Ok I've decided to step off the SOPA box this week and revive something I've not done in a while. The Field of View. For those who don't remember (likely most people) this is the blog series where I try to examine something in greater depth and to give people a wider view of the subject. It's a series where I feel the issue is a lot more nuanced and need more than me simply yelling about it in a somewhat exaggerated way about it.
Low effort games, it's a subject that could easily have been a Sopa Box C-blog. I don't like them mostly. I don't see artistic merit in them. I see little worth in them. I understand pretty much ever complaint against them. I know it's thanks to asset flips (which are a kind of low effort game) that Digital Homicide LLC kept going.
There's a big problem however with my stance and the stance of being so against them. I still keep the stance that low effort games are bad but I'm going to entirely acknowledge that this stance isn't on the solid ground I and many others would like to think it is. I know "How can being against low effort games be a bad thing?" the answer is what happens after the games.
Ok to fully explain that answer I need to lay down the background and unfortunate economic realities of the video game industry and where the path splits into two one way good one way bad. Low effort games can easily make money, you spend $10 on some assets 1 hour putting them together and $100 to publish on steam, you only need to make $117 to make it profitable and worth the time to make. For those interested that breaks down to 168 sales at $1 each (Valve taking a 30% cut). Now with a Steam userbase of Millions can you get 168 people to spend $1 to try a game? The answer most likely is yes and then you're in profit. Hell I think you can or could even recoup the $100 fee if you reached certain sales numbers. I mean asset flips and lazy low effort things being able to make money due to low costs is likely one of the reasons TV will soon be defiled by
So let's start with the good path, a way that low effort games actually do good. After one or more simple asset flip games or low effort games a developer with no giant start up budget or pile of profit from other games games can now afford to fund the games they want to make. They have been able to develop and refine their basic skills making low effort games and been able to get the finances together to fund the game or games they want to make. They put that money into their first real title and suddenly they're creating, contributing to the industry producing games more people want and original content. It would be lovely in this world if developers could get the money some other way but starting out unless they did a College course and have a degree they've got: no portfolio of work, no evidence of experience and no prestige attached to their name. Indie studios with multiple people likely wouldn't want to take a risk on said developer and the same for AAA studios really, thus they can't make money that way. With no prestige to their name or evidence they can produce something of worth they can't really go to Kickstarter either. If they don't start with the money for their dream they have to find a way to raise it and for plenty of people getting funding from relatives etc isn't something they really want to do. The good path asset flip / low effort game developers can take is to use their money to evolve beyond being asset flippers and low effort games.
Oh and yup knowing that some developers have grown from more or less asset flips and low effort games into producing some good games, while also still holding the stance that low effort games are bad does make me feel like a bit of an awful bastard. I'm sorry if what I said makes you feel like one too if that's a position you hold along with me in regards to low effort games.
This isn't some fairy story either of a developer going on to make good well recived games after a few lower effort starter games.
Silver Dollar games were infamous on the XBLIG marketplace for producing some pretty low effort titles, however as they kept on among trash you could notice some genuinely experimental titles being tried too. For Silver Dollar their big break was the game One Finger Death Punch, this was a simple game but one that hit home and showed effort and love being put into a title. It also found favour with audiences and Silver Dollar stopped being the infamous name the studio once was. They've even got a seemingly much improved sequel One Finger Death Punch 2 coming soon.
Milkstone Studios were somewhat less infamous on XBLIG but they started with more simple games using the Xbox 360 Avatars. One of their more "controversial" titles is one by their own admission was inspired by The Binding of Issac as was called Sushi Castle, I liked it; a lot of people accused it of being a clone of The Binding of Issac just with the art switched out and well to an extent it is. It was made by Milkstone studio, they didn't take The Binding of Issac and reskin, Sushi's Castle was programmed from pretty much scratch but they did make their title deliberately mechanically very similar. Today you likely know Milkstone Studios as the maker of Ziggurat that was recently given away free on GOG (you might also know them from the White Noise games but ssssshhhh don't speak of them here).
Unknown World Entertainment, who you might know for Natural Selection 2 and a little title called Subnautica started with their first official game (Not counting Natural Selection 1 which was a mod as such) was Zen of Sudoku a game that very much was put out by them to help raise money to work on Natural Selection 2 and did have a price when it was first released.
This is why as much as I would like to rage about crappy asset flips and poor quality games on Steam I can't really. I can't do the Jim Sterling "look at this shit it shouldn't be on the Steam Store". I can't because there's far more to the story than people realise. Not all of said games are part of the problem many of them may be shit, however they're shit which feeds bigger products and better games helping companies grow.
What I can get annoyed at is the developers who go down what I'm going to call the bad path. The EA path. The path of pure greed. You see as I said earlier low effort games can easily make money. What I didn't go into is how they can make even more money. Now a good portion of this knowledge is thanks to the work of the Sentinels of the store steam group and youtuber Sid Alpha for making more people aware of what's going on. You see thanks to trading cards and the Steam market it's possible for developers to earn more money on their titles via their cut from Steam trading card sales. Steam Trading card especially when the cards are first release can be converted into gems which in turn can be converted into card packs for other games. The importance here are some items like emotes and backgrounds on Steam have a lot higher value than others.
(That's probably about $9 for you in the USA)
Consequently the cards for these games, and card packs for them, tend to sell for more money. Backing all this up are Russian bot farms, like Crypto currency farms but needing to only be able to run the game so not needing anywhere near the hardware or power. What unscrupulous developers can and actually have been shown to do is request thousands of keys from Valve (as developers can do to allow them to sell their games in bundles other places or privately sell them), then they take these keys and sell them on sites like VK (Russian equivalent of Facebook) or other site favoured by the owners of Russian bot farms. Sure it's not much but 1,000 or so keys being sold for at most a few dollars to a bot farmer is still money in the pocket for a unscrupulous developer.
The problems in this arrangement or more correctly the attempts to stop such arrangements are:
Valve is trying to limit or stop this. Games no longer get Steam Trading cards by default just by being on Steam they have to pass some total number of hours played cumulatively among the player base. So suddenly the Russian bot farmers can make money off the title so will look to other titles, thus developers need to find a way to boost up the playerbase and get enough play time to unlock cards among the smaller number of bot farms (or their own bot farm in some cases) and the community.
Secondly Valve is limiting the number of keys developer can request based on sales. Obviously games that sell well or have a proven sales record can request keys for things like Humble Bundles etc. Games that sell badly, well they don't get to request many keys and Valve can lock the ability to generate keys or require developer to present reasons they want more keys and evidence they're not telling lies.
Thirdly and most recently Valve has announced they're cracking down on "achievement spam" games which were used to attract achievement hunters (because apparently some people care about the pretty meaningless number of achievements you have on Steam). The trick behind achievement spam games was to get achievement hunter to buy and play them to unlock the Steam Trading card option, making the games more valuable to Russian bot farms. The new system will be a confidence system where games that have failed to meet the new developer confidence threshold will be limited to 100 achievements which until the game passes the confidence threshold these won't be added to peoples total Steam achievement number.
Fourthly also in the recent announcement there were also measure to make things even less visible by making it so achievements and the game itself can't be shown in the Steam profile showcase sections until the developer / title is no longer considered to be low confidence.
The issue is unscrupulous developers will always look to figure out ways round this stuff such as:
Run bot farms themselves to get the required played hours to unlock cards
Sell their game very cheap on Steam
Be controversial to get attention and sales via rage and youtuber who want to get mad and decide they should look into the game to get footage to prove how awful it is. Or edgelords trying to show off how edgy they can be for attention on youtube.
Previously the spammed people with achievements to let people who care about the number of achievements they have on Steam essentially boost it. Some even tried to make sexy games, but that takes effort.
All they really need is to unlock Steam cards and their game becomes valuable, how valuable? Well when a game got a free weekend and accidentally someone at Valve didn't turn off card drops for the game it managed to become 4th highest played on Steam.
While it would be very easy to blame the Russian bot farmers, I struggle to really blame them. Some are from Russia but it's likely also the surrounding areas and the former "soviet block" countries. It's hard to blame them because life is pretty tough in some of them, how tough, you may ask? Well it's worth reading up on 4A the studio behind the Metro games and all the troubles they had in Ukraine just developing Metro Last Light. So it's hard to be mad at card farmers for whom, thanks to exchange rates and the poor state of their countries' economies, it makes it actually worthwhile to farm Steam trading cards. They're trying to carve out a living in locations far more hostile than many of us will likely ever know and yet still supposedly in the civilised world. So who can you blame?
Well the answer has to be the developers who have chosen what I call the bad route. The route will no artistic value or merit to it. The route just about making money and when you can throw out a cheaply made asset flip or low effort game in a short time then it becomes unfortunately an effective way to keep going ,even if you're not making it into the upper teirs of money sales wise. It would be nice to think games with artistic value that had love and care from the developers put into them succeed and asset flips and low effort games failed, that's not the reality of this world though.
It would be nice to find a way to improve Steam, to make it work but it's looking for a perfect solution in an imperfect world. You set the bar so no studio can release low effort games and you lose the potential for that studio to transcend their beginnings and become something far better, you lose the potential initial bit of cash studios can get to build into something bigger. Stopping all low effort games would shut the industry doors to so many developers' just starting out before they've made a choice on which path to do down; before they've become part of the problem because 1, 2 or a handful of low effort games may lead to something far better from their next title. About the only thing that could be done in my view would be limit developers self publishing on steam to 6 game releases a year; even then though as has been shown in the past some developers have made and operated multiple developer profiles on Steam to try and hide or disassociate their games with any possible negative reputation.
The thing is all of this is also ignoring the 3rd path, a path developers don't so much choose to take as end up going down by accident. When a low effort game or asset flip or whatever you want to call it transcends the expectations and becomes a phenomena or viral hit. PUBG is mostly made with store bought assets or commissioned ones but was a huge phenomena. Even bigger was Flappy Bird. Steam missed out on Flappy Bird and you can bet seeing it that some people at Valve were kicking themselves thinking how well that game could have done for them or seeing that giant amount of success occurring for stores other than their own. Valve are likely reluctant to cull off low effort games or asset flips for fear of killing off the next Flappy Bird.
So next time someone tells you low effort games and asset flips should all be banned from Steam and the store highly curated to remove anything low effort, now you know it's far more complex because after all from small acorns mighty Oaks do grow.
Thank you for reading, and hopefully I helped widen your Field of View.