Death threats and dictatorships: Why 'ban happy' platform holders are good for no-one

What Newell-gate says about the power of platform holders

Death threats and dictatorships: Why 'ban happy' platform holders are good for no-one

Man threatens on Twitter to kill Gabe Newell. Man happens to be a developer with his game on Steam. Man sees his game pulled from Steam as a result.

In general, the reaction to Valve's decision to pull Mike Maulbeck's Paranautical Activity from Steam because of the aforementioned 'death threat' against Newell was one of “Well, that was dumb, but I guess he got what was coming to him”.

The discovery that Maulbeck made said tweet in response to his game mistakenly being listed as Early Access when it was, in reality, a full release seems to make very little difference.

That reaction isn't necessarily wrong, especially when death threats to developers are a prominent subject at the moment. Threatening to kill someone is rarely ever smart – threatening to kill someone right now is especially ill-advised.

It's too easy to say 'he deserved it' and to move on with our lives, however, as there is an additional concern surrounding Valve's reaction: should we be comfortable with the fact that we exist in a world where storefronts like Steam, and especially so with Apple and Google, have the ability to ruin a developer's career for saying something they dislike?

Seller beware

Certainly, I'm fine with drawing the line for usage of this power at death threats. Regardless of the credibility of this threat in particular, I'm fine with the larger point being made of "death threats are never an appropriate reaction."

If this convinces a few other people that it's stupid do so even just because it might cost you money, then the world's a better place.

But the problem is that, right now, in any market you can think of - be it Steam on desktop, Apple on iOS, Google on Android, as well as the big three console manufacturers - these companies all control the floodgates to their platforms. While on desktop and Android, there are technical other options for distribution, on the whole they're not viable ones for making money.

Paranautical Activity getting pulled from Steam and Valve saying that it doesn't want to do business with developer Code Avarice any more effectively ruins the company until Valve lets it back in, if it ever does.

Perhaps it's a bit capitalist pig-dog of me, but I think Valve or any other gatekeeper has the right to not sell a game if it doesn't want to. It would be like if Amazon didn't sell a book that criticised the retailer: while it would be hurting the financial opportunities of the author and publisher behind it, it isn't shutting it out of the market entirely. Those behind it can still sell the book, they can even distribute it in a format that can be read on Kindles.

Certainly, on console and on iOS, this analogy is a bit problematic because there are no other routes to market other than those the platform holders provide, meaning that any developer that gets locked onto just one device is taking a risk.

I think Valve or any other gatekeeper has the right to not sell a game if it doesn't want to.

Comparatively, on desktop and Android are both open markets, and a seller doesn't have an obligation to sell something it doesn't want to, especially when that doesn't kill the product itself, it just shuts off one way to sell it. A big way, but not the only way.

Power and control

There is, however, the larger problem of the fact that the market is creating effective monopolies on each platform, if not actual ones.

While Greenlight is much easier to get through now than it was a year ago, it's still a case where any developer that can't get its game through it is pretty much a lost cause. Add to that the idea that a developer could say the wrong thing and have its livelihood cut off because they made someone mad is troubling.

As well, the medium of gaming becomes an especially limited one when developers have to subconsciously target a specific platform's restrictions in order to try and get on it. That's especially the case on iOS, where Apple quite literally spells out that it doesn't want games to make a point: "If you want to criticize a religion, write a book."

The fact that mobile storefronts are so interconnected through cross-platform development means that one platform's restrictions can, by default, impact on others.

Hello, Uncle Joe

It all leaves me feeling rather conflicted. I think the platform holders should have the right to not sell what they want, especially in the case of Steam and on Android where someone isn't restricted from making whatever game they want on those platforms, they just aren't guaranteed the right to be sold on a particular marketplace.

We deserve healthier markets.

I'm also fine with the idea of cutting off those who cross the line of death threats, but I'm uncomfortable with the idea that these platform holders have that power to cut off financial viability for those they dislike.

We deserve healthier markets – markets where a developer isn't necessarily sunk just because Steam is feeling particularly dictatorial that day. Or where Apple's policies wind up affecting mobile gaming in general because developers need to target iOS, but also need to live up to Apple's restrictions.

What's particularly interesting to grasp, however, is the fact Steam became number one in desktop gaming and Google Play tops every other app marketplace because they are the most convenient options.

In Apple's case, iOS hit the heights because people liked the universe Apple created with its policies and restrictions. In my view, the market is drawn to benevolent dictators – it's almost inevitable that they exist. We just need to make sure that they remain benevolent.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!