Valve launched its industry-leading digital distribution Steam all the way back in 2003, and at the time it was just used for distributing Valve’s own titles, like CounterStrike, Day of Defeat and of course Half-Life. Then in 2005, they opened up to third-party sellers, with early titles on the service like Rag Doll Kung Fu and Darwinia. Since then, the number of titles released on Steam has ballooned, with each year seeing an increasing number of releases, and now we see an average of around 22 games added to the service each day.
The Steam submission process has had to evolve in order to manage the increasing numbers of releases. It started off with a black box, opaque process, where developers had to just generate enough attention to attract Valve’s interest, and cross their fingers that Valve would reach out. Eventually, this proved to be a significant bottleneck, so preventing or delaying releases of games that might have otherwise been able to attract an audience on Steam. To remove this bottleneck, and avoid games from flying under their radar, in 2012 Valve pushed for a new initiative dubbed Greenlight, a process where developers wishing to release their game on Steam could create a publicly listed page on the Greenlight section of the Steam webpage, and users could register their interest in games. Valve would then review submitted games, prioritising those that had generated the most interest. As Valve iterated on the Greenlight process, seeking to speed up the time and reduce the complexity of the process of getting games ready to release, in 2017 they evolved Greenlight into Steam Direct, with essentially removed the public voting phase, letting developers bypass the song and dance of campaigning for votes and just release their game with few barriers.
This gradual shift of opening up access to their storefront has been great for indie developers who want to access the huge player base on Steam and has resulted in developers who previously would have been ignored or outright rejected from Steam having a chance to sell there, a democratising effect on distribution to help all developers compete on something that is closer to a level playing field. That’s not to say it’s been well-received by all corners of the industry, where some developers who were well placed to navigate the older systems are finding themselves in a position where they have to compete with far more games to attract players’ attention. In the past, when far fewer games were allowed to release on Steam, being one of the lucky few was almost like a golden ticket to success, but that came at the expense of denying far more developers even a chance. Now things are far more egalitarian, where being well connected in the industry does not impact your access to distribution on Steam in the same manner.
But it’s not been entirely clear to what extent this shift had increased the number of success stories on Steam. Some alarmists have liked to argue that flooding Steam with perceived low-quality games had brought the number of successful games down, as it became harder for players to sift through the chaff in search of wheat. Valve has done a lot of work in pushing for newer forms of discovery on their storefront, seeking to present players with customised recommendations to suit their interests, and in my view still have a lot of work to do in this regard, but it’s an open question to what extent this approach has worked. Or at least it was until Valve published some sales data relevant to this question.