U.S. Markets closed

Steam distribution agreement makes release parity standard with no added compensation

Sarah LeBoeuf

Steam distribution agreement makes release parity standard with no added compensation

Questions about Steam's stance on release parity arose after a tweet from Glass Bottom Games founder Megan Fox. As she points out, other storefronts often offer some sort of compensation for parity, rather than making it a standard part of the contract.

Sarah LeBoeuf,Mon, 09 Sep 2019 18:53:00

Storefront exclusives have been an especially contentious topic in the gaming industry since Epic launched the Epic Games Store late last year. Epic has nabbed a number of high-profile exclusives in its storefront’s short time on the market, which has resulted in their publishers pushing back Steam releases (or scrapping them entirely).

While Valve has barely publicly acknowledged the EGS this year, a section of Steam’s distribution agreement appears to lock developers and publishers into a release parity agreement, meaning any games, updates, and DLC must release on Steam at the same time as (or before) launching on any other platforms. As Glass Bottom Games founder, and developer behind SkateBIRD, Megan Fox said in a tweet that made the rounds over the weekend, “The other stores demanding this actually pay devs/give devs something for agreeing to it.”

The portion of the contract covering delivery isn’t necessarily a direct response to the Epic Games Store; it’s unclear when it was added, and according to the Twitter hivemind, could have been anywhere from years ago to December 2018 to last week. (Valve did not respond to a request for comment by publication.) The reason this segment stands out is because, as Fox continued, Steam is not offering anything — like the type of PlayStation Blog publicity one might get from Sony, for example — in exchange for this parity.

Of course, there’s also a question as to whether or not this policy is even being enforced; Glass Bottom Games’ upcoming Steam release SkateBIRD previously appeared briefly on itch.io, Fox pointed out. According to attorney Richard Hoeg, provisions like this are rarely enforced publicly, because it’s usually not worth the fallout.

“Here’s the dirty secret of a lot of provisions like this. It will almost never be enforced in public,” Hoeg told GameDaily. “The negatives (suing a publisher, developer, or indie) are just too much for any benefit you might seek.”

If there's no reason to enforce the clause, it seems like there would be no reason to have it to begin with. Hoeg provided a bit more clarity as to why Valve ensured that this was part of the Steamworks contract.

“One, because you never know when you might need to use it (in a circumstance where you can frame it as the other side being a ‘bad actor’); and two, because you can use it as leverage… By simply having the provision in there Steam can elect to press on another party for benefits, whether in the form of the next contract negotiation, next release, or otherwise,” Hoeg explained.

There are still a lot of questions to be answered about Steam’s release parity policy, from when it was last updated, to how (and if) it will be enforced. Hoeg doesn’t think there’s anything particularly egregious about it, however. 

“I don’t see much unusual here,” he said in an email to GameDaily. “And if the provision has been in place for awhile, it’s likely because their lawyers want Steam to reserve the right to enforce it against specific folks at some point in the future… in all likelihood you aren’t going to see a contract provision enforced on this. You are simply going to see them announce a policy that you can’t come on Steam if you release elsewhere first.”

While that sounds reassuring, it’s understandable that game makers, particularly smaller studios, would worry about this policy. Many indies turn to itch.io or Humble Originals, where it’s easier to get support and stand out from the pack than on Steam’s crowded marketplace, where larger budget titles often get priority. The fact that the parity policy could be enforced at any time makes it sort of a ticking time bomb, which isn’t encouraging when you’re struggling to release a game.