Steam’s Libertarian Dystopia (with Video)

Boy, that whole paying for mods thing on Steam was something wasn’t it? You probably know about it but if you don’t or want more detail, I recommend watching this video to learn just how big a cluster it was and if you’ve got more time, this in-depth discussion with people involved in the modding scene gives some great insights from that perspective. It will undoubtedly go down as one of the biggest outrages and quickest backpedals in game industry history and that’s saying something after the last couple of years. It’s also only one in a laundry list of problems Valve’s Steam platform has. Greenlight, the tagging system, Greenlight, letting developers moderate and ban users from paid games for any reason, Greenlight, the nightmare store page, Greenlight, abysmal customer service and oh yeah, fucking Greenlight. All of these are components either launched a hot mess or are still one today (I go into detail about each more in the video so I won’t clog this up with that).

When you think about the number of nightmares Valve has caused themselves and their customers over the years, it’s really quite amazing how often and how badly they’ve managed to screw up and how they still have a legion of fanboys that will go into a frenzy to defend them against any criticism. Though there are alternative digital platforms and stores for PC games out there, it’s not unreasonable to call Steam a de facto monopoly in the space. Many games can only be activated and run through Steam (even if purchased elsewhere) and it is still the default choice for the vast majority of PC gamers. They spent many years building up trust with the gaming community and were considered one of the few big companies that understood what gamers really wanted and always put their interests first. This trust has endured through blunder after blunder but paid mods became such a hot issue that it appears the limits were finally tested. Gabe Newell had most of his posts in a Reddit AMA down voted to oblivion and that never happens.

How does a company so successful, that’s staffed with so many brilliant people and literally pioneered digital distribution of games continue to screw up so badly, so often and seemingly with no self-awareness? I believe a lot of it can be traced back to what many consider to be Valve’s most revolutionary trait as a company and the free market, libertarian ideals at the centre of that philosophy.

Valve operates on what’s called a flat structure. Essentially what that means is that the company has no hierarchy. There are no job titles, no seniority and everyone has the same level of authority. Whether you’re a junior programmer or Gabe Newell himself, everyone’s on the same level. You can literally choose your job when you work there. Everyone’s desk is on wheels. If you have a new idea you want to try, you roll your desk into an empty part of the office, try to recruit some people to work on it with you, develop it and ship it. The idea is to ship new things out quickly, to rapidly iterate and let market forces determine what works. If something doesn’t, it gets changed or even scrapped like paid mods did. The good ideas survive and thrive, the weak ideas get weeded out by the market. For a deeper explanation, go check out their publicly posted employee handbook. It’s a fascinating read and it made me instantly want to work there.

As someone who has worked under shitty managers before, the idea of there being literally none sounds amazing at first. It’s a business doctrine so revolutionary and just plain different, it makes you wonder how it could possibly work. I can see why Gabe Newell wanted to try it too. He’s a former Microsoft executive and that company is known to be structured to a degree that’s suffocating to its employees and creates huge tribalism. Experimenting with the polar opposite idea sounds like a fine thing to try. In reality, a truly complete flat structure is impossible, for legal reasons if nothing else. It’s seemingly served Valve very well but indeed, I think the size of the company and the number of pies they have their hands in are showing how like most pure libertarian philosophies, it can’t really scale up that well.

Boiled down to layman terms, the core belief of pure libertarian economics is that market forces can self-regulate anything. Like most economic or political doctrines in their purest form, it’s also naive nonsense. A completely free market cannot be trusted to regulate itself and inevitably, a few handful of the most ruthless and unethical players will accumulate all the power and wealth at the expense of everyone else. Think Andrew Ryan’s Rapture from BioShock. We don’t live in a purely libertarian society in North America and many would say that’s already happening anyway. The idea sounds good on paper but it’s foolhardy in practice. These recent blunders with Steam are a result of Valve’s adherence to this doctrine. It sounds good to just tell your employees “Work on whatever you think is cool, throw it against the wall and we’ll keep what sticks.” but when you have customers to please, it’s not that simple.

Gabe Newell has said on many occasions that Valve doesn’t think Steam is open enough and that want to leave more and more of its functionality up to the community. Again, they want to let market forces have more control over how the service works. This begins to fall apart on its face though because aside from all the demonstrations to date of how that doesn’t work, Steam is still not entirely controlled by the market. If you’re one of a group of publishers or certain indie developers that Valve deems worthy for undisclosed reasons, you get what it no less than preferential treatment. If you’re an unknown who wants on Steam, you have to jump through the horrible Greenlight system. If you’re a big publisher or one of Valve’s hand-picked indie clique, you get to skip that and go straight onto the service. Never mind that some of these partners have released absolutely broken games on Steam multiple times or consist of companies like Strategy First who constantly flood the new releases section with 15 year old shovelware. So right off the bat, you have a system that’s not being controlled wholly by the market and is indeed being regulated. This isn’t a bad thing either. Can you imagine if the community got to pick every game on Steam and Reddit decided to brigade future Ubisoft releases after Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s horrible launch? That kind of thing is what happens when the market gets to police itself without oversight.

When any system reaches a certain size, history has shown that a certain amount of regulation becomes necessary or it begins to crack. These recent blunders have shown that, as have the number of features of Steam itself like Big Picture Mode and in-home streaming, that still are underdeveloped or buggy in many cases with no new recent updates. Hell, Half-Life 3 anyone? The problem when you have a company that operates the way Valve does is that there’s no managers and people can just up and abandon a project for pretty much any reason they want. As suffocating as a bad manager can be, sometimes they’re necessary. Someone who is there to ensure a plan is made and stuck to is vital. If everyone can work on whatever they want and you’re someone who has recruited a group to your idea, everyone is personally invested in its success but they also can be too close to it and not see faults that someone who is tasked with that can. The rumour is that the paid modding program only has two Valve employees and two Bethesda employees working on it. That’s not nearly enough people to give the project impartial oversight and feedback.

Beyond that, there are always jobs in a company that no one wants to do when given the choice. If you’ve ever had to interact with Steam’s “customer service”, you know why I put that in quotes. I’ve submitted tickets that have automatically closed 3 times because it took 6 weeks for anyone to respond and the response was often a boiler plate copy/paste that had nothing to do with my original question. This is a de facto monopoly in the space that’s making buckets of money and they seem to spend almost nothing on this crucial piece of the experience. The thing is, if you worked at Valve and could choose your own job, would you want to work in customer service? Someone has to but their structure also means no one has to. Thus, this company widely regarded as consumer first has service that makes big telecom companies look like saints. Maybe the solution involves outsourcing the customer service with high standards for that partner, maybe it involves hiring a team specific to that job. Regardless, the way it’s working now is another example of how a pure libertarian flat system falls down on the job.

How do you fix this though? Hiring managers or specific teams of people breaks the whole principal that Valve was founded under. There are apparently other companies in the industry like Naughty Dog that have a largely flat structure but still have a small group of individuals at the top who have final approval on things. Maybe instead of managers, a system of peer review could be put in place where an idea and its implementation must be presented to an outside group of employees who vote it to move forward or go back in the oven with feedback. However, even these introduces regulation to a system that seems built from the group up to be as free from it as possible. They could certainly just leave things the way they are too. They’ve taken many lumps before and though confidence from the user base is shaken, they still came through the paid mods mess. Maybe this will cause the employees to step back and more critically think about their projects before shipping them to avoid more blunders. Maybe not though and if they want to keep the system as-is, they can’t guarantee that or force it.

There’s no doubt that Valve de facto monopoly position and legion of fanboys affords them a lot of leeway with frustrated users. As bad as the paid mods situation was for them, just think about if it was Origin or Uplay that tried it instead. Much like Apple, they simply aren’t held to the standards everyone else is, a bad way to look at any company in my opinion. I do hope they learn some valuable lessons from this latest mess and honestly, there’s way too many brilliant people there to credibly claim otherwise. However, I think the most valuable lesson is that their current way of doing things as a company just doesn’t work in every single situation. I imagine that must be a terrifying thing to consider, especially if you’ve been at the company for a long time. Is there a way to maintain a flat system but have just enough checks and balances to keep it from tripping over itself? I honestly don’t know. If I did, I’d probably be applying for a job there instead of writing this. I hope they can figure it out though because even companies with the most devoted fanbases only get so many screwups before a large enough group of people decide they’ve had enough. Paid mods was one strike. I’m not sure how many more fans will allow them and ultimately, no structure matters if it doesn’t serve their interests first.

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One Response to Steam’s Libertarian Dystopia (with Video)

  1. Pingback: Steam Refunds Are Only A Good Thing (With Video) | Geek Bravado

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