Credit to Valve: Over the past 15 years, it’s turned Steam into a megalith and kept it relevant with a steady, if slow, stream of new features. But in continually reacting to problems instead of anticipating them, and by keeping communication to a minimum, Valve has left a swath of damage in its wake, from review bombs and toxicity to fiascos like the recent near-release of post-apocalyptic rape fantasy Rape Day. After a press briefing at GDC in San Francisco this week, I spoke to Valve about its recent travails in the realm of transparency.
Valve still plays things pretty close to the chest when it comes to communication, but the folks running Steam seem to be realizing that isn’t quite working. Recently, there’s been an uptick in statements from the company’s beating heart in Bellevue, Washington.
“The company still thinks like it’s this tiny little group of folks,” director of marketing Doug Lombardi told Kotaku. “We’ve never outgrown the mentality that we’re only, like, 50 people. And the principle has always been ‘Just ship stuff, people will find it.’ Then we’ll listen to developers and customers and make updates and stuff like that... Now we’re hearing from folks that there’s so much going on, that they’re being fed from the firehose and all that. ‘Maybe if you guys took some time to curate your messages a little better, we’d understand where you’re going, where your head was at, how to leverage it, etc.’”
Steam business specialist Tom Giardino was frank in his assessment of how unintuitive Valve’s previous, infrequent missives about new features, changes, and decision-making could be. “Developers are so busy,” he said. “They might ship a game once every two or three years. A huge amount of Steamworks changes and improvements come in that time. We’d work really hard on an update, ship it, and post a blog about it that maybe 500 people would read.”
But Valve is still a primarily reactive company, putting out fires where they arise instead of building features and policies that are immediately fireproof. This approach has frustrated many developers and users over the years. Most recently, that tendency drew widespread ire when, earlier this month, a self-described “game where you can rape and murder during a zombie apocalypse” called Rape Day appeared on Steam, with a Steam page that said it was coming soon. After days of controversy, Valve announced that Rape Day wouldn’t come out on their platform after all due to “unknown costs and risks” the game posed.
But that’s pretty much all the company said, and nobody could parse out exactly what the statement meant. As ever, Valve refused to put things in cultural, moral, or ethical terms, preferring instead to speak from behind a veil of incomprehensible business-ese. This led to further confusion and anger over the whole incident.
When I tried to ask Lombardi and Giardino about the statement’s specific wording, they sidestepped the question on two separate occasions. However, Lombardi, along with Steam man-of-many-hats Alden Kroll, delved into how Valve hopes to prevent another Rape Day-type incident from happening in the future.
“There’s this issue that happens that we’re working to correct now where a developer or publisher will sign up for something, they’ll make a [store] page and that’ll go live, and then the code comes through and there’s an evaluation for the code—for the game itself,” said Lombardi. “So there’s this step where the sign goes up—’coming soon,’ so to speak—and then there’s this process of actually looking at the game. We’re working to correct that now so that everything gets reviewed before anything goes up.”
Rape Day, he clarified, was never actually approved; it only appeared that way because the developers put the page up. In the future, that shouldn’t happen anymore.
Kroll said that, despite the belief that Valve automates too many of Steam’s processes, “like 90 percent of the games” being submitted to Steam are reviewed multiple times by a human team at Valve. First the review team looks at a game’s store page, and then they play a build of the game itself and check to make sure that it’s functional and contains features listed on the store page. “We go through a checklist of ‘Does it do these things? Does the build match what’s on the store page? Is it what they’re promising?’” said Kroll.
There’s also another review team for “edge cases,” according to Kroll. This team meets once a week to look at games that don’t fit pre-established molds and evolve Steam’s policies over time.
“These are things that we can’t deal with right away, and we need a group to figure out ‘How does this fit into our decision making, and how can we adapt our decision making to that?’” said Kroll. “We knew from the beginning, we couldn’t define ahead of time a bunch of gray lines, because you can’t anticipate what people are gonna make. So then it’s all these weekly conversations around ‘This is in this gray area here. How do we see that? How do we determine what that is?’ So it’s an ongoing, iterative process. We’re constantly refining how that works.”
Doubtless, this team has plenty to learn from Rape Day.
Valve’s particular style of reactivity has also left loopholes open for abusive behavior from users. Over the years, Steam developers have dealt with barely moderated communities, review bombs, harassment groups, and other forms of toxicity. Valve initially let these things proceed sans much in the way of human intervention, putting moderation duties on the backs of developers and pushing back against review bombs only by implementing a graph system in 2017 that mostly just served to make review bombs more visible.
Recently, the company’s become more open to the idea of creating specialized teams of flesh-and-blood people—rather than automated solutions—to weed out Steam’s most deep-rooted problems. Valve now has its own community moderation team to assist developers. Most recently, it created a team that will look at games that seem to be getting review bombed and, if need be, lock them down so that incoming reviews temporarily don’t count toward their scores. These are positive steps forward after years of ineffective action or inaction, but by previously opting to largely stay silent and let these things play out, Valve ended up being partially responsible for heaps of harassment and a broader player-vs-developer culture that has some devs eyeing the Epic Games Store’s greener pastures. Despite all that, Valve sounds like it plans to stick to its guns.
“We can go all the way back to the day we launched Steam and say there’s all these things we wished we’d known beforehand that we could have done in advance,” Lombardi said. “Part of it is, you get it to a point, you think you have it, you ship it, and you find out a bunch of stuff once it’s in the wild and millions of people have it. You find not only the lists of things you thought you should have included, but then there’s this whole other list of things that users and developers point out for you that you need to go do. We measure ourselves more on how quickly we can respond to that stuff and update things and keep reacting to stuff as times and technologies change.”
Lombardi went on to point out that even way back when the company released Half-Life, it wasn’t expecting players to stack crates and find weird ways to break the game. “That’s sort of the funny example, but the same thing applies,” he said.
But that’s a single-player video game. Steam is a worldwide platform where every minute decision affects hundreds of millions of users and developers. One piles up far more collateral damage than the other.
In response to that point, Kroll said he has regrets but ultimately stands by the way the Steam team has handled things like review bombs.
“Of course we would rather save people grief,” he said. “But it’s hard to anticipate exactly what boundaries you need to put in place because you don’t know what people are gonna try, and you don’t want to constrain too much the ways people can voice themselves or—in the case of new features or moderation or new types of games—you don’t want to constrain the amount of creativity people can put into the system, because we’re surprised all the time by what people bring.”
“But if you’re looking at the review system for example, it was hard to anticipate how people were gonna use it. Review bombing is a symptom of having a popular platform that matters. That people care about. If nobody cared about Steam, review bombing wouldn’t be a problem on Steam.”