Friday, March 15, 2019

Out of Steam - The End of Valve's Gaming Empire

All things pass, no matter how mighty, how formidable, how iconic of their time. Inevitably, every empire either fails or diminishes to a degree as new empires are born.

This phenomenon echoes throughout history and manifests in a variety of ways, be it in the literal context of international affairs, or the rise and fall of corporate entities.

It's therefore completely unsurprising to see the current predicament of Valve's Steam platform playing out in a similar fashion within the landscape of the video game industry. The only real question I find myself pondering is precisely what form and role Steam will take now that Ubisoft, one of the last significant purveyors of third-party, AAA game content on the platform, has actively begun to move away from it.

In some ways, the dwindling amount of third-party, AAA content on Steam could be viewed as a positive. The platform has certainly cultivated and maintained a strong reputation and community around independent (indie) game development over the years. One could argue that the absence of titles by major publishers like Activision, Blizzard, Bungie, EA, Microsoft, and Ubisoft undoubtedly enhances the visibility of indie and middle-market offerings that might otherwise be overshadowed by releases from those giants.

Of course, it could also be argued that AAA, third-party titles have historically served as a catalyst, drawing new users to Steam who might not have otherwise adopted it. As such, it seems reasonable that the near-total absence of such offerings moving forward may adversely affect the platform's long-term growth.

It's no secret that Valve has actively been working on new, first-party titles for the past several years, likely in anticipation of this exodus, but it remains to be seen how effective they will be in filling the void. If the negative to lukewarm reception for "Artifact," Valve's recently-released collectable card game, is any indication, the company's renewed first-party game development efforts may well prove insufficient, or outright ineffectual in retrospect.

Personally, I don't see Steam going anywhere anytime soon; however, I do think Ubisoft's slow-motion departure from the platform does represent a pivotal moment in its lifespan. In my mind, and I suspect in the minds of many gaming enthusiasts, Valve and Steam are no longer the big dogs of the industry, leading through innovation and excellence. I increasingly see them as just another participant in an increasingly-fragmented and competitive marketplace, having nearly lost track of all the various game launchers I currently find installed on my PC.

As a consumer, I absolutely see the objective value in this increased level of competition, despite it often creating a somewhat-less-convenient and streamlined user experience. Moreover, I readily acknowledge Valve's many mistakes over the years, particularly those they've yet to properly address. Still, there's a part of me that misses the simplicity inherent in the vast majority of my game library being consolidated within Steam. There was something comforting and reassuring about the experience that meshed well with the escapist, often-artificially-simplified nature of gaming as a hobby, which I always found compelling. Of course, reality and its complexities always, inevitably intrude into every sanctum as surely as empires rise and fall but in my mind, the Empire of Steam was a worthy, wonderful thing while it lasted.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Assimilated: The End of Gaming Culture?

I love video games. For over 40 years now, I've been playing and enjoying them and there's nothing about any of those experiences, even the particularly-vexing ones, that I would say I regret.

Indeed, looking back on my time with the hobby, my only real points of lament or frustration have little to do with the actual act of playing games, and far more to do with the undesirable cultural elements that sometimes surround them.

That's not to say that I've found participation in gaming culture to be a predominantly-frustrating, or even generally-problematic experience. Moreover, I've certainly had far more positive and worthwhile experiences with it over the years than negative ones. Still, I have found myself noting with increasing frequency in recent years that the entire concept of a discrete gaming culture seems to have outlived its usefulness in a lot of ways.

There's a lot I could unpack here regarding the specific instances I've observed, such as the co-opting of gaming culture by groups and individuals in attempts to mask or enable behaviors that are widely and rightfully considered unacceptable in society at large, such as racism, sexism, and the like, or the mob-like dogpile that can occur when a vocal minority within the gaming community attempts to shout down or suppress ideas, or points of view that don't mirror their own on a given subject.

I could spend a lot of time and effort breaking all this down but in considering the myriad of ways I might do that, it occurred to me that it would be a largely-pointless exercise beyond its possible worth as a historical point of reference in the future.

The truth as I see it is that the writing has been on the wall for a while, with the vast majority of positive elements from gaming culture having already been accepted and assimilated into popular culture. As a result, gaming culture can increasingly be viewed as an ever-shrinking, ever-less-relevant husk, largely containing the bad ideas, attitudes, and behaviors that were rejected.

Thus, the lifespan of gaming culture might be said to mirror that of many plants, beginning as a small, potent seed that grew into a complex, fruit-bearing organism, which was harvested for its best, most useful and satisfying elements before being left to rot.

Of course, if we carry the plant analogy a bit further, there is the possibility that gaming culture may produce, or already be in the process of producing new seeds that may manifest in some uniquely-positive (or negative) way in the future. Even so, I suspect that the end is near for gaming culture as we've come to know it.

Again, I don't see this as a universally-positive or negative thing. It's more of an observation based on some realizations I've had concerning what little impact a lot of the most talked-about and widely-publicized events in recent months have had outside the increasingly-tiny bubble "hardcore" gamers tend to inhabit.

In truth, it's been quite a while since I've self-identified as a "hardcore" gamer, having stepped outside that context with such frequency over the years as to ultimately find myself feeling disconnected from it. These days, I tend to view the remnants of the compartmentalized gaming community as one might perceive a dying star, slowly collapsing in on itself as it exhausts its remaining fuel.

I absolutely concede that my personal perspective on this topic may be a bit skewed based on my own experiences and where I currently find myself from a philosophical standpoint but no matter how I turn this notion around in my mind, I can't help thinking that the gaming community and gaming culture of my youth has been split into two entities: a larger, better one that transcended and integrated into the world at large, and a small, dark den of misery, well on its way to the grave.