Here’s what I want Steam to be: a place where I can easily and conveniently find games I wish to buy, buy them, and access them. I do not believe Valve and I’s outlook on this aligns.
Valve seem to have some small interest in Steam performing these functions, but a much greater excitement for layering endless experimental systems on top of each other. The act of buying and playing games must itself be gamified from every possible angle.
Over the years, it’s introduced trading cards, badges, and a marketplace for in-game items. It’s given us countless different kinds of fake money, earned by spending real money, usually to be spent on stickers, emotes, profile backgrounds, and other gew-gaws I couldn’t even be confident in the function of.
Most of the big annual sales now house their own meta-games, from earning rewards based on your gaming activity, to massively multiplayer clickers, to more bizarre and esoteric inventions. They often demand a daily investment of your time, aping the quests and battle passes of online games such as Destiny and Fortnite.
It’s become exhausting. Endless needlessly confusing systems obscure the basic functions you actually come to Steam for, and the rewards for completing them are either complicated financial incentives to push you into spending more money than you otherwise would, or shiny baubles for those who apparently use Steam as a kind of social network for people who miss the days of MySpace pages. Do those people actually exist? They’d better—the entire platform is geared towards them at this point.
I shouldn’t be confused when I’m trying to buy something. I shouldn’t have to manage an inventory. I shouldn’t have to hide that inventory to prevent weirdos messaging me about fake guns for a game I last played over a decade ago. I shouldn’t have to figure out what to do with digital trading cards. Sell them for one penny each, or let them clog up your page forever like video game limescale? The choice is yours!
It’s more than just annoying—I feel used. It’s become clear that Valve think of their user base not just as loyal customers, but as test subjects. They conduct economic experiments on us all, trying out systems and mechanics at different scales before rolling them out wider, or discarding them. The marketplace started with Team Fortress 2 hats—now it’s a major part of the platform, generating income every day through the pointless movement of digital nothings.
I don’t even necessarily think it’s cynically driven—it’s clear there are people at Valve who are genuinely passionate and excited about things like economic models and the ways populations can be managed systemically. Fine, but I signed up for a shop front, not a sociology lesson.
And as these experiments rumble on and mutate into ever less necessary forms, Valve neglects the core experience. The store is less usable now than it’s ever been, utterly clogged with nonsense and shovelware with incredibly poor moderation. Efforts to tailor the experience algorithmically have created more problems than they’ve solved, making it increasingly difficult to get to the page you actually want, rather than the one Steam thinks you’d like.
That passion for sociology has translated into a fondness for crowd-sourcing solutions to problems, rather than simply paying professionals to do them. Thus bizarre new problems have been created, from review-bombing and malicious tagging, to genuine crimes like money laundering, unlicensed gambling, and fake games that hijack your computer to mine cryptocurrency. For the most part, the original issues that were supposed to be solved are still present.
I’m tired, of all of it. When the big sales come around, I’m not excited like I used to be. Instead I only feel wary—what treadmill is Valve trying to suck me into this time? Even as someone who spends huge chunks of both his professional and personal life on the platform, I still struggle to keep up, or understand its idiosyncrasies. My mum has been getting into games over the last few years, and I’ve had to try and explain it all to her as she goes, which has only served to make it seem even more ludicrous. No one should have to have a conversation with their mother about how to sell digital trading cards.
Maybe I’m just a grumpy old man, but I can’t help but pine for a simpler time, before I was vaguely afraid of the store page. Even animated dancing Kim Kitsuragi isn’t worth this.