As many of you may know, Steam, for many of the premier digital game distributors, has taken more than a few hits to its reputation in the last few years. Ever since deciding to take a hands-off approach when it came to the Greenlight system, Steam has been flooded with asset flips and quick cash-ins.
Despite a severe lack of quality and multiple incidents of customer harassment by many of these "developers", Valve has recently decided to double down and let even more games on the platform, only restricting ones they consider illegal.
With all of this, it's no surprise that people are more on the lookout for possible bad behavior. As such, it wasn't a huge surprise when I managed to discover what may very well become a new trend among Steam "developers".
An interesting discovery
I've discovered what turned out to be one of many DLCs labeled as Donations. The DLC, ranging from prices of $0.99 to $49.99, are labeled as beer and gas donations, blatantly saying that they add nothing to the games they’re for.
The games, created by Latvian developer Kiko, are made up of two basic RPG maker games and a poorly drawn “kinetic novel”. This kind of games, for better or worse, have been fairly common on Steam over the last few years, going back to when Valve first loosened their restrictions on what games were and were not allowed. What managed to catch my eye though, was the amount of DLC being offered by these games.
As mentioned before, there isn’t actually any content to be added but is instead just a way to send the developer a donation, being labeled as such. While this isn’t the first time DLC have been used for charity purposes, these are the only ones I can remember where the proceeds go directly towards the developer. Being fairly curious, I decided to do a little investigating, looking into the developer as well as seeing if there were any similar practices on Steam.
Looking into Kiko
One of the things I noticed was, despite being of fairly low quality, the game Trash Story had only positive reviews. Looking into it, I found two interesting things. First was that the developer, going by the username Creative on Steam, ran his own Steam group. While primarily advertised as a group for those who follow his curator page, Creative also has a section dedicated to handing out Steam keys for various games.
In addition, a majority of those who left reviews for Trash Story were members of said group. Further investigation also showed that Creative was himself a member of various groups based on Steam key giveaways, such as GiveAway.su and 5 minutes of a game.
While these bits of information are not in themselves proof of any kind of shenanigans being pulled, they certainly do raise some questions. It’s far from unheard of for Steam developers to try and gain positive reviews through giving away game keys. It has been a common practice during the days of Steam Greenlight to acquire votes.
Or it could simply be people trying to help a friend by leaving a positive review. From what I could find, Creative at the very least has a better behavior than most of the developers that have shown up with the introduction of Steam Direct, at least when it comes to dealing with people. As such, I’m a bit more willing to give the benefit of the doubt in this case than others.
Scanning the store
The next thing I took a look into was whether or not other developers were doing this. To clarify, I wasn’t just eyeing any and all DLC listed as a charity. Specifically, I was looking into those who were either A. Vague about how the money would be used, B. Gave no information on how it was to be used or C. Was used for things like food, gas, rent etc. In addition, I also decided to stick to games which did not add any form of content to the game, be it whole expansions or simple cosmetics.
While a majority of the Donation based DLC on the store was fairly on the up and up, I was able to find a few that stood out. Some were simply listed as helping with development costs, (Something you would think the actual game sales would be covering) while others said nothing of where the money went. Another prominent thing I saw was that many of these developers offered different “levels” of donations, such as bronze and gold level donations.
Why this matters
Two big questions spring up from this. One, will this become a popular trend among the seemingly endless number of people posting hastily put together asset flips trying to make a quick buck? In the past, cottage industries have built up around the Steam trading card system, and one wonders if this could become a similar case. Secondly, whether it gets big or not, will Valve do anything to prevent this practice. While these donations are masked as DLC, they still seem to be breaking the content rules of Steam, albeit in a much sneakier fashion.
I can likely see some of these “developers” trying to hook on to this as another way to make money. In the past, it has been shown that many of these people will do whatever they can to make as much cash as possible with the minimal amount of effort. For many, this will be too good to pass up.
As for the second question, the answer is likely not. Valve has shown in the past that they have little to no desire to take any hands-on approaches to Steam, or at least not until it becomes a major issue. This has especially been true in cases where Valve profits in some way from what is going on (look at the CS: GO controversy for exhibit A).
I should also point out; I’m not saying you shouldn’t give donations to people and causes you think need it. The issue here is the possibility of another sketchy money making scheme may be coming to Steam, and if the past has been any indication, the people who suffer most from it is the customers having to wade through all the muck. Hopefully this time things are handled before they spiral out of control.