Every now and then another chart comes out showing the ever-increasing number of games on Steam. It’s usually accompanied by a fair amount of moaning about clutter, quality control, and if we’re really unlucky, mentions of an Indiepocalypse. We’re apparently drowning in an unending ocean of shovelware and if we’re very lucky the worst that will happen is…? I’m never quite sure, actually. Be forced to use a filter on Steam’s search function? Get exposed to titles I might never have seen? Get the same sensation browsing the New Release lists I used to get browsing the racks at Electronics Boutique back in the day? Apparently it’s a terrible thing.
The market for selling games has seen incredible changed over the last fifteen years. Independent developers have always been around but there didn’t used to be so many and they were forced so far from the spotlight it’s amazing anyone created anything at all. It took a minor miracle of luck and just the right person on a gaming website taking notice to get any attention at all, and even then the game might only get a little buzz before dying off. People kept making stuff, because that’s what people do, but as a rule all information was mostly found only on the developer’s web site and you had to bring a fair amount of trust to turn over credit card details if you decided to buy something.
Retail had its share of issues too, with the output of large publishers dominating the shelves, leaving little room for the smaller ones. There were hundreds and hundreds of games getting thrown into the world, console and PC both, and the quality level was all over the map. There were indie gems, shovelware, and AAA of various quality levels all side-by-side, and the only reason the bigger games dominated is because they were the ones paying for the shelf space. Do you have any idea how many hunting games there used to be? Or the sheer volume of Wolfenstein clones there were even after Doom had rewritten the FPS landscape? Don’t even get me started on the Myst-alikes, mascot platformers, and forgotten terrible fighting games. The overall amount of titles may have been less but so was the number of people buying them, and the quality level was about the same.
Now it’s decades later and shelf space isn’t an issue. The digital storefront is infinite and there are a lot more people buying, but most of the PC sales are on Steam. Valve realized it had a problem a few years back, in that it had gone from having a digital distribution platform to having the digital distribution platform. If a game didn’t get on Steam it might as well be dead, barring the exception of Minecraft. GOG, itch.io, Humble, and other sites are all good places to pick up a new PC game, but the big sales numbers are on Steam. It’s not a position Valve asked for but it’s one the company was stuck with, so over the course of the last several years it instituted ways to deal with being the unintended gatekeeper of PC content. This started in 2012 with Greenlight and soon after the floodgates were opened.
Almost anyone with a semi-decent computer can make a game nowadays. Gamemaker, Unity, Unreal, and a number of other pre-built engines are easily and cheaply accessible to creators, as opposed to earlier days when you either had to reinvent the wheel with every new game, adapt an in-house engine if you worked at a larger developer, or buy a license to an existing engine and hammer the game to fit its restrictions. The barriers to creation are still fairly imposing but at least they’re approachable rather than mind-numbingly daunting. The result is that there are a lot more projects in the works, and most end up on Steam.
According to a vocal part of the community, the volume of games is an issue. The view seems to be that there’s a torrent of crap strangling the system from within, degrading Steam and making it impossible to find the quality games the system was known for. Bad Rats, it should be noted, was released in 2009. There have always been bad games and they’ve always shown up, but now the volume on everything is turned to eleven.
Even with all this, though, there is no glut, no Indiepocalypse, no self-destructive rush to inundate the hallowed halls of Steam with more garbage than any one service could ever possibly hold. Here’s the important thing about Steam- it’s not perfect, never was, isn’t supposed to be, and won’t ever become that way. It’s a game storefront where a developer, if it wants any kind of success, needs to be, and Valve recognizes this. The company has provided filter options, done major updates to discoverability, and given users a number of tools to find what they want. Trimming things down to a manageable level that fits a user’s interest shouldn’t be particularly hard.
Still, for the sake of argument, lets talk about what could go. Personally I can’t stand visual novels, tower defense, and sports games, so away with the lot of ’em. One of the styles constantly griped about is anything using “retro” art, so get rid of everything looking like that. Many people can’t stand indie games, believing that if it doesn’t come from a publisher (EA, XSEED, whoever) then it’s got no business being on the service, so lets kill them too. Anything with the word “Simulator” in the title? In the trash it goes. A little more basic filtering and we’ve got a storefront that’s finally removed everything the theoretical Everyone wanted gone, although all it’s got left on there is the Valve-published games and Grand Theft Auto V.
Steam is not all things to everyone. That’s not the purpose of a store or a retail portal. Go into any retailer on the planet selling any product you care to mention, filter out the things you don’t personally care about, and the remaining percentage will be roughly similar to what’s on Steam. Steam’s role in PC gaming evolved over the years and Valve is trying to meet the challenge, a little slowly and with the occasional misstep along the way (why isn’t Greenlight dead yet?, but still improving at a steady rate. It’s not perfect but getting better, and closing the gates to an arbitrary but huge amount of games doesn’t help anyone. Yes, fine, almost 40% of the games on Steam were released in 2016, but so what? In 2007 the increase was almost 60%, going from 77 to 189.
These numbers aren’t important, though. What matters is that people have the tools to create, sometimes turning out amazing things, sometimes notably less than amazing, but it’s not Steam’s job to tell people what to like. Steam turned into the premier gaming marketplace and its job is to allow access to games, and if people make a lot then Steam will carry as much as possible. The two alternatives are bad and worse- either Steam rejects games based on standards that make developers and consumers almost unanimously unhappy or people stop creating things. Neither is happening any time soon, so maybe it’s best to focus on the things we can enjoy and not worry too much that, even if you filtered out every single thing that doesn’t meet your taste due to genre or just being bad, there’s still more fantastic games than you’ll could ever play in a lifetime.