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The Indie View: Resistance Isn't Futile

In his first regular column for GI, Alexis Kennedy looks at Valve's recent shift on user reviews

"No one would have believed [...] that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. [...] Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth..."

HG Wells, the War of the Worlds

This week Valve announced that they were addressing the problem of review score manipulation - developers giving out Steam keys to real or fictional users who would give better reviews.

"At least 160 titles [they said] have a substantially greater percentage of positive reviews by users that activated the product with a cd key, compared to customers that purchased the game directly on Steam."

Every time Valve changes their system, there's an uproar. This time was no exception, especially because it was indies with successful Kickstarters and good communities who suffered. Also, of course, shady operators who had given keys to bot accounts suffered; and because the world is wide, some indies saw their review scores go up. But real people got hurt in this, so it generated a lot of comment along the lines of 'Valve screw indies, AGAIN'. And now here I am comparing them to blood-drinking Martians. But actually I think that's not fair of me. They're much weirder than that. Can we talk for a moment about how weird Valve is, and also how human?

"I'm not interested in condemning or defending Valve: I do want to understand them, and to guess what they might do next"

Valve is a unique actor - an institution, really - in the games industry. Valve is an intelligent, privately held, technophilic quasi-anarchy that thinks hard about the big picture. Famously, they came top of a 2014 survey of places that game devs wanted to work, above BioWare, Blizzard and, at #2, developers' own companies. Even more famously, their structure is, accordingly to 'leaked' company manuals, entirely flat and emergent. Employees make decisions individually and spontaneously, including what projects to start or work on.

I am agnostic on exactly how flat their culture really is. A disgruntled employee has compared it to a cliquey high school. I once asked someone who had dealings with Valve who cleaned the toilets there, and she said guardedly 'I think they use quite a lot of contractors.' But they retain exceptional talent, they do exceptionally well, and they obviously do have an exceptional internal environment. They're not Wells' Martians, and they're not the Borg - geek culture's favourite shorthand for a giant dominant force. They're much more like the Culture.

If you haven't read Iain M Banks' Culture novels, and statistically there must be nearly five people here who haven't, the Culture is a technologically sophisticated anarchist utopia, answerable to none but the great Minds that run it. It's a wonderful place to live and it's basically benign, but it has a strong tradition of meddlesome intervention for its own self-defence. It cares about people, but it only cares about them in aggregate, and it can be ruthless.

Let's talk about what this has to do with the change in Steam reviews. A lot of the commentary so far has focused on whether Valve were right to act that way, and whether it's helped. I'm not interested in condemning or defending Valve: I do want to understand them, and to guess what they might do next. So here are, I think, Valve's key characteristics.

Valve is unpredictable. If we take them at their word, they're unpredictable internally, too. They whimsically pick ideas based on what sounds cool and then work feverishly to turn them into billion-dollar projects. I don't know how seriously to take that - I would assume there is some sort of implicit steering committee - but if you look at their history (HL1, HL2, HL3 lost at sea, Team Fortress ZOMBIES MORE ZOMBIES OK now it's all about Steam and DOTA 2) then it's fair to say they zigzag.

Valve is technophilic. It was founded by two ex-Microsoft software developers, and everything about their (small-c) culture follows from that. Their enthusiasm for cool hardware; their charming but confusing PR; and above all their emphasis on algorithmic solutions, starting with their preference for letting the market decide. The market, after all, is the Great Algorithm, much beloved of techno-libertarians. I would bet my fanciest bottle of gin that there are a lot of liberal-leaning techno-libertarians at Valve.

Remember Greenlight? Remember how they opened the doors to the treasure house, and were immediately inundated with parody games and Half-Life scams? Remember the $100 Greenlight fee? It was an algorithmic market-oriented idea they pulled out of their arse that more-or-less fixed the problem, but hurt some innocents en route. It worked well enough, and it remains in place to this day.

Valve, like the Culture, thinks in the very long term. Remember that Steam was announced as long ago as 2002 - and we don't know how long they'd been working on it then. It was originally presented as mostly an update system. If you're as old as me, you may remember the tremendous fuss that a company might want you to install an application that downloaded patches to its software without asking you! In this, as in many other respects, Valve were years ahead. But the big story here of course is that they saw the opportunity for digital sales of games, and began executing on it, long before the rest of the industry, and consequently have all the money. (For perspective, remember Steam was announced the year after the launch of the GameCube and the first XBox.)

And Valve iterates. Everything they do is subsequently tempered and calibrated. Remember how alarmed we were when they brought reviews in, and any schmoe could smear nonsense on our store pages? They only care about us in aggregate, but they do care about us in aggregate, because we're the flock of geese that lay the golden eggs. You can lose a goose here or there but you don't want the geese to migrate. So they iterated on the review system - which, these days, is a big improvement over the old days - and they'll keep on iterating. It's very clear that back in 2002, Valve weren't thinking about how to optimise hypothetical user reviews. They've always made it up as they go along.

A couple more things about review scores.

One of the big differences between Valve and the Culture, of course, is that the Culture is a post-scarcity society with infinite resources. Valve's a corporation with finite funds - it's probably the closest thing in the games industry to a post-scarcity entity, but that's a long way off. And Steam is essential to its continued existence in its current state. The 2015 estimate from SteamSpy is that they'd made north of $3bn, or more than 10% of the global games market, from Steam. So Steam is Valve's royal estate, and they really care about it.

"Valve doesn't care about you, but Valve is very, very strongly incentivised to help users find games they'll like, and keep Steam as peachy as possible"

You may be familiar with the concept of a 'market for lemons'. I'm sure Valve is. The term comes from a paper by the economist George Akerlof, which examines what happens in a market where the buyers can't determine the quality of the goods. His example was a market for used cars, where the seller knows which cars are 'lemons' - low-quality goods - but the buyer has no idea. Akerlof concluded:

  • buyers are incentivised to pay a more lemony, i.e lower, price, because they don't know whether they're going to be disappointed
  • sellers of 'peaches' (high-quality goods) are incentivised to leave the market, because they can only get lemony prices for their peaches
  • so there are increasingly fewer peaches, driving the price to increasingly lemony levels
  • meaning more peach-sellers give up
  • meaning we're left with a failed market where sellers offer lemons for pennies to increasingly cynical buyers

It's notoriously hard to assess the quality of games from a blurb and a screenshot. Valve is an intelligent, benignly selfish actor with a habit of taking the very long view. Valve doesn't care about you, but Valve is very, very strongly incentivised to help users find games they'll like, and keep Steam as peachy as possible.

Valve also wants everyone in its ecosystem, and that means helping devs make the best of the communities and Kickstarter backers who will bring more gamers into the fold. It knows perfectly well that while GOG and Itch and the rest are tarsiers to the Valve gorilla right now, the tech world changes quickly. Remember when Microsoft and Intel had an unassailable position and Apple were scrappy underdogs?

This only means DON'T PANIC. It doesn't mean 'lie back and wait for Valve to fix it.'