At the end of July, Valve removed a game called Abstractism from Steam. Seemingly, the game was hijacking players’ computers to mine Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency, as well as faking expensive TF2 (and other) marketplace items. For more about this particular case, check out the Kotaku article or this explanatory video from SidAlpha.
The Abstractism situation is interesting, but I’m more concerned with how the situation indicates the unhappy future (present, even) of Steam.
Considering this game, and more generally the explosion of content on Steam, brings Gresham’s Law to mind. In summary, this Law states that ‘bad money drives out good’ — in other words, any amount of counterfeit currency in circulation devalues the entire economy. In the long term, the value of any coin or token in an economy with counterfeits in circulation approaches zero.
Though the original idea relates to currency itself, Gresham’s Law can more broadly describe how economies might become unstable through the presence of low-value ‘tokens’.
When customers cannot be assured than games on the Steam platform are not hijacking their computers for malicious purposes, the value of all legitimate games on the platform similarly suffers. Players lose faith in the platform, and it becomes harder for a new developer to gain their trust, absent any safety standards from Valve.
Leaving aside the malware issue, Steam has a huge amount of shovelware. Originally, Steam was a curated platform. Any game that Valve accepted met reasonable standards for quality. So, gamers could be assured that they were buying a legitimate product, even if the selection was more limited. This system also benefited accepted developers, since they could rely on their game being featured for a couple of weeks on the new release list. Now, legitimate new releases are buried by the enormous volume flooding the store, and have fewer chances to gain an audience.
After a while, Valve’s curation team was overloaded. And, some customers and (rejected) developers objected to the idea that game selection should be limited to those ‘sanctioned’ by Valve. So Steam Greenlight was created, a first step in the wrong direction. It was far too easy to manipulate Greenlight to get trash through while meaningful games were held back.
But with Greenlight’s end, the floodgates are completely open. You can get any game onto Steam now just by paying 100 dollars. This leads to ‘games’ being released which are basically trolling pieces of rubbish designed to manipulate Steams (ill-considered) Trading Cards and Marketplace.
Waiting for users to report exploitative behavior from developers is not the solution. Valve has the resources to implement a sensible review system to protect users. Such a system may be imperfect, but acknowledging this and creating a reasonable checks and appeals processes is the solution.
It’s all a bit sad. Steam helped usher in a new era in PC gaming, and was especially crucial in boosting indie games. The presence of Steam as a distribution platform made indie game development feasible, much as the surge of film festivals and Netflix distribution in the late 90’s made indie film-making a legitimate pursuit. Valve’s platform was one of the protagonists in a burst of creative energy in gaming.
As we watch, the platform slowly devolves into a repository of trolling and malware infested games. Why would Steam allow the exploitation of their customers and undermine the integrity of their platform? It’s not just bad for gamers, it’s bad for developers too. Their hard work is devalued by the presence of these malicious titles, now rampant. What becomes of a marketplace whose policies harm both sides of the market?