It wasn’t so long ago that people were proclaiming the death of the PC games industry. Steam changed all that. Valve have gone from merely making kick-ass hit games to being the biggest innovators in the market. Digital distribution, Early Access, Steam Boxes and controllers, upcoming VR shenanigans. There’s a lot of things to be excited about in the Valve product line. Unfortunately for games developers, their built-in communities aren’t one of them.
Steam Fans Aren’t There For Your Community
Steam communities are similar in many ways to Facebook communities. They offer some enticing advantages:
- Free (my personal favourite price)
- A large, built-in audience
- High visibility
But suffer from many of the same problems.. The audience is big, but they’re not there for you. Gamers on Steam are primarily there to play games, not talk about them. Nobody boots up a secondary application in order to go and chat about their favourite game. While Steam itself has a number of great community ideas (their trading card system is a work of evil genius), it’s a bad idea to rely on steam communities for the bulk of your efforts.
Steam Reviews Are Causing Big Problems
There are also some nasty problems with the review system. The recent, disastrous PC launch of Arkham Knight provides a highly visible example. The game was riddled with bugs and performance issues at launch, which understandably resulted in a storm of horrible reviews. The game was withdrawn from sale until a patch can be released. Working as intended, right?
The problem is, what happens when the patch is released? Steam lacks the ability (seen on the iPhone App Store for example), to filter reviews via version number. This allows developers some recourse if some disastrous bug is discovered too late. Gamers would have the option to see the game as it is now, not how it was at its worst.
It’s hard to be too sympathetic to huge publishers who release a faulty product and pay the price of bad publicity, but consider how this scales to smaller, independent developers. They’re under a lot more pressure to release products on a tight deadline with lower QA budgets. Mistakes happen, and developers are being left with no way to recover from them. Even worse, some completely innocent developers are being the victims of "review bombing", where hundreds of malcontents flood a game with negative reviews for a series of half-imagined slights.
It’s Important to Keep Your Community Under Your Control
Valve is a reactive company, and they’re known for iterating and improving systems over time. Hopefully soon this blog will seem out of date as they roll out new features and improve old ones. The basic message will remain the same though: you need to have a strong community on a platform that you can control. Your business can’t be at the mercy of Steam’s community policies, any more than it should be at the mercy of Facebook’s.
Branded community uptake is huge in the games industry; every major developer has their own forum as a core part of their community strategy. When you have disgruntled fans (and you will), they should be able to talk to you directly and be heard, rather than immediately running to Steam to pan your game. If you can solve their problem, you can head off that negative review before it ever happens. If you can’t, you’re at least engaged in a dialogue rather than a one way screaming match.
Aside from Valve themselves, no major developers are relying on Steam communities as a lynchpin of their community strategy. As tempting as it might be for smaller companies to use the easy, free option, investment in real community will pay huge dividends over the life of your products.