The Success and Failure of Steam Greenlight

It’s unusual that Valve is the target of negative criticism from the gaming community, but they found themselves under fire mid-2012 for their rejection of Renegade Kid’s Mutant Mudds. Valve denied the game without giving a detailed explanation, leaving developer Jools Watsham with no idea how to move forward. Despite complaints about Valve and Steam being rare nowadays, it wasn’t long before other indie devs were stepping forward with similar accounts.

The confusion concerning Steam’s approval process was exacerbated by the release of Revelations 2012. Revelations, a poor re-skinning of Valve’s own Left4Dead, was despised by both critics and players alike. Despite it’s lack of quality, not only could you buy Revelations 2012 on Steam, but it was promoted within the store’s prime “Today’s Deal” spot.

As it turned out, Valve wasn’t ignorant of their shortcomings and were preparing to launch a project entitled Greenlight, their way of making the selection process transparent by handing the bulk of curation duties over to their customers. Shortly after Greenlight launched, however, it was obvious that the project itself needed some form of curation. Submissions ranged from the legitimate to people demanding the 2005 movie-licensed game “Robots” be released on Steam. Valve’s solution? A one-hundred dollar charge for anyone wanting to submit games to Greenlight.

The Greenlight fee was controversial, but I felt it was appropriate. There is a reason that Xbox Live Indie Games as well as other totally open distribution platforms aren’t so popular or have a bad reputation: A lot of the games look explicitly amateur, and it’s difficult to find jewels midst rubble. The listing charge worked as intended, as it is much easier to find promising titles on Greenlight now than it was during the program’s debut.

It’s been a little over four months since Greenlight’s August 30th launch, and as a supporter of the concept from the start, I’d like to share how I think the service is faring thus far. Spoiler: I think it’s kind of a train wreck.

“Basically I’m shocked by the sheer number of ways the indie ecosystem is presenting me in which I can spend ~$75 in order to be ignored.” – mcc

This is a common sentiment among independent developers, who pay literally hundreds of dollars a year in game festival submissions and other means of self-promotion for their games. The idea of one more fee, and one just for the chance at maybe making it into a digital retailer’s listings, was a hard pill to swallow. However, I think developers have more to gain from Greenlight than some of them believe.

Personally, I have discovered dozens of games through Greenlight, games like Super Skull Smash GO!, Legend of Dungeon, and Project Black Sun. If it weren’t for Greenlight, I may have never heard of these games. Daniel Fedor (former Bioware developer, current N.E.O. Scavenger developer) has first-hand evidence of Greenlight’s usefulness:

“So far, Greenlight has proven to be a valuable marketing tool, if nothing else. It drove a significant number of sales on its own, and the comments on the Greenlight page have served as a welcome ego boost.” – The Effects of Desura and Steam Greenlight

Is there a chance that a developer could pay the Greenlight fee and see absolutely no benefit? Absolutely, but there’s also a very real chance that their game gets noticed by dozens, maybe hundreds who would have never known it existed before. It’s a gamble, but perhaps not a worthless one.

Unfortunately, that is the most positive thing I can say about Greenlight. It may be a good marketing tool for some developers. By any other measure, I feel that Valve has failed.

If the point of Greenlight was to make the approval process more transparent, sensible, and to empower Valve’s customers in shaping the face of the Steam catalog, it hasn’t done its job in the least. Mutant Mudds, the game that was at the center of the controversy that necessitated Greenlight’s existence, is still not on Steam. It’s on the 3DS eShop, GoG, GamsersGate, Desura, Renegade Kid’s website, iOS, and is soon to be released for the Wii U, but it’s still begging for upvotes on Greenlight. Other games are in a similar situation. Gunman Clive, Knytt Underground and La-Mulana have all received the thumbs-up from gatekeepers at major digital storefronts and have been positively received by the public, yet these titles still must wait in the Greenlight queue to see a Steam release.

The situation hasn’t changed at all. Proven titles still aren’t on Steam with no clear reason as to why, while a hot mess like The War Z can still make its way into the store with no one at Valve noticing the game is a sham until people have already bought it.

Beyond my kvetching, I have an idea for fixing Greenlight: Get rid of it.

If the issue is curation, then why not simply allow developers to distribute their games on Steam unlisted? Valve feels that Steam needs to have a heavily guarded storefront, and developers feel that they can’t sell their games very well if they aren’t available on Steam. I believe that allowing developers to create unlisted store pages that customers can access via direct link or search is the most sensible compromise. From there, Valve can see which unlisted games are selling well and promote top-selling games into Steam’s catalog.

What greater measure of quality would Valve need to observe than a game selling well? If Valve were to make this compromise, Greenlight would become redundant and they could put this promising yet poorly handled experiment to rest.

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Michael Robinson is a life-long fan of video games and enjoys discussing them as much as playing them.

8 Comments to The Success and Failure of Steam Greenlight
    • LTS
    • It’s a really good article. I’m actually saying this because I’m writing one myself for NotEnoughShaders and I’m having a hard time making it as easy to read and as easily understandable as yours is.

      I truly didn’t know that Valve had its own kinds of issues like that. I always hear good stuff about Valve, but looking at what they do wrong can help to see what will be their challenges once they enter the home console business.

      • Michael Robinson
      • Thanks! I’m not a writer in any sense of the word, so I’m glad you found the article easy to understand. I just read it over and over again until I felt like it was right. Also, the NES guys altered some parts of it for the better.

        • Luther Tchofo Safo
        • Sounds great. I finally finished polishing mine and I’m really proud of it in the end. Btw, how did you change your image? I just posted my article on the site (the one on F-ZERO) so I want to have a Captain Falcon profile pic instead of the generic one.

    • The Theory
    • This article it’s right trough the core of the problem with Steam’s approval process. very excellent.

      It makes you wonder if it’s some kind of sick joke back at with the Approval team to get horrid. broken game and makes you pay to have the displeasure to pay for them, while games that need to have some spotlight are just tossed to the garbage bin…

      -The Theory

    • Kami
    • Interesting. Kill to cure. I happen to agree that I think the Greenlight issue continues to make a dogs dinner of some things, and it’s the same as the whole Kickstarter issue to me; sure, there are some of us knowledgeable folk who know what to support and what is required to support it – but in the real world, the day to day, people are lured by what they know and ultimately, by what is making headlines – something that Revelations 2012 and The War Z only prove conclusively.

      It’s NICE to want to support and give Indies a greater presence in Steam and beyond, but nice doesn’t cut it. Not when there is still a misnomer of budget games by big-name developers somehow being allowed to be dubbed “Indie Gaming”. No, we need first of all to stop making such a massive distinction about Indie and Commercial gaming, because we’re getting very muddled – and there is still this idea of risk on Indie gaming, that you’re entering the unknown even though this is true of all gaming. I didn’t expect Silent Hill: Downpour to such so much and provide no more than seven or eight hours of fun – yet I can waste twice that in Legend of Grimrock – a successful game in its own right, no?

      Thing is, I fear that given the choice between £10 for Grimrock and £10 for something like Resident Evil 5, people will go for Resident Evil 5. Because people just expect quality from a bigger publisher. It’s not true, but it’s a horrid perception that is still just making things harder for independent studios. “This is a game!” compared to “This is an Indie game!” – there’s still a certain mistrust, a certain expectation or view for auteur-heavy non-objective criticism and perhaps a certain opinion that an indie game cannot deliver the same quality and content that perhaps the main gaming market can.

      Perhaps the best example of this problem was the questionnaire that the Ouya sent out a while back asking for suggestions of games that they wanted on this new low-powered and interesting budget console. There were some notable indie gems there – Terraria and Minecraft (although is Minecraft really that indie anymore?), but the list was dominated with Fifa, Call of Duty, Assassin’s Creed and Need For Speed.

      The harsh reality of the Indie scene is when given a frontage that allows consumers to get interesting variety of content, they’ll still go for the big-name franchises because inherently, they trust those more.

      So there needs to be something far more radical – perhaps, just perhaps, we should start by dropping this farcical and pretentious ideal of “Indie”. That’s not an excuse for a rubbish game. But it might just be the catch holding people back – Indie Gaming cannot be special or exclusive any more. It has to be about the games.

      Perhaps then we’ll see The War Z and their ilk fade away. “But we’re a small studio!” – consumers don’t care. Sorry. They just don’t. Go good or go home.

      Those are my thoughts on this. Great read btw!

      • Michael Robinson
      • I agree. Maybe “indie” meant something at some point, but not anymore, at least not as a genre. Lines are getting so blurred that calling a game “indie” is becoming a word you lazily use in the hopes that people have the same vague understanding of the word that you do. I’m just as guilty of this as anyone; old habits die hard.

        I think that the rising adoption if digital distribution as well as a growing aversion to traditional advertising by consumers and businesses alike will eliminate much of the perceived distinctions between “AAA” and “indie” games.

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