A few days ago, Steam’s already controversial service “Greenlight” (intended as a way to let the community decide which indie games are to be published by it) was surrounded by a true storm of controversy on Steam when they announced that all developers would be forced to pay a one-off US $100 fee before they could list their games on Greenlight (this is once per developer, not per game). All money thus acquired would go to the Child’s Play charity. The indie community was polarized in two camps which were almost at each other’s (and Valve’s) throats.
So let me get this out of the way: I think that Greenlight is a great idea (one of the best things to ever happen to indie gaming, in fact), and I think that the fee should have been there from the start. I shall now explain why.
First, a little disclaimer
Steam Greenlight was announced in a pub in London, where many of UK’s indie developers gathered to listen to Valve’s presentation. I was fortunate enough to be present. Some of the information here comes from my impressions from that presentation, and not merely from what is listed on the Greenlight website. I cannot provide sources for this, obviously, and it may well be subject to interpretation problems or changes since then. Nevertheless, I believe that the information I’m presenting is reasonably accurate.
What is Greenlight about? What is Greenlight NOT about?
Greenlight is primarily a tool to help Valve gauge interest in your game. Remember that Valve is not a charity dedicated to fulfilling the dreams of the indie developers of Earth – they are a BUSINESS. The objective of Greenlight is NOT to promote your game. It’s NOT to make an unknown game discoverable by the masses. On the Greenlight announcement meeting, Valve was clear that it was a tool that you would use to drive your fan base into supporting your game. It’s STILL your job to market and popularize your game. That said, many indie developers are claiming massive increase in sales thanks to the advertisement generated by Greenlight.
In fact, Greenlight is INTENTIONALLY “disorganized”. You can’t list games by popularity, and that’s absolutely by design – they don’t want a system in which games get stuck in positive feedback, with the most popular becoming even more discoverable and the least popular vanishing into the bottom of a list (how many people would actually look at the LEAST popular games, especially since there will be many truly horrid games there?). If you’re casually browsing, every game has an equal chance. If that was ALL there was to it, it’d still work as a system, since overall the most appealing games would still get a higher up-vote count. But, again, you’re supposed to drive your own traffic into your Greenlight page, and that’s absolutely fine – remember, the objective is not to promote the BEST games; it’s to promote the games with the highest SALES POTENTIAL. This was emphasized by their change from “Thumbs up”/”Thumbs down” to “I’d buy this”/”Not interested”.
I believe that once you accept the concept that the objective of Greenlight is to maximize sales, how it’s organized makes perfect sense. I believe that Valve hit an excellent model here.
Here’s another interesting thing: on the meeting, it was implied that Greenlight was now the ONLY acceptable way to get a game on Steam, unless you’re already doing business with them. Indie developers who think that they’re too good, and therefore need not join the unwashed mashes on Greenlight might want to consider getting off their high horses, because Steam is not going to make exceptions for them. They’ll go through popular voting, like everyone else. If they’re really as major as they think they are, they won’t be stuck there for long, and need not worry about it.
Another source of criticism is that the bars are moving SO DAMN SLOWLY – with very few games over 10%, and estimated times to get games approved in ludicrous ranges. But it has been said, both on the Greenlight FAQ and on the meeting, that it’s all tentative – NOBODY knows the dynamics of this system, so Valve is treating it as an experiment, and reserves themselves the right to change the rules at any time (as they should). Ultimately, Greenlight is a GUIDE for them. If they see a very popular game that’s still at 30% and looks like it’d be good for Steam, they might as well promote it to 100% – why not? I expect to see lots of changes to those bars in the coming weeks.
As an example of just how popular a game needs to be to fill the bar, here’s data from a game from which I have data for, Out There Somewhere - Saint11, one of the creators of the game, has agreed to release this data. Despite over 600 favourites, a majority of up-votes and a 9/10 Eurogamer review, it barely manages to have 1% of its bar filled! It will be interesting to see how this progresses over the next few weeks.
Some people have also made it clear that they believe that the existence of down-votes is a terrible idea. However, it’s a critical part of the system – down votes are simultaneously useful for Steam and for the developers of the game to know how popular their games are, and, more importantly, to let Greenlight know that you’ve already seen and rated this game, and never show it on your queue again. If you don’t down-vote the games that are not interesting to you, the queue will appear to be “broken”, and you will believe that discoverability is non-existent. On the matter of letting developers gauge the popularity of their own game, I hope that this will serve as a reality check for the many indie developers who believe that their games are much more interesting than actually perceived by the general public. I have seen developers complaining about 63% of down-votes on their games, even when the reasons for such niche appeal are evident. Hopefully this will make us all more aware of what the audience wants.
Why is the $100 fee a good decision? Why not a lower value?
Originally, uploading games to Greenlight was free. This meant that there were a lot of troll submissions, or people who misunderstood the service for a wishlist. There were also many very sub-par entries, either very early in concept stage, or done by amateur teams. The harsh reality is that most indie games are terrible, precisely because most of them are made by inexperienced teams. The harsher reality is that those don’t deserve to be on Steam, and their presence there was harming everyone else.
The $100 fee makes sure that not only legitimate developers submit their games, but it also discourages people with weak ideas from doing so. A lower value, say $10, could easily have blocked most of the trolls and confused users, but it wouldn’t stop the unmarketable games from being added there. With this relatively high fee, you need to have SOME faith that your game has a decent chance of being approved. Again, remember that Valve’s business is not to include EVERY indie game on Earth, merely the best of them. People who are amongst those almost certainly already have a following around them, and have built enough confidence that this is something that people would pay money for. From that view, $100 becomes a very irrelevant value – it’s the value of a few dozen sales even at low prices. If you don’t think that your game will sell thousands of copies, then don’t bother putting it there.
What about poor indie developers who can’t afford $100?
This is where things got really ugly on Twitter. There were many developers claiming that they simply can’t afford the $100 needed for the submission. They dedicate their lives to the craft and live on the edge, without a cent to spare. But again, this only seems relevant if you have a minor game that nobody has heard of. If you have a fanbase of thousands of people who want to play your game, surely you can do a fundraiser asking for 100 dollars for that purpose. Once your game is on Steam, you can just give them Steam keys (which apparently you can do at will), so this also works as a Kickstarter/Pre-order model. Or you can ask somebody else to cover that cost for you – if you truly have a Steam-quality game on your hands, somebody will pay that for you. I even saw some Tweets of people offering to do so. You’re only “left out” if you’re simultaneously extremely broke and unpopular – and, at that point, you’re not going to be successful in Steam anyway.
Finally, if your game is popular enough to eventually pass Greenlight, it should be popular enough to net you well over $100 of sales on OTHER, more indie-friendly websites, such as Desura. Once your game sold a few copies there, use the money to pay your entry into Greenlight.
Remember: Greenlight and Steam are not your personal marketing page! They are a STORE, to which you will only be admitted after proving that you can reach their standards. They owe you no favours.
Stronger filtering ultimately benefits us all
A lot of people are saying that this tax is just yet another barrier to the “democratization” of sales of indie games, that everyone should have the same chance, etc. Unfortunately, by letting everyone in Greenlight (even ignoring the trolls and confused people), the result was an avalanche of terrible games, with a few gems spread in-between. This makes people think that all indie games are bad, and eventually give up on Greenlight altogether. By increasing the barrier to entry in a way that the signal-to-noise ratio increases, every game that is on Greenlight benefits. It might seem like it’s elitism, but it helps the actually good games, it helps Valve, and it helps the consumers. It’s best to be left out of a good system than let in a broken system.
My answer to those left out is simply: keep making games, learn from your mistakes, and improve. Once your games are good enough, you will be let in, and then you’ll be glad that Greenlight’s filtering has kept it functioning.