Steam embark on commercial exclusive licenses for certain titles

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Ever since it launched back in 2003, Steam has been a consumer-facing game distribution service. It’s changed a lot over the years, adding news features and expanding the range of services provided to players and developers alike. But just recently it’s taken a step in another direction, one which may seem puzzling at first, but could be a sign of bigger changes on the horizon.

Up until recently, all games on Steam would be generally available to all users to purchase. There are exceptions where games might be restricted from sale in certain regions, and there are games which get removed from sale after some time, but broadly speaking if a game is available on Steam, it is generally made available for end-users to purchase and play.

There are commercial licenses supported by Steam, on top of consumer licenses. These are licenses by which a developer or publisher can purchase not just a license for personal use, but a license that grants them permission to use a game in a commercial setting. The classic example of this is a Gaming/Cyber Café. Players pay some kind of fee to an establishment and then receive access to use of a computer during their time there. If the management of a Gaming Café purchases a commercial use license, then that grants them the right to let their customer use those games. 

This has been a feature available on Steam for many years, and you can read in more detail about how it works over here. Certain aspects of these licenses are covered by a none disclosure agreement (meaning they are top secret), but a lot of the details are laid out upfront. Traditionally, all games on Steam have been available under standard consumer licenses, and if they meet the criteria and so desire, the publisher or developer can also opt to make it available as a commercial license.

So what's changed?

The big change in recent months has been a new development. Games which are available under a commercial/Cyber Café license, but are not available to purchase by end-users under a standard consumer license. This marks a shift, where now certain games cannot be bought by consumers at all.

The first game I spotted this on is Predator VR, a VR game about being a Predator.

Predator VR's steam store page, showing that it is only available under a commercial license

There is a disclaimer on the store page that explains:

AVAILABLE FOR STEAM COMMERCIAL LICENSING ONLY. Click here for more information about the program.

A little vague, but it does accurately surmise the situation.

I searched around and found several other games with this same disclaimer. All of them VR games. In total I found:

There may be more, there’s currently no easy way to see them all in one spot.

What's Valve's explanation for this scenario?

It’s kind of a puzzling occurrence. Why would a developer/publisher not want to sell their game to end users, instead only making them available under these commercial licenses? I had a few theories, but I spoke to Valve’s VP of Marketing, Doug Lombardi, to get an explanation for why this is happening. He told me:

We strongly recommend that developers make their applications available to individual customers, not just commercial (e.g., café) licensees. However, some VR apps are specifically designed for arcades or commercial venues and only work well there – that’s when we’ve made exceptions. Commercial-only titles will be visible to licensees of the Steam PC Café program only and so will have much lower visibility on Steam.

Interesting, no?

Sounds like it is not something that currently represents a radical departure for Valve, they are not embarking on a mission to push commercial exclusive licensing as an option for developers, and are indeed strongly recommending against it. But in these minority of cases where a publisher/developer specifically wants to opt-out of making their game available under standard consumer licenses, Valve will allow it.

It’s not entirely clear what factors have made these developers and publishers opt to go for this model. In the case of Predator VR, it might be that they only have the rights to use the Predator IP in these scenarios (possibly to avoid stepping on the toes of Predator: Hunting Grounds?). It also could be that these games are designed around not just a PC with a VR headset, but also specific props, location layouts, the involvement of actors, or other factors that would require the controlled environment of a commercial setting like a VR Arcade, rather than simply being able to work anywhere. This is just speculation though, so I have reached out to these developers to see if they can explain what’s going on, and I’ll let you know what I hear.

It’s only happening with these games as exceptions, and I imagine that for many games it would not be commercially viable to drop support entirely for consumer licenses, but depending on the specific circumstances around a given game, perhaps if these games are able to find success, it is something we might see more of. Although given the current state of lock down of non-essential public venues going on across many parts of the world, it’s not hard to imagine some of these developers may reconsider their approach. If players can’t get to VR Arcades and Internet Cafés then this licensing model might break down.

For now though, if you are interested in playing Predator VR when it comes out, or any of these other titles only available under commercial licenses, I suggest crossing your fingers that there is a VR Arcade or similar near you because that’s the only way you’re going to be able to play them.