This is a response to “Valve is not your friend, and Steam is not healthy for gaming” over on Polygon. Written by Tim Colwill. Released on May 16th, 2017.
For the record I have no prior relationship or knowledge of Tim on a professional or personal basis. My response to his opinion piece is at face-value using only the words he provided within it as a means of expressing his points of view, not influenced by outside factors of any kind. I do not think my skills are better or worse than his and refuse to engage in a measuring contest of our dignities.
What I saw is a public disappointed in the squandered potential for an invigorating discussion about the future of Steam. The point of this is purely in the interest of exploring Tim’s writing and supplying my own input to it as a remedy.
If you don’t have time to read my deep dive into the nitty-gritty of this, here’s a brief overview.
- BEHIND THE SMILE: Tim Colwill says the public was deceived by Valve when their Steam gaming distribution platform first came to be. “Good Guy Valve” apparently took advantage of the community’s naivety in 2004 and ended up creating a market monopoly all these years later.
- GET ‘EM WHILE THEY’RE YOUNG: Colwill makes the comparison that Steam was launched in 2004 with the same intentions as Origin’s 2011 debut. I try and explain the relevant distinctions and nuances necessary to understand the differences between the two.
- NO SALE, NO OWNERSHIP, NO REFUNDS: Tim goes over the emergence of Valve’s refund policies, and clumsily throws the associated litigation onto a page to see what sticks. I straighten the things mentioned by him out, and take it a step further by explaining both the fraction of Valve’s court battle that Tim chose to use here, in addition to the refund policies as they are now with online gaming distribution platforms.
- SHUT UP AND TAKE MY FREE LABOR: Colwill presents an argument that memes are bad and the public is providing free marketing to Valve that further backs their “Good Guy” facade. Given the lack of material to respond to in this section, I do Tim the favor of fleshing out the story. I go over the emergence of Steam Greenlight and the careful eye that Valve kept on the process throughout its 5-year lifespan.
- A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP, WHERE WE WORK FOR FREE: Tim mentions the shenanigans with Steam Workshop and has a moment of brilliance with one of his points. My optimism plummets when he fails to take it a step further by ignoring an important controversy that happened on Steam within the past year. Ironically and unintentionally, I prove the title of this section correct in a sense when I talk about the CS:GO Lotto YouTubers who hyped up their own gambling websites to an unsuspecting public as a means of drawing interest in for more betters.
- THE DREAM BECOMES A NIGHTMARE: Colwill’s article staggers off into the sunset leaving many of his points without meaning and questions unanswered.
An overall pattern I noticed is Mr. Colwill is unwilling to sufficiently mention moments of Valve’s direct intervention as a company. Not only is it overall neglected in certain places, in others where it would help support Tim’s argument to flesh this out he fails to adequately do so. There are the components of decent arguments and opinions, strewn about in this messy bedroom of a Polygon article.
Corporations aren’t your friend. This is something that was never really up for debate. The fact that Tim uses this as a central theme to his piece makes anything substantial he has to say look flimsy. It isn’t a crime for a company to make money, yet the author holds this up as the most damning thing of relevance to his argument. Colwill could’ve given himself more wiggle room by saying things with Steam could be better. Accusing the platform of being “not healthy for gaming” is a definitive diagnosis, and should’ve been examined with a more serious amount of scrutiny than it was.
Within the opening hook of this article, Tim tries and associate Valve with companies like Uber, Lyft, and Fiverr. He attempts to paint these two separate things as both “connection and services” platforms powered by impromptu employees that lack the same standard of rights as everyone else. According to Tim, PC gamers would never want these sorts of corporations seize power, and resist to stop them as much as possible.
And yet, that sort of operation is exactly what the PC gaming community has been supporting, promoting and defending since 2004 when Valve more or less forced us to install Steam by bundling it with Half-Life 2.
If you wanted a taste of the far reach Colwill goes in this piece, there you go. Somehow Steam is the same thing as Uber and Lyft. That’s a silly analogy. Tim tries to make Steam Workshop suffice as an example in one of the sections of this piece, but again it doesn’t hold water. Those car services don’t need to worry about the types of vehicles in their employ, I’m pretty sure they’ll take whatever has wheels. But Steam has a need to consider the community and industry on both the consumer and developer level.
Responding to Behind the Smile
Tim describes Valve as a soulless corporation that thinks of customers as meaningless numbers. He glosses over the series of first-party titles that the company has produced and points to memes as something that puts the public off their guard. Back in 2010 and as recent as November 2016, Gabe Newell and Valve staff indeed responded to emails. Earning them the admiration of the public on forums.
The February 2017 article linked by Tim goes to “Valve is being investigated by the European Commission over ‘suspected anti-competitive practices'” over on PC Gamer. Used as evidence that Valve is not-so-good, this article deals with Bandai Namco, Capcom, Focus Home, Koch Media and ZeniMax having an arrangement with Valve that gamers need to check their game copies with Steam in order to prove legitimacy. This anti-piracy measure (referred to within the document as geo-blocking) is being considered as a restriction on trade and the investigation into it concerns about the availability of cheaper options in other member states of the EU. Our dear Polygon author reduces that whole ordeal to a throwaway remark. Simply remarking “cold and corporate beast” as a descriptor of Valve instead of at least acknowledging this point of intrigue.
Get used to it. Tim Colwill’s article is like a tour bus that doesn’t actually stop anywhere. It’s nothing more than a vehicle going from A to B, straight to its end destination.
Tim goes on to assert that Valve is running an operation that uses “Good Guy Valve” as a marketing mask that allows it to exploit the free labor and goodwill of users and consumers.
Pointing back to Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike he uses a quote from ExtremeTech in 2004 about the intentions behind the platform.
In an unusual first for PC games, Half-Life 2 will require some form of Internet access upon installation, Valve Software’s Doug Lombardi confirmed today.
“All versions require an Internet connection upon installation” to prove the legitimacy of a player’s copy, Lombardi said. “This is for authentication/anti-piracy purposes. Once this has been completed, the owner of either the retail or the Steam version can play Half-Life 2 single player in offline mode.”
Finally mentioning Left 4 Dead and Team Fortress 2 by name, Tim suggests that these were further hooks into the PC gamer’s life – creating this symbiotic bond between Valve and the community. Little does Tim realize he fed his own counterargument when he linked this piece talking with Jason Holtman in January 2009. As the director of business development and Valve’s legal affairs, he made a remark that “pirates are under-served customers” and that the company’s Steam system was ahead of the curve on DRM.
Tim Colwill touches on some major points (while not backing them up) that Steam holds a “near monopoly” on the PC gaming industry when it comes to sales. Except there’s a host of viable choices otherwise in today’s market. But unlike nearly all of the other options out there, Valve doesn’t have to worry about obligations to shareholders. Which is a defining feature of these sorts of “evil corporations” Tim is trying to say Steam are operated by.
When it comes to understanding market share for digital distribution platforms, the availability of specifics is hard to come by. In addition to that the sheer volume of data involved can make drastic changes on a yearly basis. According to Brad Wardell of Stardock, Steam had an estimated 70% of the overall market back in 2009. But that chunk is only defined by the scope of the amount of competitors at play. In 2017, the average consumer has access to more options and opportunities for platforms when it comes to buying PC games. GOG became famous as the DRM-free alternative to Steam. Amazon has the capacity to deliver on a similar scope and volume as Steam sales do, and their ownership of Twitch gives them a viable broadcasting platform to stoke up that kind of interest. They’ve even got that Lumberyard game engine project underway. In recent years big AAA publishers like Ubisoft, Rockstar, and Bethesda have released their own product launchers – pushing back that sphere of Steam’s influence little by little.
But that’s another overlooked point in Colwill’s article. He acts as if Steam isolates itself to only buying and selling PC games. The reality of it is there’s much more to the platform than that.
First off, let’s knock out of the way the console market. Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo have their digital distribution platforms set up as closed systems when it comes to their products. You buy a PS4/Xbox One/Switch game to run on that designated console, and every legitimate product at some point has to go through their approval. It’s how console exclusives are able to exist.
(Side-Note: Companies like Microsoft have toyed around with this concept in recent years. People reading this can probably recall the feeling of disappointment when Microsoft said Quantum Break was coming to PC. That double-edged sword didn’t just cut into the hearts of Xbox enthusiasts, but anyone interested in the PC version would have to wrestle with the fact it launched exclusively on the Windows Store. The resulting technical issues involved with that make pain-in-the-butt an understatement.)
Secondly, the act of buying a PC game and experiencing it is a process. It’s more than the individual act of hitting the purchase button. Normally, people like to check out reviews before buying so they can make a more informed decision. Steam’s extended focus on this aspect of their storefront has been made abundantly clear these past few years. Discounts and sales happen on a regular basis, with Steam being one of the leading platforms that make this best known to the consumer. It’s hard to miss when it’s splashed right in front of you on the front page. Steam and other distribution platforms have to push out updates to purchases on a necessary basis too. How easy and natural of a process is that for Steam? Compared to the other platforms. What about the act of giving your friends gifts?
The truth is Steam is fighting for dominance in some departments. Their interests in the virtual reality gaming scene has emerged in recent years as they vie to compete with things like the Oculus and Playstation VR. Steam’s Big Picture Mode is one of the stepping stones Valve has taken to try and get some attention in your living room. Things like Steam link make it a snap. They’ve essentially evaporated the barriers when it comes to controllers, allowing you to improvise with Playstation and Xbox hardware or trying out Valve’s own take on the device. I suggest Tim Colwill looks at Steam’s hardware page to see all of this when he gets the chance. Steam Machines run SteamOS. That’s a Linux based operating system. If Valve has a monopoly, the amount of time and attention they give Linux would certainly seem like an eccentric choice. Or is it? Can you say these sorts of opportunities are available for the other distribution platforms?
While the vast plethora of PC gaming titles to choose from in 2017 is magnificent, it’s certainly not the only thing involved in the experience. It’s about the features being on-hand to begin with. As far as I know, GOG doesn’t have hardware or a workshop for modders to upload their content. EA’s Origin has PCs, of course. But yet again their distribution platform doesn’t consistently hit the same marks as Steam.
Nobody is forcing you to use Steam. It is an option. Given the pool of available ones it manages to garner the most public appeal.
Responding to Get ‘em While They’re Young
It’s all about intent. Tim uses Origin as an example to this section.
A quote Tim uses from Geek.com explains that Valve had become the mainstay when it came to digital distribution, and that EA’s Origin was the first to offer a feasible competitor of sorts. But this point would become moot if all the big gaming companies ended up taking up this route in a few years time.
You can undercut this whole section when you consider the timing at which Valve first introduced their Steam platform and when EA introduced first brought Origin online. Apples to oranges is the common terminology used in these sorts of situations, but Tim is apt enough to dance around that fact.
He even uses an example from a 2015 Giantbomb forum post to attempt and push his argument as such.
It seems like the only redeeming feature of Origin is all the free stuff they give away. Getting the Titanfall DLC for free was great and same with some old classic PC games like Wing Commander. But when you step back and look at the situation, it just doesn’t make sense. They are giving away games, refunding the broken ones, and trying to manage all of this through a poorly designed digital game service. It only makes sense when you remember that EA is a greedy company that just wants more money and more power, which they seem to lust after in an almost blinded like fashion.
It’s a good thing that Tim sources his quote because there’s two whole paragraphs of information that he left out, painting a more reasonable picture of circumstances. In the two paragraphs proceeding, this user had lamented about how he was on the phone with customer service to activate a Battlefield 4 demo. He compares Valve’s digital platform with EA’s Origin as an issue of greed. Stacking on top of this user’s issues is the fact that Dragon Age: Inquisition was having technical issues that made it unplayable to the user, and he was thankful that Origin was able to give him a full refund (while also using that as a reason to place the blame on Origin, rather than Bioware because “fuck it”). Tim completely omitted this fact because it’d hurt his argument at this point. He wants you to think gamers thought Valve was seen as ultimate good and Origin was an ultimate evil, but there’s more nuance to this than that.
Tim closes out the section by saying these pieces of evidence demonstrate the “Steam Good, Origin Bad” mentality. But he again makes the implication that, somehow, what Valve’s forced-DRM system in 2004 era Steam is evil. Again I’m going to emphasize the fact that people actually praised Origin’s refund policy back then. Does Tim remember when EA didn’t offer refunds for SimCity back in 2013? If he recalls the meltdown that happened at the launch of that game, he would’ve realized the public’s concerns weren’t unfounded when it came to EA’s stance on that. They were elated at the fact a refund policy was put in place after that disaster.
The bottom line here is that this section tries to imply that 2004 era Steam is the same sort of product as Origin when they launched in 2011. EA was founded in May 1982 and launched Origin in June 2011. 29 years later. Valve was founded in August 1996 and Steam was first launched September 2003. Seven years later. If this is an argument about intent as it applies to the companies who launched these platforms – the perspective of Valve in 2003 is going to differ greatly from the experiences of 2011 EA. Moreover, that eight year difference between the launch of these two different distribution systems is incredibly relevant when considering the state of the gaming industry as it applies to these particular moments of time. Hell, technology on its own made a leap between those years. We’re talking when the 3rd generation original iPod came out (2003) jumping to iPhone 4’s launch (2011).
The world nor the game industry stayed in the same place for that. Neither did Valve. They had eight years of building that platform and earning the audience for it. What Tim fails to understand is that Valve was a small company that released a small platform, then expanded. Any early technological hiccups or bumps in the road are harder to notice at that point.
Let’s go over the history of Steam as seen in the Valve Employee Handbook.
In 2003, Valve released Steam as a means of easily updating their core titles. There was a focus on preventing cheating at work too, as back in 2002 they had finalized their original VAC (Valve Anti-Cheat) system. Protection of their intellectual property was certainly in mind back at this time because in the same year Steam was launched, the source code for Half-Life 2 was stolen. 2004 was when Half-Life 2 was launched, powered using the Source engine. Half-Life 2 becomes one of the first games to be released both via Steam and retail stores. 2005 was the first time that third-party titles came onto Steam’s distribution platform. By 2007 not only did Half-Life 2: Episode Two come out via The Orange Box, Steam had been taking off swimmingly. It reached 15 million active users with over 200 games available to play. The community feature is added to help gamers connect online and socialize using the platform. 2008 launched Steamworks, making the business and technical aspects of Steam accessible to third-party developers. 20 million active users and over 500 games on the platform. 2009 – indie games first got downloadable content updates, and Team Fortress 2 was updating more rapidly. Hats are introduced. The new Steam Cloud system offers online storage for game files. 25 million users and over 1000 games.
That’s how Valve really did it. Evolving with the ever-changing needs of the gaming industry. A small company that had time to expand and perfect their platform is objectively better off than the large company who dips their toe into the waters for the first. Even then – do you think people liked Steam back in the mid 2000s? What about Games for Windows Live? Remember that? Lesser of two evils.
By 2010 and 2011, Valve had moved into their Washington offices. Valve had plans to get Steam running on Macs. DOTA 2 arrives among the fanfare of what would become an annual championship showdown.
A lot can happen in 8 years. Valve’s reason for making Steam is in a whole different way of thinking when compared to Electronic Art’s reason for Origin.
Responding to “No sale, no ownership, no refunds”
“We all eventually discovered that our close, personal and entirely fictional relationship with Valve did not entitle us to any kind of refund on our purchases,” Tim says. Ignoring the fact that people buy games on the platform in exchange for currency in order to make his piece have edge.
But it took the better part of a decade for enough people to start noticing that Steam’s refund policy wasn’t so much a “policy” as the words “eat shit and die” printed in huge size 72 font and to start raising hell about it.
What the earliest Steam refund policy terminology actually stated in September 2008 was a capitalized “ALL STEAM FEES ARE PAYABLE IN ADVANCE AND ARE NOT REFUNDABLE IN WHOLE OR IN PART,” while then going on to describe the details in normal sized text.
For the first decade of the Steam platform’s existence, the concept of a refund policy wasn’t there. This is true. But then he says something misleading when it comes to consumer recourse. “Steam never provided that luxury, and it still doesn’t,” Tim writes in his piece implying that the platform doesn’t have a refund policy whatsoever. They do. It was launched in June 2015. Tim DOES mention this when he finishes this section by making a note of the fact that Valve’s refund program had a default “Steam credit” option that makes the company the ultimate victor over the consumer no matter what.
He should have clarified that a bit more.
It’s also worth noting that Steam store credit isn’t the ONLY available option. An entire page on the refunds section of the site is dedicated to listing the refund options via credit card providers and other formats available in my country. “Some payment methods available through Steam do not support refunding a purchase back to the original payment method. For these purchases, refunds can only be issued to the user’s Steam Wallet,” it says on the page.
When it comes to their current stance in general, the introductory paragraphs lay it out.
You can request a refund for nearly any purchase on Steam—for any reason. Maybe your PC doesn’t meet the hardware requirements; maybe you bought a game by mistake; maybe you played the title for an hour and just didn’t like it.
It doesn’t matter. Valve will, upon request via help.steampowered.com, issue a refund for any reason, if the request is made within fourteen days of purchase, and the title has been played for less than two hours. There are more details below, but even if you fall outside of the refund rules we’ve described, you can ask for a refund anyway and we’ll take a look.
You will be issued a full refund of your purchase within a week of approval. You will receive the refund in Steam Wallet funds or through the same payment method you used to make the purchase. If, for any reason, Steam is unable to issue a refund via your initial payment method, your Steam Wallet will be credited the full amount.
Below in the “Where Refunds Apply” subsections, Tim makes it sound as if Valve would have a complex list of jargon ready to spew out at you. But they lay it out straightforward in a comprehensible format for the average consumer.
To skewer the knife into Tim’s argument further – let’s compare Origin’s refund policy to Steam. First launched in August 2013 (months after the SimCity launch incident) and last updated in March 2016.
- It boils down to a seven day window if you have not launched the game, with that window applying to the release date itself if you had pre-ordered it beforehand. Seven days shrinks into 24 hours after you launch it for the first time. If you bought the game within 30 days of release and there’s technical issues on EA’s side of things, that 24 hour window jumps to 72 hours.
- On Steam, as stated above, it’s within fourteen days of purchase and if the title has been played for less than two hours.
Steam, Origin, and other major platforms like GOG and Uplay are available on this handy chart below.
I didn’t intend to jump around, but Tim’s self defeating argument made it apparently necessary to do so. When talking about the path to Steam’s refund program, Tim mentions that gamers complained to authorities about the extent of consumer law as it applies to entitlement and refunds. Colwell cites user posts and links to a PDF document citing this as justification that Valve was breaking EU law, but fails to see that same documentation actually works in Valve’s favor to the opposite (further backed elsewhere). By March 2015 Valve had restricted that 14-day period for refunding. They acknowledged that consumers in the EU “have the right to withdraw from a purchase transaction for digital content without charge and without giving any reason for a duration of fourteen days,” but that right to refund had ceased when “performance of its obligations has begun,” or to put it simply, when content is purchased and sent to the buyer’s PC. This is all mentioned in the earlier paragraphs of the section. Shoved in at the end of this is Valve’s current refund policy page when it applies to the EU. What Tim describes as “pouty” actually alludes to the consumer friendly policies offered beyond what EU law demands. Again something that works against Tim’s favor. He fails to mention that Steam provides the detailed required legal instructions for EU folks as necessary, walking them through that mandate.
Wrapped up in all of this is a court battle between Valve and “Australian Competition and Consumer Commission” (ACCC) which went on from 28 August 2014 to 23 December 2016. The full case file is available here. Tim does not adequately explain what this case is about. His terminology “the ongoing, inevitably damning case against it” is vague at best when describing the fact this case was about addressing Valve’s refund policies between 1 January 2011 and 28 August 2014 (Kotaku inaccurately claims 2015 is involved in that). Prefacing this, in Valve’s defense it can be said that most large companies in the modern age had no idea what to define digital goods when refunds are concerned. See Electronic Arts and Origin as a point of reference.
It would’ve benefited the Polygon article if the author had analyzed the overall proceedings.
But that’s not what Tim gave us.
He mentions in particular here is points of confidential information that Valve didn’t want disclosed to the public:
(1) Valve’s worldwide gross revenue from all sources for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (up to 1 June 2015) (interrogatory 11);
(2) Valve’s worldwide net profit from all sources for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (up to 1 June 2015) (interrogatory 12);
(3) Valve’s estimated net profit from purchases (subscriptions) by Australian Subscribers to Valve’s video games and third party games for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (up to 1 June 2015) (interrogatory 13); and
(4) Valve’s estimated gross revenue from purchases (subscriptions) by Australian Subscribers to Valve’s video games and third party games for 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 (up to 1 June 2015) (interrogatory 14).
This is where it gets a little confusing. Tim cites a June 2016 confidentiality judgement and a November 2016 one. In November 2016 Valve’s application to keep this under wraps was dismissed by Judge Edelman. Tim characterized it as the Judge had “issued the most politely worded legalese version of “go to hell” that anybody has ever committed to paper,” when the reality of it isn’t so extreme.
The overall argument on Valve’s side was that making private financial details public would have an impact on the deals made with business partners. By revealing the profitability of Steam as a platform, the negotiation process would be influenced in a way Valve believes to be unnecessary. What Tim fails to describe is the fact that the first reason the application was dismissed is because it was redundant. The confidential information was already restricted and couldn’t be accessed without leave. If a third party were to try and inspect these documents Valve would’ve had the chance to submit why inspection permits shouldn’t be granted. The second reason says Valve’s proposal was unusual, saying the Court would have to to go out of its way to provide reasons for their judgements or this confidential information being published prior to it happening. Thirdly, Valve wanted the media bound to the confidentiality orders despite the fact none were mentioned as a party in the proceedings. Fourthly, the Judge said it might’ve not even been necessary to refer to specific profit numbers in her response.
“Courts are sensitive to the commercial concerns of litigants. Simply because a respondent is found to have contravened provisions of particular legislation is not a sufficient reason for its private, commercial information to be disclosed,” the response says.
But Edelman goes on to state that information might’ve not even be entirely confidential in the first place.
That context is relevant when discussing what Tim wrote in his Polygon piece.
“Even without examining the details of Valve’s net profits, it is very difficult to see how any disclosure that Valve is a highly profitable business will come as a great surprise to any fraudster, third party game developer, potential business partner, patent troll, or supplier,” Judge Edelman wrote. “There are related matters to profitability that are already public information, which were discussed without any suggestion of confidentiality in the liability hearing. Those matters include that Valve has approximately 2.2 million subscriber accounts in Australia and that it operates in many countries worldwide.”
The problem with that is he cites the June 2016 judgement which the Judge and Valve both admitted was premature. At no point is that distinction made in the Polygon piece, which previously cited the Judge’s November 2016 response as extreme. The Judge even reiterates some of the reasons mentioned in June 2016 once more in points five through seven of their November 2016 list. But even in the June 2016 document there’s mention of the fact that restricted information would not be available to third parties without Valve’s opportunity to have a say in the matter.
But Tim can’t bother to keep it straight in his effort to find the most potent language between these two judgements. All it does is unnecessarily confuse the reader. Was Valve trying to keep their profitability from being known to the public? Evidently. But it wasn’t done out of malice or greed as Tim of Polygon is trying to imply. Rather, as indicated in these two judgements on confidentiality, it was done out of precaution.
At least the author of this Polygon piece manages to cite the final press release somewhat clearly.
January 3rd 2017:
Justice Edelman also took into account “Valve’s culture of compliance [which] was, and is, very poor”. Valve’s evidence was ‘disturbing’ to the Court because Valve ‘formed a view … that it was not subject to Australian law … and with the view that even if advice had been obtained that Valve was required to comply with the Australian law the advice might have been ignored”. He also noted that Valve had ‘contested liability on almost every imaginable point’.
Tim calls this “damning” against Valve. But is it? Tim and Judge Edelman both have something in common. They’ve both taken only a fraction of what they’ve seen of Valve’s operations as a means of making a generalized conclusion on that basis. He couldn’t even properly say there were two different confidentiality judgements, much less go over the proceedings (again a full list is available right here) with a bit of thought.
For anyone who wants to read the final judgement for the ACCC vs Valve case, you can do so here. Tim is right when he says it helped define precedent for digital software as “goods,” but how was Valve (or anyone) supposed to have known that for sure before this case?
Responding to Shut Up and Take My Free Labor
One of the shortest sections that Tim has in his Polygon piece, which he opens by describing Steam’s sale events as the paramount example of the “lopsided and abusive relationship” between Valve and consumers. He starts by talking about the jokes, memes, and talk about how wallets are sucked dry happen routinely during these times of the year.
The example video mentioned by Tim Colwill is fine if you want an amateur product. However, YouTubers like AncientReality stepped the skill ceiling up and added some master craftsmanship to their editing.
But then he uses that as a means of saying that people are giving Valve free marketing for Steam as a platform via this method. Tim says “Good Guy Valve” deceives the public when it paints itself as this modest figure in gaming that people feel good spreading the word about. I don’t think Valve had any involvement in orchestrating the “memes” for their Steam sales.
Whipping out an old quote:
“We have this kind of shared desire to build these types of entertainment experience, and everyone contributes in some way,” Newell said. “Someone running a server out of their home using a DSL line on their PC is being philanthropic, but we’re colleagues of all of these people and that’s what game design needs to be.”
Tim takes this Gabe Newell quote from a November 2007 interview as a means of justifying his description of Valve’s relationship to gamers. While we do various things on social media “our good friend Valve does the rest. The rest meaning taking our money,” Tim writes.
To use Gabe’s optimistic words from a decade ago works against Tim’s entire argument. It may come as a surprise to Tim: but there’s a cost associated with putting data on a server, holding it on that platform, and acting as a means of distributing that to consumers across the globe.
Let’s discuss the relationship between Steam, the developers, and the consumers in more detail.
In the period of time before Valve and Steam came around (or digital distribution in general), the act of making a video game was confined to this. For the first few years, we’ve got Game Development Team making a product from the ground up. Development has to worry about not just the mechanics and technical details of making things run, but they’ve got to put these things in a compelling package of a story and make sure the experience is entertaining. That’s going to eat up a lot of their time. But there’s more work to do. When it comes to marketing and retail arrangements, Game Publisher has to sort all that out. While Development is making the product, Publisher has to spread the word with media and press that it exists. Publisher has to cobble together a physical package with a manual, box, and CD and make these units to ship to retail. Finally the developer has to sit around and wait for a consumer to pick the game off the shelf and buy it from whatever GameStop or Best Buy (etc.) to take home. You can read about this in more detail over on IGN in “The Economics of Game Publishing” by Ralph Edwards.
That share of the profits gets cut accordingly. A little under half (around 40%) goes to these guys. The publisher gets his pound of flesh. It’s safe to say that would be more than half of the remainder, given the amount of work it took in getting the developer’s idea out to the public.
Steam and digital distribution changes the game. That system I just described above is obliterated thanks to the magic of the internet. A developer now has the opportunity and accessibility to create a game from scratch at home with these gaming engines at their fingertips (we’ll get to that in more detail shortly). Essentially the point of the publisher’s existence is nullified. Social media and word-of-mouth advertising supplement the exposure just being on Steam’s platform to begin with allows. YouTubers seek out new and unknown gaming experiences for the sake of entertaining their audiences with Let’s Plays. A golden shower of free marketing. When it comes to hauling a product to retail? Now it’s nothing more than a few button clicks away. Distribution and retail are all-in-one, readily available for the consumer from the comfort of their home.
That Valve takes 30% cut bit in Colwill’s piece doesn’t sound as greedy and terrible as he makes it out to be in retrospect.
Let’s go deeper.
Take into account this chart from Steam Spy (released November 30th 2016) and you’ll quickly realize a glaring omission from the author of the Polygon article.
Tim Colwill does not mention Steam’s Greenlight process at any point in this entire piece. Given the amount of substantial impact it has created over the past five years of PC gaming – it makes this article incomplete as far as Tim’s attempt to depict Valve goes. It doesn’t matter if it paints Valve in a good or negative light. To entirely omit Steam Greenlight is an injustice to whatever point the author is trying to make.
The process is simple. A prospective developer pays a $100 submission fee to get their game submitted to the Steam Greenlight section of the platform. Users in the community then upvote these game submissions as a means of expressing general interest in the products they liked. Valve would then see these indications and reach out to the developer in order to get the ball rolling on formally setting up their title in Steam’s storefront. The first game to go through Valve’s Greenlight gauntlet was a title by the name of McPixel. It sort of fits the idealistic example that the company wanted to set for their intentions in this whole thing. They weren’t all winners. Towns managed to get onto Steam in November 2012 despite being unfinished. By May 2014 it ended up formally abandoned by the developers.
The hands-off approach mostly worked out. There were cases like in December 2014 when the controversial Hatred video game (anti-hero protagonist shoots civilians, battles cops) was taken down from Greenlight and then reinstated by Valve directly.
Gabe Newell emailed the developers, apologizing for the incident.
“Hi, Jaroslaw.Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up. My apologies to you and your team. Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers.Good luck with your game.-Gabe.
That’s a pretty direct look into the mindset of Newell and Steam. Tim Colwill’s lack of mention of this is pretty glaring. For that matter, it’s not the only thing we can point to when exhibiting Valve’s style of management as it applies to the Greenlight system. The hiccups and problems were inevitable. As early as October 2013 there was trouble when it came asset flipping concerns after it was revealed 7 Days to Die was removed from Greenlight via DMCA because one of the zombies used was allegedly a direct rip from an asset used in the Killing Floor video game. February 2015 had a recorded instance of Valve staff urging Greenlight submitters to not promise game keys in exchange for votes. Other complaints entailed that developers with a proven track record under the belt seemed to be forced to undergo the same process as new indies when it came to getting games onto the store.
A YouTuber/former Escapist and Destructoid journalist by the name of Jim Sterling is famous for his saga battling the underside of Steam Greenlight’s asset flipping element. In December 2015 the mod Hyrule: Total War had gotten the attention of Sterling’s YouTube channel. Jim sounded highly impressed at the overall presentation of this Steam Greenlight trailer when he talked about it.
One problem. The person who uploaded it wasn’t the same as the person who made it.
Back then, I talked to the mod developer Chasen Lindsey, who was the creator of it and uploaded his project to ModDB. It was purely a passion project that he started back in 2011. Wanting to mesh the Zelda franchise and Real-Time Strategy games together, Chasen intended to release this on ModDB for free to everyone.
Someone else uploaded it without his consent.
“I’ve been following Jim for a few years now and I check on his channel every Monday to watch the Jimquisition. I noticed Hyrule: Total War on his channel. I was pretty stoked and then a few seconds after watching that excitement went the other way, when I realized what was going on. Pretty soon after a lot of my followers were emailing me and messaging me about it. All I know is some person took my mod and tried to get it onto Steam Greenlight. I don’t know who he is or what his intent was. I’ve not been contacted by Valve, Nintendo, Sega, or Creative Assembly as of yet. I attempted to contact Valve about this myself though. I’ve not heard back from Valve, but a DMCA seems to have been filed against the Greenlight page though, so someone is doing something about it.”
By the looks of it, Lindsey never gave up on the project. According to ModDB Hyrule: Total War version 4.5 was uploaded back in March of this year.
Sterling’s run-in with Digital Homicide first started in 2014 and ended up spiraling into a legal battle that wouldn’t get resolved until 2017. The founders, James and Oliver Romine, didn’t take too kindly to Jim Sterling’s style of critique on YouTube. November 1st 2014, Sterling had spotlighted the Digital Homicide game Slaughtering Grounds on his YouTube channel. His words weren’t sugar-coated. By November 2nd, the developers had returned fire at Jim, and Jim himself would respond to that. This hate-hate relationship continued through July 2015 and into October of that year. By March 2016 Sterling would unload on Digital Homicide once more as the company had come under fire for their development practices. In regards to eighteen different Steam titles, many of them were released with only weeks of time difference between. Making up for that was the allegation that stolen assets were involved to cut down on production hours.
In September 2016 James filed to sue to reveal the identities of 100 different Steam users who left negative feedback on Digital Homicide’s web-pages, demanding $18,000,000 in damages from them. It looked like the Judge was actually going to grant some early discovery for this claim of “digital harassment” Romine was allegeding. But on the 16th Valve stepped in, responding by removing Digital Homicide’s games from the storefront.
“Valve has stopped doing business with Digital Homicide for being hostile to Steam customers,” Valve’s Doug Lombardi told TechRaptor.
The reality of it is Valve’s capacity of intervention when it’s needed most is something that separates them from EA or Ubisoft. A copy of the proceedings is still available online for anyone who wants to look over what happened for themselves. But it’s best to hear it told from people directly involved. When the legal matters were finally put to rest in February 2017, Sterling went over the ordeal.
But this isn’t about Jim. This is about Tim. The guy in the Polygon piece that wants to paint Valve as an evil conglomerate built on the backs of user’s gratitude, acquired by supposedly deceptive means. His lack of mentioning Steam’s Greenlight system is removing a crucial component of the public’s memory of the platform. There were major flaws and faults, as you can see. But at the end of it all – Steam Greenlight managed to open up the door to Indie game studios en masse. The ease of access that an average aspiring developer has to getting their game on a global stage via this system is unparalleled. The world got to see and experience things like Papers, Please as a result. There was nothing on that level of scope quite like it for a good long time and in 2017 most other companies haven’t caught up yet. The only close enough example to this would be something like GOG’s program. To see a portion of the more inspired projects that passed through the system over the years, I recommend watching Jesse Cox’s YouTube series about them.
On February 10th 2017, Valve made it clear they knew it was time to overhaul things from the ground up. “Evolving Steam” revealed their intention of replacing Steam Greenlight with a new system titled Steam Direct.
It’s in this rare moment we get some insight into how successful it really was.
“There are now over 100 Greenlight titles that have made at least $1 Million each, and many of those would likely not have been published in the old, heavily curated Steam store,” the post from Valve says.
According to the company post (by someone named Alden) it was that sort of business potential which created a need for something less inherently flawed in its foundation. Alden emphasized it was clear to Valve that Greenlight showed them what the company needed to do. Their path forward was redoing the content pipeline and better connecting consumers to their desired types of content. The post goes on to tell the public a lot of work was already done behind the curtain in order to achieve these goals: Steamworks developer publishing tools were revamped, discovery updates are more visible, and user tags, reviews, curators, and a streamlined refund process had been a part of this overall objective. As for the future, Steam Direct’s debut in Spring 2017 is aimed to replace Greenlight altogether. New developers have to be vetted on a personal or company basis, along with submitting paperwork and tax documents to set up themselves for Steam transactions. A (recoverable) application fee is applied for each new title a developer desires to distribute, but Valve said they were reaching out to game studios and developers to get feedback before setting an agreeable amount.
That’s essentially what Steam Greenlight is. Tim Colwill didn’t bother to mention any of that. If we humor his argument that Valve blindly just takes people money in return for free labor? Data management isn’t free. There’s an amount of work involved on the platform’s end that Tim just skirts over completely.
Not even mentioning the Greenlight program seems strange to me given the fact Colwill mentions Steam Workshop in the next section.
Responding to A Beautiful Friendship, Where We Work for Free
Tim uses this section to spotlight the Steam Workshop. In 2011 they opened it up to 3D Artists and other creators who made skins and items for Team Fortress 2, Dota 2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. This allowed them to get 25 percent of the profits off of any items they sold via this system. By 2015 they had paid out $57 million to these aspiring makers (which means Valve made $171 million) for setting up a means of submitting 3D models. He characterizes this relationship between Valve and Steam Workshop creators as “speculative work,” any job where a buyer expects to see finished examples before paying a fee or compensation.
This is where I would list the alternative viable marketplaces for mod makers to profit off their work. If there was any. Patreon? Maybe. But the anonymous Reddit account of Workshop artists Tim Colwill uses as a point of reference have nothing but praise for the way things were set-up in terms of the environment. This group acknowledges a systematic appeal to the way Valve has arranged things, which in itself counters the argument of speculative work Tim alludes to.
Yet this is the only part of Tim’s entire article that I would be willing to concede has a point somewhere. It’s largely because this section is backed with a source that’s directly involved in the situation described. That’s the thing here. If Tim Colwill had less hot air and more backing to his claims, there wouldn’t be a need for a response piece like this. What this anonymous Workshop artist mentions is that had slashed DOTA 2 royalties for creators from their original 25% down to around 5% to 7%, with no given reason from Valve. Despite tripling output, this Workshop artist was ultimately making less money in recent weeks. Allegedly this anonymous creator was making tens of thousands of dollars in profits back in his better days. When reflecting on Valve’s involvement, Tim mentions Valve’s tool and technical support were immaculate, despite the brick wall Valve put around anything involving finances. Tim suggests there’s a correlation of some kind.
Tim makes it appear the circumstances that these Workshop artists found themselves in happened much more quickly than it did. The unraveling of it was provided in this post from the anonymous collective account mentioned by Tim himself in his piece.
Tim Colwill didn’t even need to look that far to find more information about what was going on, all he needed to do was dig a little more.
In the Fall of 2015 after the TI5 event, Valve revealed three major tournaments would take place leading up to TI6. Collective said the modding community was excited because that meant more opportunities to sell their goods. In the days that followed this announcement, Valve sent out an email. The community was told their revenue split changed from 25% to 12.5%. Yet the accompanying changes in this new system were seen as generally positive all-around in this new structure that the Majors had. The artist’s works were included in the Battle Pass (as quest rewards and level-up gifts) in addition to the treasure chests. ALL the artists got a slice of this 12.5% profit share no matter what because everything got thrown into a central money pool. In this way, the incoming revenue to these mod artists was evened out in a way to deal with the sales frequency that took place during these Majors tournaments. No longer did it matter when your item would show up in a chest (people tended to buy less chests later on) because of this pool system of compensation. Collective says the only downsides to this system were declines in available opportunities. If a modder artist didn’t get their items in one of the DOTA Major events, they were out of luck in terms of getting any income for the next few months.
Trouble brewed on the horizon. Collective says invites to TI6 came out at the last possible minute, and there was nothing on the slate for Workshop content during the Key Arena.
The frustrated artist says something to that effect, based on what he was seeing.
“More experienced game artists, especially those at an AAA level, now find that the workshop is not worth their time anymore (and that’s in light of the fact that it already was a big gamble before),” they add. “This means that the quality of the items will naturally go down. It feels like many of Valve’s decisions, really: short term profit for them, but it screws over the long term viability of everyone else.”
Tim goes on to press this angle. The revenue from DOTA 2’s Battle Passes and Compendiums has Valve taking 75% with 25% going into the prize pool. $20,770,460 in 2016 means the company takes away a cool $60 million easily. Colwill emphasizes the huge attraction of The International event and says DOTA 2 is a massively popular game, yet conversely these artists were getting paid much less with Valve being skiddish as to their replies how the money was managed.
This is good, Tim. Don’t lose this train of thought.
He goes on to say that Valve promised Item creators back in September 2013 would get a share of the profits when their items were resold on the community market.
“Many items have been removed from the store. These can now be sold and bought on the Steam Community Market! Workshop contributors will receive a share of each resale of their items. The items that have been removed are not immortal: they may return to the store in future sales or events, or they may appear in the drop list from time to time”
Tim Colwill says that Valve hasn’t delivered on that promise, saying any response they would give to his request for comment would be a lie. In concluding this section, Colwill stacks on with the broad characterizations again. Damn it. We were so close to something here. Tim suggests his artist source had to remain anonymous because of an overarching culture of fear in their community, pointing to an anonymous Reddit account made by a group of these folks as evidence to that. He asks the artist what rights to the outcome he had in his relationship with Valve. The artist replies with “None,” as that is his belief.
Jumping back to the Workshop artists post we get additional context to what’s going on (that Tim should have mentioned). Valve made the modders stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to opportunities. By Fall 2016, Collective said artists were essentially forced to agree to these conditions if they wanted any hope of seeing items get in-game. The little wiggle room for negotiation was the same, but it didn’t matter to them up to this point because the agreement had worked out in the past. At the end of the Fall 2016 Major when sales data was made available to the modder artists, they were greeted with a sharp decline in their numbers. After looking it over in closer detail, they realized that the artists were no longer being compensated for Battle Pass sales. According to Collective, they can confirm Valve had intentionally did this.
That’s an important aspect to all of this. I’m just writing this sentence so you can soak that in a bit more. Tim didn’t sufficiently explain that part at all.
The artists argue that not being compensated for Battle Pass sales doesn’t make sense given the fact their creations are a cornerstone feature of the system. Moreover, you needed to buy a Battle Pass before you could buy any treasure chests. Which is what was left of the revenue these modder artists would ever see. This is where the 6% figure Colwill mentions in his piece comes from. This concern continued through the sale of Winter 2017 Battle Passes, with a reduction of the treasure chests from 4 to 3 and decline in overall sales being very bad news for the viability of the Steam Workshop modder community.
The debate isn’t whether or not “Valve is greedy and evil,” but instead about if the Battle Pass system was fair in the first place. As well as the overall inherit value that the Pass has in comparison to the modder artists who contributed skins to it.
When it comes to the lack of answers as it applies to skin resales, there’s one BIG GIGANTIC THING that answers Colwill’s question as to why Valve’s not talking about profits.
To preface this, it needs to be explained what the online operation known as CS:GO Lotto is in itself. To put it bluntly – CS:GO Lotto was a form of online gambling. As it was known in the days leading up to a big controversy in the Summer of 2016, CS:GO Lotto and other websites of similar intent were dens that allowed gamers to gather together and pool their in-game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive skins for betting purposes. The skins have no monetary value whatsoever as-is, but they are separately bought and sold for money on the Steam marketplace. These skins vary in rarity – meaning the more uncommon of a skin gets a higher price tag.
Everything came to a head on July 3rd 2016 when a YouTuber named H3H3Productions made a comprehensible video laid out the situation in a way the public could easily digest (the original reporter HonorTheCall first discussed his findings in late June) and pushed the conversation to the forefront of the gaming community’s attention. Describing it as a practice that had been going on for the past few years at that point, H3 cites a Bloomberg article that claims $2.3 billion in CS:GO skin gambling had taken place in 2015. The items being traded were a variety of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive guns and accessories that had different types of cosmetic looks to them. These are normally obtained via opening a crate with a key that costs $2.50 to purchase from Valve. H3 makes the comparison that this standard crate opening process is presented like a slot machine. In this format, the normal gambling restrictions that prohibit people under 21 from betting on slots don’t apply. Kids can get on the action too.
This environment is the foundation for what CS:GO Lotto types of website are intended for. H3 takes the time to point out a class-action lawsuit was already underway at the time he was making this video in July 2016. Michael John McLeod pursued legal action against Valve on these grounds.
“Valve knowingly allowed, supported, and/or sponsored illegal gambling by allowing millions of Americans to link their Steam accounts to third-party websites such as CSGO Lounge (“Lounge”), CSGO Diamonds (“Diamonds”), and OPSpins (collectively, “unnamed co-conspirators”),” the documents allege. H3 jumps ahead. “Because Valve has helped to create an unregulated, international gambling concern with no oversight that targets teenagers, Plaintiffs and the class have been damaged. This unregulated market is ripe for scams, cheating, fraud and other harms to users.”
This is when key figures ProSyndicate and TmarTn come into the equation. Together they have an influence of over ten million subscribers, making their videos have a sizeable impression and influence on their audience. Both of these gentlemen have CS:GO gambling videos on their YouTube channel, with the subject of them in particular relating to the sizeable sums of money (as determined by the skin’s value) in these gambling matches. Both ProSyndicate and TmarTn engaged in high-stakes gambling (sometimes exceeding $10,000 in value) and act very surprised and elated when the odds are in their favor.
According to publicly available documents – TmarTn and ProSyndicate were the registered owners of the website.
At the time of H3’s video this was all done without these two YouTubers being upfront about their investment and backing of CS:GO Lotto to the public. By controlling the back-end of the website, the legitimacy of their bets is brought into question. Potentially manipulating the outcome of their high-stakes bets for the sake of their videos as a means of advertisement, done deceptively without giving the YouTube viewer relevant information. H3 backs this up with examples of the YouTubers carrying out this plan over the course of weeks and months on their channels. One of the videos by TmarTn is still online as of writing this, so you can see up-close the roundabout advertisement for TmarTn’s site he does.
It’s fairly easy (and tempting) to trail off and dig deeper into both ProSyndicate and TmarTn’s closet of skeletons, but this is about Tim Colwill’s Polygon article, after all. After this initial relevaltion on July 3rd by H3H3 the gaming community was swept up in the whirlwind of this controversy based on the size and scope of it. A YouTuber by the name of Richard Lewis deep dives into that type of discussion if that’s your fancy. ProSyndicate and TmarTn fumbled the ball that was in their court when it came to addressing the matter.
July 13th 2016. Valve addresses the matter directly in a “In-Game Item Trading Update” blog post.
In 2011, we added a feature to Steam that enabled users to trade in-game items as a way to make it easier for people to get the items they wanted in games featuring in-game economies.
Since then a number of gambling sites started leveraging the Steam trading system, and there’s been some false assumptions about our involvement with these sites. We’d like to clarify that we have no business relationships with any of these sites. We have never received any revenue from them. And Steam does not have a system for turning in-game items into real world currency.
These sites have basically pieced together their operations in a two-part fashion. First, they are using the OpenID API as a way for users to prove ownership of their Steam accounts and items. Any other information they obtain about a user’s Steam account is either manually disclosed by the user or obtained from the user’s Steam Community profile (when the user has chosen to make their profile public). Second, they create automated Steam accounts that make the same web calls as individual Steam users.
Using the OpenID API and making the same web calls as Steam users to run a gambling business is not allowed by our API nor our user agreements. We are going to start sending notices to these sites requesting they cease operations through Steam, and further pursue the matter as necessary. Users should probably consider this information as they manage their in-game item inventory and trade activity.
Valve had acknowledged the issue swiftly after it was brought to the public’s attention, and made a vow to act in the consumer’s best interests on-the-spot in the same piece of writing. Not bad for the soulless evil mega-conglomerate that Tim Colwill wants you to think Valve is.
On July 20th they delivered on that cease-and-desist promise, sending this letter to the gambling websites engaging in this practice.
To sum it up briefly. This litigation about CS:GO Lotto which not only involves these two YouTubers, but also Valve, is ongoing. Tim Colwell is making a specific demand for pertinent information that could impact these ongoing legal proceedings between the company and those involved in the class-action lawsuit.
Responding to The Dream Becomes a Nightmare
In these closing arguments, Tim Colwill (finally) mentions the passage of time in a somewhat relevant capacity. He says the next game in the Half-Life 2 series would never see the light of day even 14 years after it debuted, unless it can be used as a bribe to get people to migrate over to a new distribution platform. This “Good Guy” persona reached “Dream Guy” levels according to Tim, when things like internal handbooks are concerned. Although in Valve’s defense they themselves make the intent of it clearly being a means of helping employees integrate into the company culture.
Out of nowhere, Tim decides it’s the perfect opportunity to mention that. Throughout his entire opinion piece he paints a depiction of what he sees as the company to consumer dynamic, whereas in these final paragraphs he condenses the relationship between the employees and management into a paragraph and a screencap.
This could have been where Tim Colwill goes into elaboration on the employee’s perspectives of how the company is running. The presented evidence in his given tweet example describes the experience like a war with the only winners being those who were able to get out with options and opportunities elsewhere. This is a common workplace tale that is not specific to Valve. Shared by many people in the working class. Backed by what? Hear-say and more hear-say that wouldn’t be out of place on a bathroom wall.
That one golden sentence of interest is tucked away. “Oh yeah Valve had a supervisor that allegedly referred to an employee as an “it” there’s this court case,” tends to be one of the things that people want to hear more about.
But alas, Tim instead grasps at the furthest straws in the universe.
In fact, one of her key complaints in that court case is that Valve fired her after she raised concerns that the company was exploiting people who loved their products, in order to provide translation services for free. Sound familiar?
He uses one complaint from one Valve employee as a means of trying to draw a connection between the company’s workplace culture and Valve’s overall business practices. The person in question wasn’t even referring to the same thing Tim is talking about here, instead talking about translation. There’s no value or substance to anything Mr. Cowill has said in this section as it relates to employee culture. You or I as the reader have no grasp on why it’s relevant or not, without having to dig on our own and seek out those facts to interpret on our own time.
Here’s a brief aside to that since Tim Colwill couldn’t bother. The Steam Translation Server was where community translators made localizations for Steam/Valve games like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, DOTA 2, and Team Fortress 2. A poster by the name of Victor was a translator and moderator over at the Spanish team.
In a tell-all Reddit post, he goes over how events unfolded. Victor’s opening allegations are worth sharing verbatim as it relates back to what Tim Colwill made a (much too) brief mention of.
I’m here to bring up a situation that affects a big part of the community: Valve employee Torsten Zabka, also known for being the Head Admin and creator of STS, has been harassing, lying, discrediting, creating an oppressive, intimidating environment, and overall doing questionable things that have finished with several mods being kicked, a strike of the whole Spanish team that’s still going, and another Valve employee being illegally fired for complaining about these unlawful activities. We would like to share the story with you.
To get into it – Victor explains that the STS system was a volunteer program where people who met the quality requirements could contribute without having to sign any NDA or contract. The point of it was to bridge Steam’s games and the community and help them get to as many places on a global scale as possible. Victor tells us he had done translation work for over 2 years by the time of his post, and he had known translators who did work for longer than a decade. He makes it clear this an unpaid position. With just these opening sections alone, it’s clear this whole thing is something that could have backed up Tim’s opinion piece if he had bothered to put in the effort to mention it properly.
Heart-breaking. I even know the perfect spot for it. “Shut Up and Take My Free Labor” was pretty light, and this translation controversy would’ve been sublime right there.
Our pal Victor goes in deep with the rest of his Reddit post. It wasn’t until recent months that the opportunity for STS translators to be promoted to contractors had been opened. Team Spanish hauled their fair share as it’s spoken by 600 million people. Extra precautions were taken to make sure the translations done were understandable. Torsten Zabka (Valve staff in charge of STS) decided the best method of choosing contractors was via a bizarre leveling system that used tokens acquired via translating words and text pieces. For one thing, the implementation of this system set everyone on the team back to square one. None of their past work was considered in regards to becoming a contractor. But secondly, this system was a moot point given the fact that Team Spanish had 100% of their translation work done by that time.
Victor shares screenshot proof of his story.
Spanish Team went above and beyond with what they were willing to do to give back to STS. In an effort to go the extra mile, they began to put together a more user-friendly redesign to the STS interface with a focus on appearance and ease of use. Members of the Spanish group even reached out to other translators in different language teams and get their input. A teammate named MaTa was coordinating the effort, and had the programming skills necessary to get a functional prototype in presentable condition to show to Torsten and Valve. You can take a look for yourself at what they envisioned.
Torsten didn’t share the same sentiments and optimism as Victor and Team Spanish.
Torsten was working on a different STS overhaul project of his own. He contacted Victor’s mate Caja and accused Team Spanish of doing “shady things” behind his back. Victor says Team Spanish made the effort to reach out to Torsten and get him in the loop on their project, but he shot that down. The potential for a misunderstanding between Torsten and Team Spanish ends up being disproven when a separate ordeal is taken into account. Team Spanish had a renegade named Clint. He was a moderator that got expelled because he failed to meet the prerequisites and didn’t maintain solid communication with the rest of the group. When the contractor opportunity for STS came up, Clint was able to horde the tokens by taking advantage of the publishing time (which was 5 PM for Valve but 3 AM for Spain). He had a habit of doing rushed translation work that went as far as marking blog posts “to be done” just so he could snag the tokens. Team Spanish moderators saw this clear manipulation of the system and brought it to the attention of Language Admin/Valve Employee named Ambra. They all had a sit-down with Clint and Team Spanish explained their concerns. Clint said he’d cut the crap out. But his words were empty and he ended up back in his token snagging habits shortly after. Team Spanish voted to kick him out, telling Ambra of their group decision on the matter. When Ambra got in touch with Torsten about this decision, he brushed her off completely.
When Torsten caught wind of Team Spanish’s redesign pet project, MaTa got expelled. Just to elaborate a bit – MaTa had been around helping translate stuff for Valve for 10 years, specialized in a neutral Spanish that wasn’t country dependent for understanding. His duty as coordinator made him in charge of assigning tasks to the rest of Team Spanish and as a result of that diligence he helped maintain quality throughout the group’s product while keeping their spirits high. Torsten saw no reason to expel someone demonstrably going against what was best for the team. But he was more than happy to get rid of someone who appeared to be in the way of his self-interests. According to Victor, Torsten took it personal and accused MaTa of being arrogant.
Ambra (administrator of not only the Spanish team but also the Italian department for STS) ended up getting fired from Valve. She backed Team Spanish’s decision to get rid of Clint, and ended up getting swept away with MaTa in the fallout of Torsten’s fury. Clamoring to try and get an explanation from Torsten or Valve, Team Spanish decided to go on strike and stop their work completely. A few days after doing that, they heard from Ambra’s partner that she was fired from Valve for whistleblowing.
Victor got an unexpected response after reaching out to Valve’s HR Department. “Valve is grateful for your work; however we’ve decided to release all Spanish translation duties from STS,” the message allegedly said. Team Spanish was “no más.” The whole story ends up getting backed by Team Italian in the comments, who had a Torsten drama saga of their own. There was a Team Georgia as well but Torsten turned them down even though they had a complete translation ready to go on the spot. Team Estonia encountered their own bucket of trouble when it came to trying to coordinate translation work.
None of this seemed important enough for Tim Colwill to mention in his Polygon piece. Even though something like Ambra’s wishes for Clint’s removal from STS getting sidelined by Torsten and Ambra’s firing for alleged whistleblowing give the public significant insight into the company’s culture. They don’t even have bosses in the usual sense, either.
He takes his “win” (which is actually a failure to substantiate any discussion value) onward to the conclusion of his piece.
This is the Good Guy everyone seems too afraid to call out, the toxic friend who is so popular that upsetting him will just make things worse for you, so you convince yourself he’s really not that bad and that everyone else is over-reacting. Once the Good Guy illusion has disappeared, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth: Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a “platform that connects gamers to creators.”
In 2012, community members of the 4chan /v/ board gathered together to properly celebrate Gabe Newell’s 50th birthday party by sending him gifts. Click here to see “the brainwashed masses” in action.
That TotalBiscuit tweet in the above picture is relevant because he had a rare inside look at Valve’s studio in March 2017. John Bain and Jim Sterling were personally invited to share their thoughts and perspectives with Valve staff about Steam’s future. They were chosen based on their track record of audience trust and reliability, along with their consistency with staying in-touch to the interests of the consumer. If you want to hear the specifics of that outing, TotalBiscuit uploaded an hour long video sharing everything involved with that. As stated by TB himself, there was an incredible amount of freedom when it came to the information he was allowed to share with the public as a result of this business meeting.
Completely turning Tim Colwill’s narrative upside-down. Valve not only is willing to listen to the consumer, they actively sought out what they considered to be the best representations of their collective interests in order to understand a problem that Valve openly admits they lack all the answers to. By the precedent set within Tim’s opinion piece on what defines transparency, it’s the closest thing to a freshly-cleaned glass window he’s going to get.
He carries out the final sentences in this mess of an opinion piece by hammering in this assertion that Good Guy Valve is psychologically manipulating the public into giving them cash as the company profits off the backs of supposed free labor. While simultaneously condemning Valve for acting in their own self interests when it came to legal matters, based on the hazy gaming industry landscape that Valve was one of the first to venture out into. To belittle 15 years of Gabe Newell’s efforts to steer the company in the best direction possible given the circumstances presented to him, smearing it as an evil monopoly blinded to the public by “cultural defense mechanism” memes?