Valve, Steam, And Crowdsourced Curation

Valve has a problem, and that problem is Steam.

Steam is, generally speaking, a useful service, replete with user options and games of all stripes and social tools that make our engagement with games that much better. There is a dark side to Steam, though. One that Valve is unwilling to competently address, and at worst actively encourages.

Steam curates via the crowd.

The Death of Nuance

While crowdsourcing basic functions sounds like a brilliant idea - after all, why do the work when you can have other people do it instead? - it runs afoul of that basic tenet: you are only as strong as your weakest link. In crowdsourcing's case, you are exactly as toxic as your loudest voices.

Self-identified gamers - and the sort of gamers that obsessively play PC games and call themselves "PC master race" - are a bile-ridden, toxin-spewing people. They court controversy for no other reason than they will never be punished for doing so. They throw tantrums when developers don't release a game to their exact specifications. They are entitled complainers, whining when they see things they dislike and getting into banal arguments about nothing of any consequence.

These are the people that control Steam's curated spaces.

You see it in Steam discussion threads. Angry nerds harass and cajole other users and even developers themselves because they can. Going to the Steam discussions for a game like Depression Quest or Gone Home is an exercise in futility. God help you if you go to a discussion forum for a game that gamers think is "overpriced" or "looks like a flash game."

You see it in Steam tags. Gamers actively sabotage the tagging system to try and prove whatever political points they want to, and while Steam added flagging options for tags, it's not really enough. GameLoading, a documentary being sold on Steam, has some truly atrocious tagging thanks to these people.

You see it in Steam curators. There's no way to block seeing certain curators on your page, and the biggest curator always gets top billing. If you ever wanted to get a face full of toxicity from the likes of GamerGate or TotalBiscuit, well, the Steam curator system just may be for you!

And now you see it in mods. While the Steam Workshop was well-received and has generally improved the service, the addition of paid mods - and Valve's unwillingness to curate them, instead telling the community to do it themselves - exploded in a whirlwind of anger. Still, Valve does nothing.

When your criteria for curation is "whatever the loudest voices think is okay," you magnify and empower those voices to do whatever they want. All the nuance is lost in a crowd of screaming entitled players; players that act this way precisely because you gave them license to do so.

Grab All The Money

All of this can be traced backward to Valve's corporate policy, which seems to be "make as much money as possible by exploiting our near-monopoly."

We can't really fault Valve for being a business. After all, they have to keep the lights on, and they do have expensive projects to fund, like VR. What we can fault Valve for is using the crowd to make money hand-over-fist, almost entirely for free.

Steam Trading Cards are explicitly a way to get your money. You can only earn half of your first set playing the game; the rest have to be traded for or (more likely) bought on the Steam Market. They are pieces of content created by developers - not Valve - and distributed by user interaction - once again, not Valve. When you craft them for a badge, you get a few trivial profile upgrades and an emote, which is made by the developer as well - once again, not Valve. Valve does, however, take a cut of the profits from the Steam Market. It's free money, a way to monetize excitement and brand loyalty for a product that doesn't even belong to Valve without any effort on Valve's part.

Now you can even break down cards and their related content (emotes, backgrounds) into gems, which can be spent on "crafting" trading card booster packs (which are normally distributed at random, incredibly long intervals). Valve figured out a way to convert unused and unsold cards/emotes/backgrounds into even more revenue

Paid mods are a similar approach. Mods are free, after all, and the Steam Workshop is already a popular place to browse and distribute mods. By adding the ability for modders to charge for these mods, Valve is again monetizing the hobby work of other people completely unrelated to their company. While this isn't explicitly bad - it's okay to take a cut of content being sold through your platform, after all - the cut is incredibly insulting. Mod makers get 25% of their revenue, and only after reaching $100; Valve and the original developer take the remaining 75%.

The saddest part is all of these features would be fine if executed in ways not specifically designed to make money without effort. Trading Cards and related items have value to add for devs. Paid mods are an excellent way for creators to be paid for hard work. Valve is just unwilling or unable to comprehend the right way to approach these features.

Valve wants your money. They want as much of your money as possible. But they don't want to be responsible for providing anything except the barest of basics.

An Argument For Paid Curators

All of this boils down to a simple truth: Valve has no idea how to manage a community this large, and so instead leaves it to the community to police itself, while failing to give that community any real policing tools or giving it some genuine authority to appeal to.

Steam is a service where the animals rule the zoo. Individual developers have pushed back - Killing Floor 2's fantastic EULA stands as a perfect example - but the service itself is almost entirely hands-off, with no real community management or integration by Valve. They release some new feature, shrug, and move on, leaving the rest of us to fend off the hordes. Those features can turn out great (Workshop, Music, Big Picture), but if they involve the community in any real way, they often descend into chaos (Reviews, Tags, Paid Workshop, Discussions).

Valve can't take a back seat to this any more. They absolutely need a dedicated, organized, authoritative community team willing to get their hands figuratively bloody in dealing with pissants. They need to take an active role in improving their platform instead of relying on their community to do it for them.

Their current approach simply doesn't cut it.

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