What is Valve Doing with Steamworks?

Valve is doing something different to most developers, that much is clear. The just-announced Steamworks developer suite is more evidence of it. While most seem to agree that it is a good thing for developers and thus, indirectly, for gamers, there doesn't seem to be complete agreement as to why it is good for Valve.

My take was that Valve is trying to establish itself as the de facto hub for PC gaming, something I mentioned in my last post on this topic, and Steamworks is a way to extend that reach, even to developers who may not be willing to jump into a royalty-sharing agreement with Valve just yet. If they're using Steamworks, they're not considering Games for Windows Live (not that it seems many are), and maybe eventually they will engage in a more traditional relationship with Valve.

Beyond that, though, and probably more importantly, it extends Valve's reach in the PC gaming industry. Valve's online matchmaking tools, social networking, and so on become the standard.

Still, some don't see the tangible benefit to Valve. I was speaking casually yesterday with a developer who plans to be on Steam, and he seemed doubtful about how it will provide a net profit when Steamworks-using studios still retain all control over their games' distribution.

On the other side of the coin, GarageGames' Tim Aste posted enthusiastically about Steamworks in Shack comments yesterday. "This is absolutely amazing for PC game developers, and won't mean much to everyday consumers except for that they will get much better games," he wrote. "Thumbs up Valve! What a lot of people take for granted in games are actually some incredibly complex things to tackle for developers, and here Valve is basically tell us to throw out our hammers and giving us a nailgun."

In any case, the company's increasing influence over PC game distribution and post-release support is likely to worry some, given the traditionally standardless PC environment. Way back in 2006, 3D Realms' Scott Miller gave his thoughts on Steam.

"I'd love to see Steam spin off as their own company," said Miller. "That removes the conflict of interest issue and it would give Steam focus as a separate company. Since they're buried in Valve, if Valve doesnÂ’t do well for a game or two, Steam will get cut before their internal game development. They have to consider Steam secondary. I don't know why they hang on to Steam as an internal thing. They'd probably rule the game industry if they did."

3D Realms was already known for being wary of Steam, as it is essentially a distribution service controlled by one of 3DR's competitors, but the point I think is valid--not because I think Valve is going to drop the Steam ball when development gets heavy (it doesn't get much heavier than The Orange Box), but because that much influence in the hands of a single developer whose overall focus is on making games does seem like it could get a little lopsided.

I do love Steam, and I do hope it continues to become more widespread, because PC gaming needs that kind of stability to be able to compete with Xbox Live; Shackers very often post about moving from online PC gaming to online console gaming, despite their PC history, simply because it is so much more streamlined. However, given Steam's increasingly broad scope, it might be wise to consider making it a self-sufficient entity.