Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Abdication

Let’s talk about stores.

Humans like to acquire things. We invented the idea of trade in a time before knowing, and we invented systems of commerce basically as soon as we coalesced into cities and started making goods worth exchanging for other goods or services. Systems of currency came along eventually, too, and lo and behold here in the 21st century we’ve got a major case of economics and capitalism.

Part of maintaining a storefront has always included being picky about what you choose to sell. If you are a fruit vendor, under an awning in a long-ago and far-away agora or souq, you are not hawking cloth. If you are a cloth-maker, you are not selling cows.

The art of business, of course, has changed over the centuries. But curation has always been a major part of it. The Gap is not going to have a display of bananas between two shelves of skinny jeans. Lowe’s is not going to sell you crappy third-rate knockoff counterfeit appliances, if it can help it. Best Buy won’t have a shelf full of badly-subtitled bootleg movies in the middle of an aisle.

Brick-and-mortar stores, limited both by their physical square footage and also by the world of competition, curate. They choose what to sell, and they focus narrowly on that thing. Even in a massive big-box retailer like a Walmart, or a classic, five-story department store, every item for sale within those walls is there as the end product of careful, detailed negotiations between the product’s producer and the retailer. It’s no accident where the Post cereals, the Kellogg’s cereals, and the Kashi cereals are, in your local supermarket; that’s highly negotiated, proximity to you, the consumer, itself a commodity to be bought and sold.

There are, in fact, three major things a brick-and-mortar retail experience provides the modern consumer, in the year of our digital overlords two thousand eighteen:


  1. Curation: Someone has already taken the full world’s supply of available goods, which is legion, and winnowed it down to a smaller selection you, the overwhelmed consumer, can work your way through decision paralysis to make choices within.
  2. A middleman: Someone is responsible for being the bridge between the end consumer and the producer of goods, which means you, personally, don’t have to try to chase down someone ten time zones and fourteen languages away for support if your product has a problem.
  3. Customer service: If something goes wrong, you have a place you can go and a person you can talk to about it. Theoretically, that person is even empowered to help you with most issues you are likely to have. Your needs are hard to ignore, because you can be present, literally in the face of the person from whom you seek assistance.


Now let’s talk about Steam.

Over a decade ago, Steam was this strange kind of half-store, half-DRM thing you would install in your PC if you wanted to play Portal or a Half-Life game.

Today, Steam -- the major product of Valve Corp. -- is basically the major storefront for PC games and gaming. Its dual functions as shopping mall and easy DRM led to widespread adoption by indie and AAA publishers alike, as alternative systems like Games For Windows Live sputtered briefly and horribly into life before blessedly guttering out again.

And it’s easy to see why. Steam is easy to use, for the consumer, a one-stop shop where you don’t have to worry about a thousand awful, competing little failure-prone DRM systems screwing up your machine. It’s cloud-based, meaning you have your purchases tied to an account, rather than to a disc, and can re-download them on any new computer as needed. And it started out friendly, masking its purpose as DRM product in an overlay of social tools to connect you to a community.

Over the years, as players have flocked to it, Valve has consistently added more features to Steam, like integrated screenshots, streaming, and family sharing. Those features make more players sign on, which makes more developers and publishers sell games on the platform, which in turn makes more players sign on: a virtuous cycle, leading to an estimated $4.3 billion in sales in 2017 alone.

Unfortunately, Steam has long since lost its virtue. It’s not actually a monopoly, but like many of its digital-age counterparts -- the Netflixes and Facebooks of the world -- it has enough power in a market the Sherman and Clayton Acts never foresaw to dominate the competition handily and be seen as a must-have in the PC gaming world.

That sure is a lot of power.

So let’s talk about responsibility.

Steam has opened up its storefront to basically all comers in recent years. The platform abandoned its ill-conceived “Greenlight” program, which required users to upvote would-be games like some kind of horrible reality show production board, in early 2017. Since then, developers have more or less simply been able to apply and pay a fee to sell their wares in the Steam store.

But the conditions under which a developer is welcome on Steam have not always been clear. In mid-May, the service began contacting the developers of a very specific sub-set of games, visual novels with sexual adult content, saying the games needed to have some of that content censored or else be removed from the platform.

Developer Christine Love, whose most recent title, Ladykiller In a Bind, features lesbian erotica, tweeted eloquently about how the capricious nature of Steam’s actions could harm small, independent development studios like her own Love Conquers All Games: “Regardless of how you feel personally about the games affected, Valve pulling harmless content on a whim, with no consistency or policy, will absolutely have a chilling effect on small developers,” Love wrote. “This is terrifying.”


She added, “The developers being hit by this are being unnecessarily forced into a no-win situation, and it’s hard to trust Valve when it doesn’t honour agreements with devs. This hurts developers, it hurts players, and it hurts the entire medium.”

Developers of affected titles quickly sought alternative distribution, with many ending up on Steam rival GOG.com or smaller indie publishing platform itch.io.

Merely days after Steam began to excise adult content, however, the execrable misogynist dump Agony, chock-full of sexualized situations and sexualized violence, landed on the service. That created an understandable wave of pushback from customers and developers alike, seeking to know why certain kinds of sexual content were being ousted but others were being welcomed.

And so on June 6, Steam admitted what its users have always known: The company is utter crap at curation. But rather than issue a standard mea culpa or promise to do better in the future, Steam doubled down on its failure.

Instead, Valve's Erik Johnson posited, what if Steam just… didn’t?

After reviewing the situation, Johnson wrote, Valve decided, “the right approach is to allow everything onto the Steam Store, except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.” Sex, violence, all of it -- who is Valve to judge, if your local regulators don’t object?

Johnson conceded the upshot of Valve’s decision “means that the Steam Store is going to contain something that you hate, and don't think should exist.”

That, in part, is fair as it goes; there’s a lot of garbage art in the world and taste is far from universal. But it also misses the point so widely that the light from the actual point may not reach Valve for another eight or nine million years.

In choosing entirely to abdicate curation, Steam is saying it no longer runs a store. What it runs instead is something else entirely: a cesspit, perhaps.

Because long experience has taught us two important things. First: any online marketplace without stringent, intense curation becomes prone to fraud almost immediately. For example, put almost any popular app or game into the Google Play (Android app store) search, and see how many unauthorized clones come up. For some games, there are hundreds, and many are malware. It’s not just digital goods, either: Amazon is rife with counterfeit products and outright fraud, despite the company’s attempts at policing its third-party marketplace.

Second, and perhaps more importantly: Any online platform left untended inevitably devolves into hate speech, maximizing the voices of the noisy few and marginalizing minority voices -- women, people of color, anyone anywhere in the LGBTQ spectrum -- even further, a problem Steam already has.

Valve has chosen to stop caring about the experience its end consumers have on its platform, which harms consumers. But likewise, by entirely abandoning curation, it has also made its platform into a place publishers may not want to be.

Luxury brands in recent years have chosen to stop selling their goods in department stores in order to, basically, not be seen among the riff-raff, and maintain their cachet of value and exclusivity. In short, Macy’s is not a neighborhood Michael Kors wants to be in. Will Ubisoft want its next Assassin’s Creed for sale along a virtual shelf full of Agony clones? Or will all the publishers who can afford to pull an EA and stick with their own exclusive, highly curated digital storefronts instead?

Steam has been dominant for a decade, but it doesn’t have to be.

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