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Steam vs. Xbox Live Arcade: Jonathan Blow explains why Microsoft is aiming at a moving target

Steam vs. Xbox Live Arcade: Jonathan Blow explains why Microsoft is aiming at a moving target

Jonathan Blow showed us his latest game at the Game Developers Conference, but he also shared some thoughts on the future of Steam, and why Xbox Live Arcade is a challenge for independent developers. The first issue is pricing: Blow invested a significant amount of time and money in The Witness, and the game will be much longer than Braid, with higher production values. The game may sell for around $20 to $25, which is more than the $10 or $15 standard of Xbox Live Arcade.

“If I go to Steam I can sell a game for $25, but if I go to Xbox Live Arcade I can’t,” Blow explained. “In fact, the contract says I can’t control the price at all. That artificial channeling is sort of making their platform inhospitable for certain kinds of games.”

Blow traveled to Seattle to take a look at some of the upcoming changes coming to Steam, and he was impressed with what he saw. “Steam already has a good interface. You can find games, there’s community stuff on there, it has recommendations… you compare that to Live Arcade, which is the best console digital experience by a wide margin, and Steam is still way better, which is crazy,” he said. “The other thing is Valve is not stopping. Microsoft mostly stopped, and now they’re fucking around with the Kinect UI. Who cares about that? Does anyone use that?”

The developer was excited about the things he saw coming to the Steam platform; he said he was “super impressed” by the work being done and the conversations he had. “[Valve] had a bunch of indie developers up there, and they wanted to show us their plan, and talk about whether it meets our needs for getting our games on [Steam],” he explained.

Blow said that most presentations of this kind are led by marketing, complete with power point slides and bar graphs. Valve was different.  “The engineers who type the code of the website to make it happen were there, and we were there, and we asked if it would be feasible to do something, and they wrote it down and put it down on their to-do list. It’s the complete opposite of the Microsoft bureaucracy, which is ‘we can’t do that, it’s not how the Xbox works.’ That’s their standard answer.”

Blow wouldn’t say what he saw at Valve, but he did say one of Steam’s problems is that it’s hard to have a limited number of people looking at the games being submitted and still make sure games that deserve it get through. The submission pipe is filled with games that barely work, as well as a flood of submissions for re-skinned versions of popular, existing games. A common trick is to change the title and loading screen of Call of Duty and submit it as a new game. It takes a significant amount of time to wade through all the cruft. “In that noise, some really good games get lost. Indies e-mail with games, demos, videos, and sometimes it’s actually a good game, and the indie community knows it’s a good game, or someone in the press knows it a good game, but Valve doesn’t know it’s a good game,” Blow said. There are plans to help with these issues, and Steam has a few other tricks up its sleeve for the future.

He’s also sure that Microsoft doesn’t have much of a chance to compete on features. “Even if Live Arcade targets Steam’s current features, which are way better than what they have, they’re still aiming for where Steam was, they’re not skating to where the puck is going to be,” he said. “I shouldn’t even be picking on Microsoft, because they’ve won the console side of this thing.” He laughed after bringing up Nintendo’s online strategies, or lack thereof. “Japanese companies decided a long time ago that people don’t want to play games over the Internet,” Blow said.

Steam is becoming the favored platform for many developers and the willingess to listen to the people who make the games gives Valve a large advantage in both good will and fluidity. The question is whether these complaints will compel Microsoft to loosen the leash on its own storefront.