As Steam unveils an overhaul to its chat system that barely competes with the rising star of Discord, we’re left to wonder why this took so long to begin with. What the heck does Valve even do anymore?
Valve, the game developer behind franchises like Half-Life and Portal, as well as the company that owns the virtual PC game store Steam, has around 360 employees (as of 2016). In 2017—a year in which Valve released no games—the Steam store made $4.3 billion in revenue. Back in 2011, Valve founder and President Gabe Newell said that, on a per-employee basis, the company is the most profitable company in the United States.
So, what does such a profitable, successful company do with its time and resources?
I’m seriously asking.
The New Steam Chat Only Barely Keeps Pace With Competing Community Tools
This week, Steam released its new chat client that, in short, copies Discord just enough to get by. You can use it to start group chats with your friends, or with your entire Steam Group. Once in a group chat, you can create a series of text channels to organize discussion around different topics, or create voice channels that you and your friends can hop in and out of at your leisure, instead of having to organize a call and invite people one by one. Prior to this update, Steam’s built in chat was vastly inferior to setting up a free Discord server for your friends or community. Now, Steam has reached at least basic feature parity.
Well, sort of.
Discord has had text and voice channels for years. The fact that Steam is only just now getting around to adding them, while a welcome change, is still very late to the game. Meanwhile, Discord has in-game overlays, video chat, robust server moderation features, and a ton more. Steam is busy chasing Discord, while Discord has been chasing Slack. It’s a bit like copying off the jock who’s copying off the nerd’s homework.
But Steam has an ace up its sleeve: PC gamers have been using Steam a lot longer, and Steam has a ton of community features that it can integrate with this new chat system. Except…they didn’t.
If you’re in a Steam group, you can create a group chat with a single click, which is nice. However, you can’t send announcements from your Group to the chat. Any events you create won’t show up in the chat. Steam groups and their corresponding group chats are functionally isolated. Now, this is a first release and Steam might update in the future to integrate its existing social features more closely with its new chat system, but given how long it took for the company to catch up to the basic offering its competitors have, we’re not holding our breath.
Steam Is Basically Ignoring Game Broadcasting
If you’ve paid even a modicum of attention to the gaming world over the last few years, you’d know that streaming your game to an audience is big business. It’s also a complicated business. Even broadcasting on Twitch or YouTube usually requires third-party software that’s not quite as simple (or as cheap) as it could be. So, maybe Valve is pouring all of its Steam development into better features for broadcasting games? You’d think so. And yet, Steam’s features on this front are paltry at best.
Curiously, Steam does have built-in broadcasting features. If you enable it in your settings, then your friends can drop in to watch your game while you’re playing. You can even set it to broadcast your games publicly for anyone who happens to stumble on it from Steam’s broadcasts page. You don’t even need to have any third-party software to start broadcasting. It all works surprisingly well, and it even comes with a built-in text chat for every broadcast.
However, it lacks crucial features that broadcasters or viewers would want. You can’t easily follow people whose broadcasts you like. You can’t get notifications when a streamer is live. As a broadcaster, you can’t add a webcam overlay (really?) or even share a link to your stream (really?!), which makes it almost impossible for most people to find your broadcasts at all. To Steam’s credit, this feature is still listed as a “beta” on its product page. To Steam’s discredit, this feature has existed since 2014. Worse, it seems largely unchanged since it was first released. So nearly four years ago, Steam recognized that streaming games is a thing, and yet the company hasn’t bothered developing the feature it created back then.
If that’s how Steam handles the threat of Twitch, it doesn’t bode well for this new, mostly-baked Discord clone the company has released.
Valve Doesn’t Make Games Anymore
If it’s not community or streaming features, maybe all that money and manpower that Valve has is going into game development?
Please stop laughing.
To be absolutely fair to Valve, there are at least a few games that have either been released recently or are under active development. In 2016, the company released a free VR game set in the Portal universe to promote the HTC Vive. A year before that, they made, um, an arcade cabinet of Left 4 Dead. Oh, but there is Artifact, the Dota-themed trading card game that’s supposed to come out this year. To get an idea of how excited people are for that, check out the absolutely legendary video above of the crowd reacting to the game’s announcement.
In terms of its biggest franchises, though, Valve has all but given up. The last Portal game (besides the free VR demo), Portal 2, came out in 2011. Left 4 Dead 2 came out in 2009. The last Half-Life game came out in…well, let’s just not bring that up. You could maybe argue that Valve cares more about its competitive multiplayer games like Dota and CS:GO since those can continue to make money with things like regular tournaments. Yet other publishers, even ones of a comparable size, are capable of managing releases for both online and single-player games. Does Valve even care that it has outright abandoned its most wildly popular franchises? Do they even want to introduce new ones? Ever?
If Valve still made games, fans would probably put up with long development cycles. Heck, Bethesda gets around to a new Elder Scrolls game maybe once every six years, but people still flip out when even a new game’s title card is released. That’s because in those long development lulls for one game, new versions of other games come out. With Valve, instead of a staggered release schedule and the occasional content drought, it seems like the developer only wakes from its slumber on the bluest of moons in order to either throw a bone to the esports scene, or to release something disappointing.
Steam Keeps Giving Up More Control Over Its Own Store
Okay, so despite the massive amounts of money the company rakes in, they still keep their employee count low. They don’t throw a ton of resources at competing with Discord or Twitch, and they only work on the games that make the most continual money. But surely, surely Valve would spend some of its considerable resources on making sure the Steam store is the best it can be, right? Selling games is the one thing the company is still good at after all these years, and it’s the moneymaker that ensures Valve will never go out of business, no matter how few games it makes.
By virtue of being the big store (and, more importantly, download source) that everyone is using, Steam maintains its dominance as the best place to manage your games. However, its not always the best way to buy games. While you’re waiting for the next Steam Sale, Humble Bundle has stepped in to offer pay-what-you-want sales on pretty great games. If you’re looking for something specific, IsThereAnyDeal will scan every store available, track prices over time, and find the store with the best deal no matter what time of year it is. You can even narrow it down to stores that sell Steam keys, so you can get a solid deal without splitting your library. IsThereAnyDeal scans some niche stores, but it can also find sales from big retailers like Amazon, which leaves a gaping weakness in Steam’s fortress.
A store is more than just its sale prices, though. A good storefront will help you find good games to play. Steam does still have a Featured & Recommended games section on its front page (presumably a Valve employee has to pick those), but curating games seems like a task the company would like to farm out to someone else. In October of last year, Steam overhauled its Curators feature to make it easier for influencers to recommend games. It’s a lot better than the Curator system used to be, but it also positions people who don’t work for Valve as the primary source of finding new games to play. It would be a bit like if Netflix started putting Rotten Tomatoes in charge of its suggestion engine.
Not only does Steam seem uninterested in finding good games, it seems uninterested in banning bad ones. Earlier this year, Valve announced that, as a policy, the company would allow essentially everything on its store, unless it’s illegal or “straight up trolling,” whatever that means. So, if you’re not a fan of games that are basically porn on Steam, it’s now your job to avoid it, not their job to remove it. Valve reserves the right to ban a game for being exceptionally outrageous, but for the most part, policing content on its platform is not a job the company wants.
While Steam keeps finding fewer and fewer things to be responsible for, their competitors are gunning for them. GOG is becoming a competent alternative storefront—though its commitment to DRM-free games naturally means some publishers will never show up in its store. Worse (for Steam), Twitch is experimenting with selling games directly. Given that Amazon owns Twitch, and already sells game download codes, this doesn’t bode well for Steam. If anything, it seems like the only reason Steam doesn’t have major competition in the PC game sales arena is simply because no one’s tried very hard to knock the king off his throne yet.
Finally—and we admit this is a total nitpick—Steam hasn’t had a UI update in years and it’s looking positively dated. This shows through with every new feature that’s added, sticking to the same old interface design. A year and a half ago, a leaked file heavily implied that a design overhaul was coming to Steam. Six months ago, a Steam designer said that it’s still in the works. Still, here we sit, waiting.
Valve Seems Content to Not Do Very Much
Of course, Valve still does stuff. Last month, the company released the Steam Link app that lets you stream games from your PC to your phone. And yes, the new chat features are important for Steam as a platform, but it’s hardly revolutionary for the gaming world at large. Still, we’re left with the question of what the hell Valve does with its time and money.
These days, it seems like if the company is still highly profitable per employee, it’s less because of how much money Valve makes, and more because of how little the company does. It can seem like ages between major feature releases, and when big features finally do drop, they’re duds. But what do we care, right? In another month or two, there will be another Steam sale, we’ll get games for 75% off, and Valve will still make boatloads of money. Maybe, having conquered the PC gaming world, Valve is content to rest on its laurels, only do a bit of work when it feels like it, and otherwise lets its highly profitable employees relax. Sounds like the dream.
And yet, one can’t shake the feeling that Steam only continues to remain dominant because the rest of the world simply hasn’t bothered to overthrow it yet. Amazon (with Twitch) has more than enough retail clout and infrastructure to make Steam sweat if they decided to, and scrappy startups like GOG and Discord are hungry enough to rapidly build out the features gamers want while Valve is slow to adapt to a changing market. Valve may be safe for now, but unless the sleeping giant wakes up and does something, there’s a genuine risk that the gaming community will move on.