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Five reasons why Steam will destroy the PC games industry

By on May 26, 2010

In the feedback for How to Publish a Game, one element stood out.

I had suggested that it made sense for a developer making PC games to work hard to get on all the distribution platforms. Not just Steam, but GamersGate, Metaboli, Direct2Drive and so on.

Bollocks came the resounding response.

No-one wanted to be quoted. But Steam seems to account for by far the majority of the revenue of every single company who came back to me. People were suggesting that Steam outsold, by a factor of 10 or more, all of the other sites combined.

Steam logo

All kudos for Valve for building this service organically to be so dominant, but this is terrible news for the PC games industry.

We’ve sleepwalked into letting Valve be the dominant platform holder for core PC games. And they did it without having to provide the marketing muscle, financial support and hardware innovation that Microsoft and Sony needed to give us to get their consoles of their ground.

In short, Valve is becoming a dangerous monopoly.

Why does that matter?

Reason 1: Monopolies stifle distribution innovation

In a free market, innovation and improvements are encouraged by competition. The problem occurs when one company is so far-and-away ahead that no-one else can catch up. Think of Google. Think of Facebook. And now we should be thinking of Steam in the same way.

Reason 2: Monopolies stifle creative innovation

I keep hearing that is getting harder and harder to get onto Steam, and if you don’t, then your game won’t sell. The PC has always been an open platform on which it is easy to distribute games. If Steam becomes a de facto monopoly, Valve decides which games we see. A bit too competitive to Half-Life? No distribution. We don’t like Match-3 games? No distribution. We’re not sure that anyone will want a game based on farming? No distribution.

Reason 3: The little guys don’t get a look in

Helping the little guys is hard. When you’re big, and profitable, and important, it’s easy to prioritise the big publishers over the little guys. The little guys are already struggling on the console (although PSN provides one route to market), but the PC has been their lifeblood. A megalithic monopoly could rationally decide that it is no longer cost-effective to support the little guys.

Reason 4: Steam has all the pricing power

Retailers won’t work with indies: it’s not worth their while and, more importantly, indies don’t give them marketing support.

What if that becomes true of Steam? Valve is in a position to say “your game won’t sell without us. We want a bigger cut, or upfront marketing commitment, or some form of guarantee.”

Reason 5: Valve doesn’t need to promote the platform

For all their weaknesses, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo spend a lot of money promoting and improving their platforms. Steam doesn’t improve the PC as a gaming device. I am a lot more comfortable about oligopolies when there is something in it for the consumer (like subsidised home consoles, for example).

Aren’t Valve the good guys?

To be clear, I’m not saying that Valve is doing any of these things right now. They are a great developer that has created, from scratch, a dominant digital distribution platform, mainly through making it so damned good that consumers don’t want to use anything else.

I am pointing out the risks of letting one company completely dominate a market.

Are there any silver linings?

Sure. As PC games disappear almost entirely from High Street stores, Steam is an incredibly valuable distribution platform. It may, in fact, be the only thing stopping the PC games market from abrupt extinction.

Elsewhere, social and online games (i.e. service games, not product games) are not dependent on Steam in the slightest. In fact, they pose a great threat to Steam, as gamers start playing free-to-play MMOs monetized with virtual goods, rather than spending £29.99 on a game in a virtual box from Steam.

So we’re in this weird place. Steam’s dominance is, in my view, bad for the industry. Yet the emergence of new service-based business models is a terminal threat to Steam.

How Valve chooses to react to that threat will show whether they are PC gaming’s saviour or its monopolistic exploiter.

Which do you think?

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve:
  • 66 Biker

    In a lot of ways Steam reminds me of Microsoft. Mainly because of how they do business with smaller companies in that mafioso monopoly sort of way.

  • Pingback: Anonymous()

  • I hate steam

    You all forgot about the players, or should we say adult gamers, we prefer good old buying a game and installing it and playing it without the hustle of downloading anything, many of us wait for the game to cost less to purchase and have it ready to play and worst of all, what about gamers in developing countries in wich internet connection still costs $50 usd (that´s right people!) to have good internet connection, i guess we don´t matter for we are poor. Everything is downloading now, hate it. F*** Steam!

  • JohnGahris TheImmortal Squirre

    and which of valve’s competitors sponsored this article, I wonder?

  • Nicholas Lovell

    I fear for your soul, infected with the cynic’s canker.

  • JohnGahris TheImmortal Squirre

    Don’t try trolling me.

  • Roberto Markham

    Steam is an arrogant organisation and a stupid, waste of time. Want to run a game, sign in. Want to join a forum, sign in…….oh but must use a different username and password. Want support, sign in………oh must use yet another username and password. Nothing works on the site………forgotten password? Hard luck. Try to open another account NFW! I have had it up to the eyeballs with Steam. My games no longer work I am unable to contact anyone to complain and so I now have heaps of useless expensive junk with no sale price. I always enjoyed purchasing a game, getting a CD, installing it and then……..believe it or not, playing it with very little trouble. With the advent of Steam this has become an expensive NIGHTMARE. I will no longer buy ANY game which needs Steam [or any other on-line scam]. So, OK, I miss out on a few of the better games. At least I am not suffering headaches and frustration.
    Steam has wrecked the gaming industry completely, just as Microsoft has wrecked the OS industry. Monopolies are like dictatorships and with the same outlook.

  • Lloyd Franklin

    I hate Steam myself but I use it because games require it. I get really angry when I see people write GabeN is god, GabeN saved PC gaming, bow down to our lord and saviour GabeN, I hate these people so much.

  • Lloyd Franklin

    For me Google has always been the anti-Christ of the technology world. I only use YouTube and then I didn’t use my real information.

  • Truth

    Steam = Pyramid scam-enjoy getting your computer and vital information scanned on a routine basis:)

  • Truth

    I bet you work for them.

  • Truth

    Yet another steam employee.

  • Miner1999er

    “The little guys don’t get a look in,”
    You heard of Steam Greenlight?

  • Miner1999er

    You’re given all the program files. They’re only locked so much as to prevent pirates from adding the game to their Steam library. If you wanted to play the game 100% without Steam’s influence at all you could just remove it after your game’s installed. That’s why all Steam games are totally mod-able and pirate-able. You really don’t need Steam to run any of your games, unless you play Valve’s games, in which case that’s like saying you like Assassin’s Creed but hate Ubisoft and it’s UPlay UI. Cmon, you don’t make any sense.

  • Braustardo

    this article was shit at its time and is shit now, 5 years later steam is the best thing the pc gaming industry could have, see you in hell

  • Nicholas Lovell

    It’s funny. The games press I read is full of indie game devs complaining how hard it is for small devs to get a look in (point 3), that sales are devaluing games (point 4) and that if you aren’t on Steam, you can’t make a decent living from the alternatives (point 1). It seems to me that many of my predictions are coming true.