Since its debut, the Steam Greenlight program, a place where indie games can garner support from fans to become a full fledged Steam game, has had mixed reviews. On the one hand, people think it’s great that smaller games, many of them having already been released on the PC and through Xbox Live Indie Games, are getting a chance to hit what is widely considered the holy grail of PC distribution. On the other hand, so many games that are either of horrifically poor quality or just mods of other games have flooded the service, so it’s hard to find anything good among the garbage.
Some cite this as a case of discoverability issues. I say, “These games are freaking awful.”1 In any case, Steam quickly responded and added a $100 fee for all entries to Greenlight going forward for the stated intention of cutting down on the noise, and 100% of that money will be donated to Child’s Play. It’s been a controversial move; small indie developers in particular are vehemently against it. Even the press’s reaction is mixed: Penny Arcade’s Ben Kuchera supported the decision on Tuesday night via Twitter, then came out with a piece the next day which called it “exclusionary and wrong.”
I think Ben and other critics couldn’t be farther from the truth. Steam has the right to do this, they are right to do this, and I support it 100%.
The number one comment from most developers is that $100 is a back-breaking cost of doing business. That’s funny because I just sent out a few hundred dollars in expense for this very business myself. Did I bitch about it? Of course not; it’s the cost of doing business. Expenses have to be figured in, and a $100 posting fee is necessary to get on Greenlight. Be glad it’s not more; it costs $100 just to get a license to Microsoft’s developer tools, and that’s before you even make the game. Other tools cost more. Simply put, it costs money to make a game that isn’t just piggybacking off of someone else’s work, and if the Unreal Engine shows anything, it can cost a lot of money to do even that. Welcome to business in the U.S.: to get something out, you have to put something in. If someone doesn’t have $100 to invest in the chance of getting on the Steam goldmine, maybe they shouldn’t be on Steam.
The people against Valve’s policy have said that it leaves an uneven playing field. Guess what, guys? The field is already uneven, but for the most part in the indie scene, the cream rises to the top. That’s why Dungeons of Dreadmor and Cthulu Saves the World are on Steam and DLC Quest isn’t. That isn’t to say that there are going to be a few that slip through the cracks (e.g. Shantae: Risky’s Revenge, which as of now has 1%) or get through when they shouldn’t (joy of joys, a crappy Half Life 2 mod is the #1 game on Greenlight). But for the most part, if a game has an audience, it finds its way onto Steam. The whole point of Greenlight is to find the games that have the attention and getting them onto the service for real. Valve takes the standard 30% of all revenues, so there has to be a financial incentive to host a game’s files, pay for bandwidth, etc. People whining that they’re in a popularity contest now are missing the point: indie gaming is, and always has been, a popularity contest of sorts. By trying to have a corporate master level the field, they’re making it harder for the truly great games to stand out. If that sounds a little overly Republican, don’t worry; there are services such as Desura, Indiecade, or even self-publishing (like what Defender Quest did) for those who want a more “even” solution.
The fact is, this is business, and indie gaming has become crowded by a bunch of half-hearted amateur efforts. Anyone with RPG Maker can make an eighty-hour “epic” quest, and in fact have done just that. Steam feels it’s their business to regulate their service so that only the best games, or at least the ones with the widest reach, get onto the service to make their own investment a success. If this is too much business, then maybe you shouldn’t be in business and should go back to making games for someone else and developing your skills. It would help; when I say the vast majority of what’s on Greenlight is awful, I mean it. The last thing Valve wants is the same reputation that Xbox Live Indie Games has: a dumping ground for first efforts hoping to catch fire on a gimmick. Ironically, most of what I’ve seen are ported over XBLIG games, even the good ones. Anyone who truly wants to succeed in this badly crowded market has two choices: learn to market effectively or go home. If that sounds like too much work, it is. If it doesn’t, welcome to running with the big boys, which people on Steam are aiming to do.
Honestly, I wouldn’t mind if the fee were higher. Ed Ropple, who’s developing a game of his own, favours $1,000; I prefer something closer to $500. It wouldn’t get rid of all the crap, but something so prohibitively high will clear out most of it and separate the men from the boys. Steam is a goldmine for those who get on it, even those in a niche genre, because it’s greatly used, highly visible, and games on the service are often included in major sales that can move large numbers of units. In short, it’s a golden ring, and something that valuable should, by definition, be difficult to acquire. Anyone who still wants to pay the fee to get in after all that just to see their name in lights for a few days, well, Child’s Play thanks you for your donation, which is at least better than lighting your money on fire.
There are obviously pratfalls in dealing with such a highly democratized service like Greenlight, such as the threat of trolls and the knowledge that nothing anyone can do will override big names such as Black Mesa. But these are the stakes that every publisher, not just the benighted indie ones, has to deal with; everyone who’s ever been a fan of a AA published game that got blown away at retail knows what I mean. Greenlight can be a great source of good, just the way Kickstarter has been. You think The Indie Stone won’t be using their eventual Greenlight approval, currently at about 30%, as an advertising point? But everything has a price. As Heinlein said, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Being on Steam is a highly valuable achievement for everyone who gets that far. If it’s going to stay that way, this type of quality control is necessary, and the sour grapes of the losers are ultimately as irrelevant as their trashy games.
1 – The Tumblr site Steam Brownlight has done a great job of finding a lot of the truly laughable crap.