steam does discovering and learning about games right... couple that with impressive sales and there you go.

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gamefreak9

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I don't see why you have dilemma with green light. I have maybe 10 games on greenlight on my wishlist and I check in on them once in awhile, as far as my type of consumption goes, i ALWAYS wait for discounts, and that rarely(doesn't?) happen with Green Light games but it won't negatively affect my purchasing decisions, if a game has been on my list for over 30-40 days there is almost a guarantee I will buy it(I sometimes put them on there as a memo to check it out).

Steam has greatly reduced the costs of production, of course the big guys(who don't have money issues anyway) will still publish hard copies but indy people can now publish games without worrying about being nice to a bunch of annoying business execs in some board meeting. That's like the best possible thing a platform can do. Steam is in my mind one of the best things to ever happen to gaming. As someone who knows quite a bit of industrial organization theoryI have a great respect for outcomes that manage to avoid wasteful platform competitions which you see in console wars(I don't know if GB is representative but I get the impression they don't happen much anymore).

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Kidavenger

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@mjbrune said:

As a developer I hate steam. 30% of the sale goes directly to them.

How is this any different than any other distribution method?

You lose more than 30% selling through retail; and every other online distribution service is taking a similar cut; pointing this out as a way that Steam fails developers is completely false.

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devise22

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Edited By devise22

@esuing said:

I don't necessarily think people buying and not playing games, creating a huge backlog, is a bad thing... neither for developers nor gamers. In general, people will play the games that interest them most, and buying a game, but not playing it indicates that their interest was modest at best. Without the sale, chances are they never would have purchased the game in the first place. I know I purchased FTL, Nidhogg, and Speedrunners all for a few bucks a piece and I've played them very little, but I knew that going in. If they were full price, I probably never would have even tried them.... the developers get some money and I get to check out some games I had a mild interest in. Everyone wins. If gamers buy and never play games, that's their problem. The devs still get the money.

I also think Early Access is great. It gets a bad rap for the same reason Kickstarter sometimes gets a bad rap, but it's up to us, the consumers, to use it correctly. I won't back a kickstarter if I don't 100% believe that the group I'm backing can deliver. Same with Early Access... Look at the developers, what they're offering and if you feel the money is right, then you can buy in. I like being offered the opportunity. I don't do it often because I'd rather play the final product before getting burnt out on the Early Access version, but I've gone into a few.

30% of revenue to Valve does seem high, but fortunately, engines are incredibly reasonable and/or free, so that really enables smaller groups to build games, which I like. I think the exposure you get from Steam makes it almost a necessity and really, if you're VERY small (<5 people) you almost don't even need your own website if you have a game on Steam with all of its tools.

I do think Steam is the best online game retailer though. It blows away Xbox Live and PSN by such a huge margin. I have such a hard time browsing for new games on those systems... Steam makes it VERY easy to find something I've never heard of, learn about it, see reviews, metacritic scores, etc... that's why I think users have huge backlogs of games... Steam does discovering and learning about games right... couple that with impressive sales and there you go.

Responding specifically to the bolded. How is the developer of the game supposed to know what would interest you if you barely play the games? In your example of those few games you say you barely touched them. Are you more or less inclined to touch a sequel for those games? So if say the developer wants to try to make more money to do they need a better game. How can they figure out what people who were midly interested in it but had issues with didn't like if they don't bother to play it?

I think Hotline Miami is a perfect case of Steam affecting a game in both a positive and negative way. The sequel seems to be for a specific set of audience, those who beat the first game and liked the harder the game got. The developers went in that direction for the sequel, because everyone loved the first one. Turns out few people beat it, most people loved the style and the developer was basically left hanging with good ideas for a sequel that has any sort of mass appeal above the hardcore who liked the challenging bigger levels from the first one. Sequel is underwhelming to most, so they dismiss it/bash on it. When really it's the fault of the "I don't care" consumer who championed what they liked about the game ignoring the actual complaints they had. Mostly because they didn't play enough to get to that issue. Then it's the developers fault apparently when they try to hit again, and it isn't to peoples fancy because it's filled with the stuff they didn't even get to in the first game.

The positive is obviously the developers of Hotline Miami made a ton of money and are now fully fledged in the industry as a bigger indy. However most indy devs aren't "in it to get rich quick". They actually love developing and making games for people who love playing them. We can't really "love" playing them if we barely touch anything in any deep manner but 4/5 titles this year. Thanks Steam?

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veektarius

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@mjbrune said:

As a developer I hate steam. 30% of the sale goes directly to them.

How is this any different than any other distribution method?

You lose more than 30% selling through retail; and every other online distribution service is taking a similar cut; pointing this out as a way that Steam fails developers is completely false.

I agree with this point, though at the same time one could argue that there's no reason that 30% is the magic number. It isn't Steam's fault, and it definitely isn't consumers' fault for buying the cheapest available product. I mean, come on, do you really think that convincing consumers to purchase video games conscientiously is a viable strategy when eco-friendly products that address a real problem have trouble taking off?

Still, if overhead doesn't necessitate 30%, there's no reason a service like Desura couldn't undercut Steam. The fact that an alternative like that doesn't exist despite alternative services being available suggests you might be overstating their largesse. Even publishers who've cut out the middle man by launching their own online storefronts haven't cut prices to get ahead of the competition. That's one thing that really surprises me, actually, whatever you might say about corporate greed.

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mike

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Edited By mike

"People play the games that are released, talk about, talk about what they like and dislike about them, and developers pay attention to that. How can people talk about things they haven't played? Again those huge Steam libraries may lead to increased sales; though at discounted prices. However so many people don't even touch half the games they buy on Steam."

This point doesn't make any sense. If there are more people playing a game, then there are going to be more people talking about it. If we even go so far as to assume that only 50% of people who buy an inexpensive game during a Steam sale who never would have bought it at full price actually play it, then there are still more people playing and talking about the game than there otherwise would have been had it not been for the deep discount. Word of mouth isn't being "lost".

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devise22

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@mb said:

"People play the games that are released, talk about, talk about what they like and dislike about them, and developers pay attention to that. How can people talk about things they haven't played? Again those huge Steam libraries may lead to increased sales; though at discounted prices. However so many people don't even touch half the games they buy on Steam."

This point doesn't make any sense. If there are more people playing a game, then there are going to be more people talking about it. If we even go so far as to assume that only 50% of people who buy an inexpensive game during a Steam sale who never would have bought it at full price actually play it, then there are still more people playing and talking about the game than there otherwise would have been had it not been for the deep discount. Word of mouth isn't being "lost".

It can be lost, or the word of mouth can be falsified. Even if we assume 50% of the people touch those products, how many get far enough to have a decent opinion of the depth of the games mechanics, narrative, or whatever it was going for? That number decreases again. Game developers are creators, and yes it is their job to try to create things that are memorable/engaging to the players. But we live in a time of increased re-innovation as opposed to actual innovation in games. So much has already been done, that improving your developing style or improving a game for a sequel is really tough when people barely play, or don't meaningfully play the games enough.

If I was a game developer and lets say I was making a new franchise with some ideas. My first goal would be to test out the ideas I had in a workable way, and play what I and the people developing with me thought was a good experience. Okay check, assume we do that. The next step when looking to iterate on that to make a follow up is to explore new ideas/mechanics and iron out issues. It is also to look at people who play games that maybe were not interested in what I made, or maybe they were up until a point until something about the game threw them off etc. If people don't play far enough or long enough to understand the game I made, how can I get their criticisms to try and get them on board next time around? Sure they may have an opinion, but it could very well be "it didn't grab me in the first hour I played it." Or what have you.

The amount of people who play games now who because of the sheer volume of titles coming out, the cheapness of them and the free to play market have gotten so dismissal of anything and everything that isn't "for them" without actually giving anything a chance to be for them. While of course there are still those of us that differ, I have on so many first hand accounts seen this be the case and it infuriates me to no end.

When that happens with a game that is big, it has a large enough audience that like it and it caters to that it'll find ways to iterate most likely anyways. However what about for smaller titles? If 2000 people buy a small Steam game but only 50 people actual finish it, what kind of feedback can that developer get to try to get more than 2000 people to not only buy, but be interested in actually playing/completing their next product? It all comes down to a case in my mind of the convenience and quality of Steam leading to a sense of entitlement by so many of us. We aren't entitled to great games at cheap prices. We need to remember that. Furthermore, great games aren't made overnight and a lot of the time they aren't all made for cheap.

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mike

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@devise22: I still don't understand what your point is...it sounds like you're saying that feedback is only valuable if games are purchased soon after release and for full price?

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devise22

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Edited By devise22

@mb: No. Really any feedback can be valuable depending on the situation. My point is that playing a game for very little and not having a great understanding of where the games whether that be for mechanics or narrative leads to very shallow feedback. If you are interested in giving feedback on that at all. I'm not saying that the "sale" is bad. More so that the sale causes users to have a plethora of options. Options lead to impatience. Impatience leads to a lack of giving a game a chance to win you over. Which leads to false word of mouth about a game you didn't really play or give the time of day in the first place.

That felt really Star Wars there for a second. Anyway. :P Realistically it's a "people" issue more so than a Steam one. As my OP says that is kind of the thing about these type of issues. They just exist, trying to "tackle them" is really tough.

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esuing

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I think he's saying that Steam sales result in people diluting their library with so many options in terms of what to play, that they never delve deep into a game, and are therefore never able to give the developer any useful feedback.

But in fact, I think Steam only HELPS the developers in this. For example, say "Banana Boy" comes out at $20 and sells 100 copies. Those people paid good money for it and are excited so they'll play through it, interact with the devs, etc. Maybe 30% of them will be disappointed in the game and just give up early, whatever. Then Steam has a 75% off sale. Boom... it's $5 so now 1000 MORE people buy it because it's cheap. They would have never bought it before but now the risk is small, monetarily. Say only 50% of them even play it once... and only 20% of those get invested enough to join in on the community and post reviews, etc... that sale STILL added 100 players (out of 1000 that bought it) to the community. That's revenue and a core community added by the sale. Sure, a lot of them never bothered with it, but it's still a net gain for the devs. I fail to see a problem with that.

Players will play what they want and sometimes games just don't hook them. I knew games like FTL stood very little chance of hooking me because I don't typically like those games. The great reviews and a great sale convinced me to take a chance. Didn't work out for me, but it did get me to try the game. Sure I can give feedback to the devs, but starting off with "Well, I typically don't like rogue-like or strategy games immediately invalidates my opinion" in my opinion. It's their job to sift through the junk and figure out what direction to take their games.

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Yaffa

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The massive discounts steam provides means more people have the opportunity to play it all the way through, not less--more informed opinions, not less. Are some people going to play for 10 minutes an put it down? Definitely, but im not sure why i should lose sleep over that. I get what your're saying, how it would be more helpful for the developer if everyone gave their game a fair shot. But at the end of the day your just saying people should play things they aren't interested in because of some strange compulsion that they should finish every game they buy. Its important to remember that not everyone is in the same part of life that you are. For many people, time is a lot more valuable then the game they choose to put it into, and for everyone that equation will be different. In my mind there are a lot worse problems the video game industry faces then the ubiquity and the ease of creating games. Live and let live, and in the meantime, create that competitor steam needs :)

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Evilsbane

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I fucking love Steam, I loved it even when it was on fire when it came with Half Life 2, it has a small footprint on system performance, it handles updates and mods like a breeze, and thanks to sales and Humble bundles I have 355 games that I can load on any of my computers. Wouldn't have it any other way.

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Dezztroy

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Edited By Dezztroy

Saying that Steam hurts developers is ridiculous. There are enough developers out there that have openly said that Steam outright saved their company.

Is it the best option for every developer? Probably not, but for the majority it works out great.

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EXTomar

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Edited By EXTomar

I don't get that complaint either. That is as silly as saying Microsoft hurts game developers who release on XBox One.

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mjbrune

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Edited By mjbrune

@kidavenger said:

@mjbrune said:

As a developer I hate steam. 30% of the sale goes directly to them.

How is this any different than any other distribution method?

You lose more than 30% selling through retail; and every other online distribution service is taking a similar cut; pointing this out as a way that Steam fails developers is completely false.

Sorry but simply put not all online distribution services take 30%. Even Origin waves their entire service fee for kickstarter games for 90 days. The most expensive ways to distribute your game online is Steam and gog. Also, I am completely not talking about retail. Retail at this point, for me isn't even a consideration when releasing a PC game. Itch.io takes 10% and tons of others are around that. Humble takes 5%. Desura takes 15%, 30% only if they make the sale directly. I mean even paypal, the most greedy of the choices takes 2.9% + .30 per transaction.

At this point the only reason to be on steam is exposure, which is quickly going away with their systems in place now. They help you get out there and a lot of purchases are done on steam but there is a reason why you see a lot of games like MMOs done outside of steam's store.

Also to clarify I was saying stating steam is starting to hurt developers on a few levels. Mostly that they are devaluing the games. Not that they haven't ever been good for developers and that they aren't good for some developers right now.