Higher-Order Fun

Game Design & Game Programming

Tag: rant

In Defence of Steam Greenlight

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.

On how Diablo III fails to live up to the Diablo legacy

[Edit: I’m now halfway through Act II, and everything I say stands – and, in fact, the problems have become even more obvious]

Diablo III just got released this week, to a spectacularly catastrophic launch day in which almost nobody could play. But once the server loads normalized and the initial hype died out, a surge of furious comments started to take over Twitter and Metacritic (where it has the wonderful User Score of 3.6). What went wrong? In my opinion, Blizzard has slowly been taking away everything that made Diablo excellent, and re-worked it into a far more generic (and perhaps marketable, they expect) experience.

It got to the point where I was almost quitting the game in disgust several times, but I tried to endure – until I saw King Leoric – a character who, in the original game, would greet you with “The warmth of life has entered my tomb. Prepare yourself, mortal, to serve my master for eternity” – brought back as a pathetic parody of its former self, in a ridiculous context, spitting out boring lines, and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I will probably go back to it, and maybe eventually beat it, but it will never be anything near the first two Diablo games.

For a game that actually has a reasonably solid gameplay, it’s peculiar that such things would bother me so much. But they did, and I think that understanding why is important, so here’s my best attempt at expressing what I felt. This might resonate with your own experiences, or you might have had completely different feelings. If so, please share in the comments.

Let’s recap.

Mood

Diablo (and by that I mean Diablo I) was a dark, moody, atmospheric game. I don’t feel that it’d be a major stretch to call it a horror game. The soundtrack was unique, powerful, memorable, and very, very creepy. The sound effects were of excellent quality – possibly better than in Diablo II and III, even. The scenarios were dark, and you couldn’t see much. Your character was initially very weak, and through most of the game, a bad mistake would cost your life (which was a far worse punishment – you’d drop all equipment to the floor, leaving it vulnerable to be stolen, and making it harder to kill whatever killed you). The game intro set the perfect tone for the game:

Then along came Diablo II. Instead of being confined to maze-like dark dungeons, you were thrown into open, bright worlds full of creatures that posed less of a real challenge. The music was unremarkable, and failed to add to the atmosphere. Worst of all, you felt POWERFUL. This was no longer about a mad heroic journey – this was just hack and slashing. This is the same reason why Amnesia is genuinely scary, while Doom 3 and Dead Space are nowhere near as much – you just have too much power in those games, compared to the defenseless protagonist of Amnesia. But Diablo II still tried to be dark and horror-ish, and in many senses, it succeeded. The cinematics certainly preserve the feel of the original game. Let’s look at the intro:

And then comes Diablo III. It took the same changes Diablo II had done, and amplified them. I see no hint of horror in this game. All I see is generic adventuring. This feels like D&D. This feels like Torchlight. This feels like WoW. It feels like many things… unfortunately, Diablo is not one of them. Here’s the intro:

The progressive change of mood in those intro videos is fairly telling of what’s going on with the series, I’m afraid.

Story

This is where the game really stroke a nerve. I’ve been under the impression that all of Blizzard’s writers were either fired or driven to incompetence after the release of the original StarCraft. From Brood War onwards, the quality of the text and storylines has decreased significantly, and Diablo III is the most telling example.

Diablo I had little in-game plot. You just returned to Tristram, which has been overran by a mysterious dark force coming from the depths of the local church. As you slowly descended through its dungeons, you got a few more hints of what was going on, until you finally came face-to-face with the Lord of Terror himself, Diablo. But that’s not to say that it was bad – first of all, it strengthened the atmosphere of mystery in the game. Second, what little was told was superbly well written. Third, the manual itself had excellent backstory, explaining the events preceding the fall of Tristram in a compelling and believable way. Here’s a sample of in-game dialogue:


It’s said that Tolkien was once asked why didn’t he wrote about all those distant mountains he would talk about on his books. His reply was supposedly “I could talk about them, but then I would need even farther mountains”. Part of making the world believable is to have a lot more to it than just what’s immediately visible to the player. The team behind Diablo I understood that well… but in Diablo II, they made a terrible mistake. They systematically went through the backstory in the Diablo manual and, as if holding a checklist, made sure that everything they encountered there would be directly relevant to the story of Diablo II. Andariel, Duriel, Mephisto and Baal. Archangel Tyrael. Tal Rasha. Even Izual and the Hellforge. Very little was added to make up for the losses, and what little it was was of far inferior quality. The game world had completely lost all its depth. A world in which you can see for yourself EVERYTHING ever mentioned in any form of Lore might be suitable for a massive MMO where you can actually travel the whole world – but just makes everything seem very shallow when you stride across a handful of small towns and just happen to run into every legend there ever was. Dialogues were plentyful, but very bland. In every way, they had managed to lose the magic of the game’s story. In a way, it felt like a fan game – eagerly consuming any elements it could find from canon, while making very predictable and boring additions.

When I thought that it couldn’t get any worse, Diablo III managed it. Do you remember how, in Diablo, your character (now called “Aidan”) was the elder son of King Leoric? No? Well, neither do I, but it has been retconned to be that way by Diablo III. Very peculiar that nobody in Diablo recognized him as such, and that he would say “Rest well, Leoric, I will find your son!” after slaying his undead body. The installer presents an avalanche of slightly tweaked events, written with pompous adjectives and going as far as pausing mid-sentence to name Tyrael’s sword – as if that had ever been relevant. Do you remember Adria’s daughter, Leah? You know, Deckard Cain’s niece? No? Also, people sure do like Tristram, going ahead and building a “New Tristram” right next to where one of the three Prime Evils came back not so many years ago (I assume so, anyway, as Cain was already old in the first game and has managed not to kick the bucket yet). Speaking of Tristram, can we decide whether the whole incident took place in its church (D1), monastery (D2) or cathedral (D3)? But now I’m stepping into nitpicking territory – although this sort of inconsistency only shows how little they care about making it coherent.

Gameplay

I would normally argue that gameplay is the most important thing in a game, but Diablo III makes me wonder to what degree is that true. There’s nothing really WRONG with the gameplay – it has been simplified from Diablo I and II, certainly, as it is now much more forgiving and “casual-friendly”, but that doesn’t bother me too much. I prefer more complex RPGs, but this is hardly what’s stopping me from playing.

It does have to be said that the new system does make me feel like a versatile, powerful character, which, as I mentioned before, is the exact opposite of what a Diablo character should ideally feel like. But I suppose that role-playing a cool and powerful character that spits pseudo-witty lines to coward mayors is very popular with most players, and setting be damned.

There is one thing, however, which is unforgivable. In an attempt to stop cheating and piracy, Blizzard has forced everyone to ALWAYS be playing online, through their servers. If their servers are down, or if your connection is unstable, or if you’re in an airplane – you can’t play. It doesn’t matter if you just want to have some solo fun – you’re STILL playing multiplayer, for every technical purpose. This is the worst form of DRM, and the only reason why anyone is willing to put up with it is because of Blizzard’s history of excellent games. Unfortunately, as of late, I can’t even say that they still make excellent games. Speaking of Blizzard’s history of DRM, do you remember how Diablo I would let you install a semi-demo copy (“Spawned version”) on a friend’s computer, so he could play with somebody who had the full version, subject to only a few limitations? And how the game didn’t even have a CD-key? From that to THIS? How long you’ve come, Blizzard.

I might not buy another Blizzard game, but this hardly matters – I’m sure their profits will continue to escalate. By making “popular art”, they sacrifice the exquisite quality that their games always had, but profit even more. Jonathan Blow said that you shouldn’t try to do what the audience wants – instead, you should make something great, and the audience (or, at least, some of it) will want that even more than what they originally thought they wanted – and I agree with that sentiment. I don’t think that many others do, however.

A shame, too. I WANTED to love this game.