A few weeks ago Steam came out with their hotly if somewhat anxiously anticipated Greenlight system, and so far it’s… definitely a thing? I wanted to talk about this a couple of weeks ago, but at the time I wanted to talk about ‘girlfriend mode’ more. In the meanwhile, things have settled down a bit, but for a while the debate was pretty heated over whether Greenlight was a good idea, a bad idea, or just an idea that needed a lot of work.
Chapter One: A Throne of Games
So, for those possibly hypothetical readers who aren’t familiar with the situations: Steam is the foremost digital distribution platform for PC games, and one of the major factors driving both the PC market in general and the particular economic success of a lot of games, particularly indie games which can’t afford a big marketing budget. In short, getting on Steam is a huge deal– Like “my garage band just got signed for a multi-million dollar contract” huge.
Chapter Two: A Crush of Things
Anyway, because of this they were obviously flooded by a ton of submissions of greatly inconsistent quality, and it was incredibly difficult for them to sort through them all and appraise them and put the games up on Steam. So Valve, the company which owns Steam, in their infinite wisdom, have implemented the Greenlight system. Users can submit their games, and other users vote them up or down, and hypothetically the cream will rise to the top.
In practice, it turns out if you just eat cream then you get nauseous and sleepy. More on that later.
Chapter Three: A Storm of Spam
Literally no one didn’t see this coming. Within hours of Greenlight going live, those submissions of wildly varying quality and questionable validity, which had previously flooded their submission queue, were now dumped on our unsuspecting heads (some hypothesize this may have been the nefarious true purpose behind the Greenlight project in the first place). Legitimate projects were mixed in with amateurish proto-concepts, racist trolling, and other people’s games submitted by a justly confused user base.
Chapter Four: A Feast for Trolls
At the same time, the more rough-edged of the legit projects were flooded both with down-votes and horrible trolling comments. Keeping in mind that many of these were projects that the developers had been working on for a year or more, posting them on a popular forum only to get excoriated for not having super high quality assets was, uh, pretty rough on a lot of amateur developers. No one was quite sure why the down vote button was there, since it didn’t directly affect a game’s chances of being approved and it seemed unnecessarily negative if it were simply a mechanism to mark games as viewed without voting them up. Even the effect of up-votes was confusing, since there was a progress meter for each game and even for the most popular games the meter rarely exceeded 10%.
Chapter Five: A Fist Full of Dollars
To cut down on the noise, Valve instituted a $100 fee to submit a game to the Greenlight system. This was purely contrived as a gate-keeping method, since it was a one-time cost per-user (not per-game) and all proceeds went to the Child’s Play charity.
This is the point where things transitioned from slightly chaotic to proper shit-fan-hitting controversy.
Chapter Six: A Dance of Indies
The indie community split. The established and commercially popular indies, such as Jon Blow and Team Meat, took the position that anyone who had a decent game to sell should have no difficulty leveraging that to raise $100. The more avant-garde developers such as Anna Anthropy declared that this was a form of classism that shuts out the alternative voices that many had hoped the Greenlight project would grant increased exposure to.
Chapter Seven: A Lot of Stupid References
Another issue that triggered a lot of indie ire is that the charity, Child’s Play, is one that not everyone necessarily supports. Many people take issue with the creators of Child’s Play, Penny Arcade, and refuse to support it on that principle– at the same time, it’s been pointed out that some developers that channeling gate-keeping fees from Greenlight to Child’s Play is basically funneling money from indies to Big Gaming.
Chapter Eight: A Contrived Running Gag
The Hundred Dollar Controversy died down due to everyone running out of Interesting to say about it, and Valve went ahead and confused the fuck out of everyone by approving the 10 games with the highest vote count for release– oh except they skipped one just to make it a little bit more bewildering.
Chapter Nine: I Seem to Have Painted Myself Into A Corner
So what’s my opinion on all of this?
I’ll say it up front: I’m not a fan of the the gate-keeping fee. I think that, at the same time as it places financial strain on the auteurs who are creating some of the most ground-breaking work in the field of games, it fails to shut out basically any amateur who has more money than sense or development talent.
Chapter Ten: I’ve Made a Huge Mistake
If it were up to me, I’d implement a system where anyone could submit but submissions are added as unlisted pages, and were required to exceed a threshold of positive votes before they were visible at all. This would require developers to build up a certain amount of word of mouth through traditional methods before their game could be listed for popular voting. It would be possible for someone to vote themselves up through dummy accounts, but this would take a non-trivial amount of effort and given Valve’s penchant for data collection would, I’m sure, be immediately obvious.
But it’s not up to me. Yet.
Chapter Eleven: Thank God That’s Over
That’s all solvable, though people seem to disagree on what the exact solution might be. A deeper and more difficult problem, which I alluded to at the beginning of this article is that the games this selects for are not necessarily the deepest nor the most interesting.
Now, the fact that Valve still seems to make the final decisions about what votes mean and whether the games eventually get released or not suggests a path to release for auteurs who are outside the mainstream. Honestly for all practical purposes things are the same as they ever were. Indies who want to be successful financially need to gain a lot of visibility and then try to leverage that to get into Steam. It’s just the exact mechanism by which that is accomplished has changed.