Last week, Valve had a choice: it could go ahead and distribute a game about raping women, or it could remove the listing from Steam. Rather than instantly deciding that the game was unacceptable, the leader in PC game distribution spent awhile discussing and "fact-finding"—the title of the game is Rape Day, so I'm not sure what mitigating facts it expected to find—before announcing that it won't sell the game, not because it would be wrong to do so, but because it "poses unknown costs and risks."
Valve claims to be erring on the side of caution, then, as if refusing to sell a game which was created to 'normalize rape' is a concession to critics, rather than simply the right choice. There was no acknowledgement that distributing games comes with some ethical responsibilities. It was a shrug.
This purposeful lack of values has been developing since the early days of Steam, when Valve was accused of controlling the PC platform: If Steam didn't pick your game up, you didn't get to succeed. The company's response has been to move toward the other extreme by allowing any game to release on Steam so long as it's legal and isn't "trolling" (or isn't Rape Day, as we learned, because that policy was always going to fail under pressure).
Last year, Valve's Erik Johnson wrote that this policy meant that the games published on Steam "will not be a reflection of Valve's values," except for the value that "you all have the right to create and consume the content you choose."
The truth is that Valve is responsible for what's on Steam, and the right to create or play a game doesn't mean that selling it is a good thing to do, or that it's fair to customers and other developers to list games designed specifically to dehumanize them.
It feels as if Aperture Science, the unscrupulous megacorp from Valve's own Portal, was aspirational rather than satirical. "Rest assured that an independent panel of ethicists has absolved the Enrichment Center, Aperture Science employees, and all test subjects of any moral responsibility for the Companion Cube euthanizing process," says GLaDOS at one point. You only need to change the proper nouns and you've basically summed up Steam's policy. Maybe Valve was parodying itself?
What matters to Valve?
It didn't always feel like Valve was so careless, at least to me. When Gabe Newell was pushing Linux in the early 2010s, it felt like a genuine effort to keep our platform from becoming Xbox Jr. "Linux and open source are the future of gaming," he said in 2013. He was obviously defending his business, but I still believed that Valve broadly stood for improving PC gaming and fending off Microsoft. I respected that intent.
When Windows 10 arrived in 2015, however, it was ironically Epic CEO Tim Sweeney who led the criticism of Microsoft's UWP architecture and the defense of Steam. It wasn't all him—in a 2017 interview with Valve News Network, Newell said that he doesn't think UWP is "a good idea for [Microsoft's] business"—but Valve didn't seem quite as invested in the fight. It got me wondering if this existential threat stuff had just been rhetoric to push Valve's living room aspirations.
It's hard to say how Valve really feels about anything now. Valve abandoned Steam Machines when they didn't pan out, and while it continues to work with Linux, the effort hardly feels like the fight for survival it was first pitched as. I still appreciate that work—it never had to be a fight for survival, it was just a nice thing to do—but these passion projects feel less thoughtful when the company takes such a dispassionate view of its biggest problems.
When Epic offered developers a better revenue share and poached some big games from Steam, for instance, the only response Valve could muster was to call the Metro Exodus deal "unfair" to customers. True, it was pretty rude to switch stores so close to release. And? What is Valve going to do about it? Does it have no response to a competitor who says that a 12 percent cut, not a 30 percent cut, is the fair deal?
When it comes to what appears on Steam, Valve seems to operate on the premise that Steam is a utility like the internet (or like the internet should be). But when it comes to its deal with developers, it's a private business again and things aren't quite so flexible, unless you're one of the most successful games. It creates the image of a company that only cares about getting paid, whether or not Valve's employees really feel that way.
A weakening position
Valve has been an odd one out in the gaming industry, a powerhouse that chose not to grow into a multinational corporation like EA, and isn't associated with closing all the studios it buys or gutting its staff—there've been layoffs, but not on the scale of EA or Activision Blizzard. I've respected Valve for that, and for its contributions to the hobby, but it's found a strong way to burn through goodwill.
If games like Rape Day truly have no place on Steam, which they shouldn't, Valve should say so with a content policy that goes beyond 'don't be illegal.' Otherwise, its ill-conceived notion of fairness is going to put more and more games like this in the spotlight, which is not fair to the people they target.
And even if Valve truly only cares about the bottom line—a sad thought—it's still a good idea. Seeing as Valve's so data-obsessed, here's a 2018 survey of game developers in which 69 percent felt that the company was not earning its 30 percent cut, up significantly from the previous year. Among other problems, continuing to let caustic developers piss in its pool can only help drive more of the good devs to fresh water. Right now, Valve's only existential threat is Valve.