Tonight has saw a bit of the old internet uproar after a developer got himself in a bit of a tizz over the internet expecting some Steam keys for a videogame that they purchased in bundles a while back. This isn’t the first time, I have no doubts it won’t be the last.
I can understand this. I can easily understand how a dev can get in that sort of pickle. This whole “you definitely get a Steam key with everything” is a very recent thing that’s come about and well, not everyone is always up to speed on these things, not everyone may like these things because they never agreed to them in the first place. It’s really messy.
From my own experience, outside of being in a Greenlight-my-game bundle, devs are not generally contractually obliged to offer Steam keys at a later date should they get on Steam.
When you sign up for these bundles, unless it’s a Greenlight bundle of some sort, that’s it, you’re only bound to provide the game either as a direct download or as codes for another store (Desura is the usual candidate for this). That’s all a dev would have signed up for. That’s all it’s agreed that people are buying.
Progress and dynamics
But here’s the thing, right now, where we’re at in this whole selling games thing is that for the most part, Steam keys are now seen as part and parcel of a purchase even if that means that Steam keys come along six months down the line.
It’s sort of weird how we’ve got here. We’ve landed here some way through people wanting Steam keys a really really really lot and through developers normalising this by giving Steam keys out when you buy their videogame from somewhere/anywhere, sometimes months or years later as well as upon purchase. In a lot of ways there’s been a lot of push and pull from customers and devs alike to get here (“I want this”, “I’ll give you this”, “ta!”) which is kinda nice and refreshing but it’s not everything.
You know that thing about bundles liking to sell the idea that Steam keys are a definite thing though? As far as bundles are concerned “amount of Steam keys” is their selling point and the difference between not many sales and many sales. Humble are big enough to sidestep this, everyone else? Not so much. Why do you think a lot of the mailshots you’ll get about bundles discuss the number of games with Steam keys rather than the quality of the games contained in the bundle?
Obviously, there’s developer benefits from bundles being able to make more sales (developers then make more money from including their game in bundles, natch) but it’s worth being aware of the dynamics at play here. It’s in the bundler’s interests to push for keys and to promise keys at a later date because that gets them sales, it gets them loyalty from the customers knowing that the stuff in the account has some value later on. That loyalty may not necessarily transfer to us as developers although we can certainly work on keeping the good will in our camp part in order.
And then there’s Greenlight.
I suspect and worry the want to get through Greenlight has maybe pushed some developers into bundle deals they wouldn’t have otherwise considered in order to boost their Greenlight rankings and that’s contributed to some of the awkwardness around future-Steam keys too. For me, one of the many reasons Greenlight is a bit strange and a bit messy as it has shifted a lot of the dynamics around in a really awkward and often hard to quantify way.
It didn’t take long for bundlers to work out that offering Greenlight bundles could be a thing. It’s a nice amount of cash in the bank for little work for many and hey, with a Steam key on the line, maybe that’s enough to push people to vote for games on Greenlight to help Valve pay attention. The deal here is very much “you buy a bundle, you get a future-Steam key” and again, this is a thing that goes towards normalising the idea that you get given keys in the future for games you bought.
I don’t think that going for a Greenlight bundle is necessarily a bad thing or anything daft like that, just that some devs perhaps need/needed to be more cautious and aware of what they’re getting themselves into for the sake of some immediate gain.
With the flurry of activity and sudden opportunities arising around trying to wade through Greenlight (and in some ways, the exponential rise in bundling across the board), it’s understandable that some people won’t have even had time to think about what they were going to do when they actually got onto Steam or what the longer term consequences of bundling in this way would be. More so when you consider how things can change in unpredictable ways between when a game is being bundled and when it’s actually being greenlit so even with the best will in the world, it would be difficult to see where things would be in six months time or whatever.
(For what it’s worth, I have nothing but praise for the people I worked with in bundles and how they ran their bundling campaigns for my games either. So there.)
Expectations and What Keys Are
OK then, where were we? Whilst there’s no contractual obligation to give away Steam keys from a bundle, it’s sort of expected that in 2014 this is a thing we do. Right. OK.
I’m not sure if this is better or worse than we had it before but it is, whether we like it or not, what it is and it most definitely is a thing that forking over keys is considered a normal thing to do. I’d go so far as to say that it’s safer to assume at this point that the quick fix money you get from being in a bundle is pretty much built around the promise of Steam keys, either now or in the future.
I know, I know, that’s a bit of a scary thought but that’s where we’ve managed to manoeuvre ourselves now. It worries me we’ve managed to get here without too much thought but hey, I guess if anything does go tits up we can think then or something. We probably all need to sit down and talk about this at some point anyway because Steam Keys Are A Thing.
Steam Keys Are A Thing because we’re at a place where people don’t necessarily see Steam keys as what they’re exchanging money for. Steam is something you file the product in. Steam keys also make a number go up. When people see Steam keys, they also see “able to put it in my library with the rest of my games” and people are amassing enormous libraries on Steam through bundles and through sales. The shop part of Steam is obviously an integral part of Steam’s value but for a lot of customers, the library features, the autopatching, the community and the lack of faff (ok, ok, mainly lack of faff, this is still PC gaming) are what Steam is.
So our games are just something they want in Steam because it’s easier to access and because that’s where they’re likely to play it. This is sort of how you end up with the whole “Steam or no sale” mentality to a degree.
It’s also where developers can see Steam keys differently because that’s the trade, right? “You give me money, I sell you a key.” Or at least, if everything were black and white and we hadn’t gone Humble and offered everything up cross format, DRM free and with a Steam key for one price, if developers hadn’t agreed with bundles to furnish them with Steam keys, maaaybe then it’d be black and white. If people weren’t offering Steam keys with purchases just as a thing they do, it’d be different.
But as it is, we don’t live in the old world anymore. “You give me money, I sell you a key” is increasingly outdated when it comes to how people view Steam keys and bundlers, devs, customers, Valve all helped push us to here in some ways.
Right, so yeah. In practical terms what these changes mean for us devs is even if we didn’t agree in the first place to give out Steam keys further down the line, we’re going to look really, really weird not doing so now unless we stated really early on that this wasn’t happening and we’re able to say we’ve got some good reasons for not trucking along.
When we’re selling videogames now I suspect the smart business option is going to be to just assume you’ll be giving out the Steam keys when selling a game that might/will end up on Steam and all that jazz. There will not be two sales anymore, one before Steam and one after. Those days are gone even if the original sale was a 25p share in a bundle. The days of Steam-as-library, Steam-as-home-for-games and Steam as a place we buy things to make a number go up in are here instead.
In part, it’s probably wise for us to hand over keys for a quiet life and not to look like we’re really really weird but also because if people are buying our game from wherever with this expectation, well, that’s what people think they’re buying now. It’s going to be really awkward trying to tell the internet that they didn’t actually buy an advance on a Steam key when they buy another bundle and get given a Steam key in most cases, when they buy a game and get given a Steam key in cases where the game is on Steam and so on.
Speed Of Change
Where this stuff can get really messy is this expectation of a key is such a new thing and as we’ve discovered it’s happened in a lot of ways whether most developers liked it or not. It’s fairly out of most of our hands now and it’ll take a seismic shift in the way people think about buying games in the current digital world to change now so we’re going to have to get used to it.
The expectations have been set, this is where we are. I don’t expect another shift to come any time soon. I don’t actually expect it to come any time at all whilst Steam is still operating but this is the internet and things can change very fast so I like to keep my options open just in case.
BUT Indie dev isn’t corporate life. There’s no guarantee that a dev is keeping an eye on all these changes going on. Maybe they’re not interested. Maybe they’re just not inhabiting the sort of world where you see how people treat bundles and Steam keys (honestly, it’s possible!), there’s no-one in marketing to run up the info and pass it on to a dev and say “this is what the kids want, this is what we have to do”. Some people just aren’t cut out to try and parse this stuff anyway and it’s all a big mystery they’re clodhopping their way through, often trying to figure stuff out as they go along.
Some devs just don’t necessarily have the nouse or the will to deal with these sort of things and sometimes they can and will land themselves in a position whereby what they think is reasonable (and was actually really perfectly reasonable only a few months earlier last time they bothered paying attention) isn’t considered that any longer by a large group of the public. I consider myself fairly on the ball but some stuff shifts underneath me faster than I can parse it. It’s just, y’know, I make it my business to be a bit nosey and stuff.
There will be developers who don’t know they’re going to have to get used to this whole “being obliged to give away a Steam key thing” because they won’t know it’s an actual thing.
We should talk about these changes a bit more, right? We should discuss what’s going on and discuss it more in public, devs and players alike. It should go without saying that I mean discuss it nicely too, yeah?
Because I can’t help but think that the reason these things will come as a surprise to quite a few more devs as we truck along through these rapid changes is that they’re not talked about too much. No-one said when you signed up for Greenlight (for example) that pushing people to your campaign from elsewhere would mean handing out free keys when purchased elsewhere was a thing but enough people did it, enough people (hello!) entered their games into bundles with that very promise that it’s normal now.
People need to know these things sometimes. It’s not the kind of knowledge you’re born with, y’know? Taking some time to think about how we got here and where we are can’t hurt, sharing our experiences and debating where we’re at will help. Let’s do that more and maybe we’ll see less people on the receiving end of the internet because they hadn’t figured all the things out and maybe we’ll all have a better of idea of what we’re doing.
And to the wider internet.
If a dev does fumble, maaaaybe it’s not because they’re being bastards trying to screw everyone for everything ever, right? Maybe it is just that the dev doesn’t really know all this stuff for realsies or they really did just misread the mood on stuff. The internet is often a jump-to-worst-case-scenario thing, the internet often assumes malice from the off or incompetency or what have you. Very often, it’s just people in their pants getting things a bit wrong. With indie dev, that’s going to be a thing, with Greenlight-indie more so as a proportion of these people won’t have been in this sort of position before. And yeah, we’re all still fumbling a bit on how dev/customer communications work in this hyperconnected thing we call the modern internet.
We can all at least try to be nice and try and do the right thing by other people wherever we can whether we’re a dev or a player though. Obviously, if someone is trying to rip someone else off then that doesn’t really hold up too well but otherwise? Yeah, let’s be nice.
Being nice is nice. It’s nicer for everyone.
(As for me and my stuff, it’s probably fairly common knowledge that I pulled Death Ray Manta from Greenlight as I can’t in all honesty prop up something that broken. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be on Steam, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Death Ray Manta will never come to Steam. It just means that if it does, it likely won’t be through Greenlight because Greenlight is awful. That’s sort of old news though.
Being blunt, that means that if/when Death Ray Manta comes to Steam, anyone who has purchased it from a bundle before or has chucked money in the pot to me on a personal level will, providing Steam still allow keys to be freely distributed, find themselves in receipt of a Steam key as soon as I can humanly offer that. That seems fair, right? Not just because Death Ray Manta was in a Build A Greenlight bundle but because, well, that’s precisely the deal people expect right now and to be honest, I’m aware there’s still thousands more people out there I haven’t reached yet.)