The most wonderful thing about Steam is that it is as close to a meritocratic level playing field as game retail has ever been. Its new indie releases sit proudly alongside AAA hits and can often break out into popularity on their own quality alone.
Steam has no quality control – at least, not centrally. While the recently-added curator system means that gaming personalities and websites can make recommendations, there is no Valve-operated hierarchy for determining which games are good and which are bad.
This has its ups and downs – some games get by on an appealing pitch on the store page and disappoint once purchased – but it means those breakout hits can continue to do so without having to overcome a central review system.
But there is one area of Steam where quality control might be appropriate – Early Access. The Early Access system is designed to allow developers a lifeline, a way of coming into funds while their game is still under development and ensuring that it sees release. Customers pay full release price for the game, in exchange for the opportunity to play it early and a full license upon release.
Too often, though, there are games released this way which seem almost on the level of scams. A well publicised example of this was Earth: Year 2066, a not-even-half finished post-apocalyptic shooter notable only for its humorous levels of bugs and its deadly serious price tag of £19.99.
Steam did eventually pull Earth: Year 2066 from Steam, citing that “Steam does require honesty from developers in the marketing of their games”. That still means though that for some time people paid money for something which under no reasonable analysis was worth it, thanks to its false advertising.
Early Access is an excellent system for new developers to try to raise cash. It would not stop being an excellent system if Valve invoked quality control while the games were in development. When a finished game is put onto the store, that’s different. There’s an assumption that the game is at least functional, even if not much fun. But when the explicit purpose of a store section is to showcase games which are being worked on and may never be finished, there needs to be some guarantee that while the game is available for purchase, it is at least functional.
For those worried about censorship of radical new ideas (although it’s hard to hear that without thinking of wastes of space like Mountain) there need not even be removal of material. For games which Steam suspects might not make the grade in terms of potential or release quality, there could be tighter contracts, or a separate section of Early Access for those willing to risk their money.
What about a system wherein Steam acts as a financial intermediary, only loaning the cash it receives from users and using that money to wipe the debt clean only when the game reaches a satisfactory state? It would of course need to come down very hard on those who try to take the money and run, but it would be much better than the current system of direct payments to developers of Early Access games.
This need not hamper honest developers, who are clearly trying hard and who set reasonable price points and completion timetables. But purveyors of broken material whose income is derived solely from dishonest marketing need to be kept out, for the sake of the integrity of the platform.
The open forum of the Steam Store is a thing of beauty and ought to be celebrated as one of the great levelers in modern gaming. But in the dungeons of Early Access, we must accept that there is sometimes the need for a guard.