Valve on the floodgate

Age of the Geek Column: To sell, or not to sell, that is the question.

Specifically, the question that Valve has been asking themselves when it comes to which games they allow onto Steam.

For those in need of a refresher, Steam was originally created by video game developer, Valve, to sell their own games directly to the customer. Since then, it has exploded as the premiere storefront for virtually every developer out there. Unless you are an incredibly large publisher in your own right, if your game isn't on the Steam store, it may as well not exist on the PC market.

This market dominance gives Valve an incredible amount of power in the PC gaming industry. A power that they are extremely hesitant about using.

Because getting your game on Steam is essentially a requirement to selling your game at all, Valve has lowered their barriers of entry to, some would say, ridiculously low levels.

Notoriously hands-off when it comes to curating their marketplace, Valve allows virtually anything with an executable .exe file to be sold on the storefront. Which makes their recent actions all the more baffling.

Last month, several developers reported that Valve had sent them e-mails declaring that their games would soon be removed from Steam for violating their rules and guidelines on pornographic content.

Valve doesn't allow pornographic games to be sold on their store, one of the few restrictions they do have, but nevertheless they've cultivated a small sub-genre of visual novels and dating sims that lean on the risqué side of things. For games that do cross into the realm of pornographic, the standard operating procedure has been that developers can sell censored or toned down versions of games on the store and offer customers a patch for the full-frontal experience so long as it's not advertised on Steam's site.

This arrangement has worked for both Valve and the developers. At least it did until it didn't.

In the e-mail sent out to developers, Valve told them they had two weeks to remove any offending content from their games or their games would be taken off the store. A bizarre demand considering that many of the titles had been on the store for years and Valve didn't detail specifically what content was out of compliance.

Valve's abrupt changing of the terms sent a shockwave through the PC market, reminding developers everywhere that Steam is a sleeping giant that can, without warning or reason, wipe an entire genre off the map on a whim.

Or not.

Equally abruptly, Valve sent out a second wave of e-mails to the targeted developers telling them to disregard the first e-mail.

No explanation given. Just a quick "Sorry for the inconvenience" and that was it.

Ironically, at the same time Valve was taking heat from one side of the industry for randomly threatening a whole genre of games, they were also being criticized for allowing a specific game on their storefront.

"Active Shooter" was a first-person shooter designed to simulate the scenarios that are all-too-often ripped from the headlines.

In theory, it is possible that a video game could approach such a sensitive subject with enough tact to create a thought-provoking experience.

In practice, the game was little more than a hastily slapped together piece of junk designed to cash-in on the shock value of being a literal "murder simulator."

It's a game nobody should buy, but does that mean it shouldn't be sold?

That's a question Valve has struggled with for years. Is it Valve's place to stand between a game developer and anybody that might want to buy whatever game they make?

Valve has been in this situation before. In 2014, "Hatred" pulled the same stunt, drawing attention by being as unrepentantly offensive as possible. That game was briefly removed from Steam only to be reinstated after direct intervention from CEO Game Newell, taking a stance that if somebody doesn't like a game, they don't have to buy it.

"Active Shooter," an arguably even more offensive game, pushed Valve even further to see how far it could go before they intervened. Allowing such a grotesquely offensive game to remain on the storefront would be seen as silent condonement. However, removing it would set a slippery precedent they would be expected to uphold for other titles that may or may not deserve it.

Fortunately for Valve, circumstances allowed them to punt on the issue.

"Active Shooter" was developed by Revived Games, which was discovered to be associated with Ata Berdiyev, a known troll developer that had previously been banned from the platform. That gave Valve all the excuse they needed to remove "Active Shooter" without setting an unwanted precedent.

Ultimately, these events seem to have resulted in an internal pow-wow at Valve. Last week the company reaffirmed their position that deciding which games are or aren't acceptable to be sold to the public is a job they don't want. Leaving themselves a caveat for illegal content or "straight up trolling," Valve will continue to let the market decide.

This is probably the right course of action.

As a gamer, I do wish Valve was a little more discerning about what they allow on their storefront. Not a week goes by without the release of dozens of shoddy games with no redeemable value taking up space. Low effort asset flips from developers seeking a quick buck bombard the weekly release list, killing the discoverability of the few legitimately interesting looking titles out there.

That said, how do you tell the difference between a Russian troll-developer cranking out a cheap game just to sell trading cards and a novice game designer proudly putting up their first finished product, no matter how good or bad that product is?

Leaving it to the consumer might not be a great decision, but it is the best decision.

Travis Fischer is a news writer for Mid-America Publishing and actually does sift through the release list for interesting titles. You can see his findings on his YouTube channel, Teek Vids.