Valve and externalized labour

Valve used to emply 12 people to look after (I'm not entirely clear) Steam, or submissions to Steam. There were far more submissions than they could manage. So they introduced Greenlight. They didn't employ more people, despite Steam obviously bringing in enough revenue to pay for them. They did this because they prioritize increasing their productivity-per-worker. Some of these causal links are stereotyped, or guessed -- I'm sure they also find hiring people a slow and painful process, I'm sure they also are concerned by their role as a single gatekeeper to the money hose.

Meanwhile, there's in increasing way of seeing Facebook and other sites as being built off user labour. The act of uploading photos, tagging, friending, liking pages all creates valuable data, and that's what the value of the companies is built off. Most large internet corporations are built off this principle -- Amazon escapes this a little, because they also sell things. To the point that there is a proposed French tax, that, rather smartly, would tax data collection. Because value is being created in France when French users use the Internet, but it's being taxed in tax havens. Like I said, smart! And radical.

As an potential maker of a game that will go on Steam, I can feel the effects here directly. The old system was not much work, if incredibly capricious. Send an email to the relevant people, beg friends for contacts, pray. Now you have a Greenlight page to manage, you have to harness your fans to vote for you, do press outreach work (which, sure you'd be doing anyway, but there's an additional load). You feel the extra labour, and you feel the impact of the labour you're asking fans to do on your behalf to vote for you. No-one likes to pester people. And my day is already getting sort of full of doing shit I don't get paid for on the Internet.

An important point here is -- the extra work that Greenlight has created is far larger than the extra work that 12 extra (twice the capacity!) full-time people would do. And it's not renumerated (unless you win access to the money hose for your game, of course). This is great for Valve, but a bit evil. Pretty much routine for this day and age, but still -- a bit evil.

The thing is, Valve give the impression of being a fairly moral, fairly not-evil company. (Sidenote: I am very curious as to what they do with all the money they/Gabe Newell makes. Does anyone know?). So I hope they're thinking along these lines, and find a way to funnel some of that value back to users in the next iteration of Steam. They're talking about curated storefronts, with commision for the people who run it them -- there's reasons to be hopeful.
06 February 2013