This Week In Indie: Steam Greenlight Is A Mess
The recent news of Microsoft enabling self-publishing on the Xbox One, in what many have called a backtracking move in terms of policy, has largely eschewed news of a very well known self-publishing indie staple that of Steam Greenlight. As it stands, self-publishing has been the biggest talking point during these last couple of weeks, and not much attention has been given to the criticisms that can be levelled at Steam Greenlight, which has generated much discontent and complaints from a number of smaller indie devs. Many of these devs are trying to make their way on to the Steam platform, and are being restricted by many of the measures put in place by Steam Greenlight.
The source of the latest resurgence of the Steam Greenlight debacle occurred mainly due to a Reddit thread which highlighted the promotion of Infestation: Survivor Stories on the Daily Deal via Steam. Unbeknownst to many, Infestation: Survivor Stories is actually the re-branding of former DayZ clone War Z. This action has been labelled by much of the community as uncalled preferential treatment, and some have condoned the game as an offensive mess, and clone, that shouldn’t even be present on Steam. The result of this whole fiasco is that many gamers bought Infestation: Survivor Stories during the Summer Steam Sale, and the biggest kicker was that because War Z’s developers re-branded the game the Metacritic score for the original game (which is 20%) was no longer visible in the game’s description. Many consumers were blind-sided and made purchases without being well informed. This has soured many gamers and devs’ opinions of Valve’s practices.
Following these events, one small-time indie developer known to the community as poe, a dev behind the game Six Sided Sanctuary, took it upon himself to write an open letter to Valve. In the letter, he actively criticises Steam Greenlight and offers various suggestions to solve the outlying problems present within Steam Greenlight’s structure.
In the letter, poe outlines the problem with Steam Greenlight effectively. He first states that the basic problem with Greenlight is that it is ineffective in what it sets out to do and is surrounded by user misconceptions, and a lack of education. Namely the misconception, by users, that it is easy for indie devs to publish through Steam. This is very much not the reality of the situation. Secondly, the general population who uses Steam are unaware of Steam Greenlight, and have no true knowledge of its function. The only people who are using the service are from within the indie community, or form part of very niche audiences. The truth is Valve has to make money and will focus on the promotion of indie games that do so. Your game is only relevant if it it makes it into the top 100 on Steam Greenlight and is up-voted by loads of users. However, this has no bearing on the quality of the game, as some games can be voted through Steam Greenlight and be mere clones of Minecraft, Super Meat Boy or Limbo for that matter. One user posted to poe that the onus is not on Valve to help indie devs, saying that:
To be fair I don’t think it’s their job to help indies or they should even care. Games like bastion, minecraft, rogue legacy and isaac got big because people like them, talk about them and bought them. The only reason they’re on sale all the time is because people buy them up like crazy and always talk about how good they are.
Minecraft didn’t get huge because a service decided to put a big featured sale/item badge on it. It got huge because it’s a good open game and people genuinely enjoyed it and spread it by word of mouth. Make a good game that appeals to a majority of people and you will get noticed. If you don’t then it’s your own fault.
Basically, many gamers like the one above believe that developers should be developing “good” games, and if they can’t must suffer and burn. Yet many indie devs make games for niche audiences and have a tough time promoting their game to their selective audience. Many games sit in Steam Greenlight and get passed on because they’re not searchable under trending and popular buzz words. A result of which is a lack of attention, and a stifling of good quality indie games under generic masses.
poe faults Steam Greenlight arguing that Greenlight doesn’t get enough traffic to be able to get a game greenlight “organically”. He uses a user’s post to reference what he means about Greenlight’s problematic “experimental” structure:
Unfortunately since this whole thing is so experimental, the rules keep changing. Some games get through with publishers, some are hung out to dry. Some don’t even need greenlight, some do. Some get greenlit when they crack the top 100, some sit in the number 1 or 2 spot for weeks or months.
Effectively for your game to become viable for publication on Steam it is necessary to collect up to 60 000+ user votes, as understood by the voting measures set out by Valve. With only the core indie crowd paying attention to Steam Greenlight, getting your game noticed through the service can be an insurmountable task. poe, a niche game developer himself, understands that Greenlight is a popularity contest and that niche games will never reach the promise of publication. But these niche games are marketable under the right circumstances and need the right mode of promotion to flourish through Steam. Although nearly 66 games have been published since Greenlight’s inception, many of these games pander to trends and are clones. There are far more quality indie games that are overlooked.
Steam Greenlight has now become the standard method to self-publish on Steam, and there have been many instances where games have been rejected from Steam altogether because of the dev receiving a publishing deal. Contrary to this, there have been numerous instances where developers, due to their popularity, have been able to publish directly to Steam without going through the process. To reiterate once more, it seems that Steam Greenlight is indeed a popularity contest and does no more to improve from the opaque methods previously employed by Valve when publishing indie games.
In terms of solutions, poe provided various options within his letter such as a Steam Store Widget which would be similar to the Humble Store Widget, where users can purchase games directly from developers and add them to their own personal Humble account. In the case of Steam, people could buy games from developers and add them directly to their Steam account, and download the game through Steam servers. The problem with this is it may compromise the security of Steam in some way, but on a more positive note Valve could obtain actual sales data for Steam Greenlight. This collected sales data would reflect real indie game buying habits, and be beneficial over time. Alternatively poe proposes the same process can be applied directly to Steam Greenlight where gamers can buy games directly through Greenlight, and when a game reaches a set amount of sales it can be moved into the Steam store.
Other solutions include: Valve directly curates the Greenlight top 100 games and should categorise games by their potential to Greenlight, if not they should require further development or be removed from Greenlight. Reputable people from within the indie community could be put in charge of Greenlight, to greenlight promising titles, such as highly popular Let’s Players and successful Greenlight indie developers. There should be a greater amount of interaction between the indie dev community and Valve, where transparency of the Greenlight process can exist and solutions to problems can be addressed. If the rules for being greenlit are so flexible, why not allow publishers to aid indie developers if it is possible? This may prove to be more beneficial. As all situations are not the same, and self-publishing may not be the road for every indie dev trying to make it on to Steam. Greenlight could be integrated into Steam to the point where you can vote and share a game in Steam Greenlight from within your own Steam profile and an active chat session. There may be other options such as bringing the old submission system back where indie developers can directly submit indie games to Valve, through a great proposal. These are all promising solutions and provide a host of options.
A Valve employee named Tom Bui has given this response to the criticisms levelled by poe in his open letter:
Things are looking up from this point, and Bui says that they are working on improving Steam Greenlight and increasing the number of games been greenlit through the service. However, as shown above, there are a few issues with the service that need to be ironed out in order to improve the relationship between indie developers and Steam. This would bring balance to Steam Greenlight’s process.
Getting Steam Greenlight on the right track is a difficult task where many compromises will need to be made. Moreover, what we see happening here is that the woes of self-publishing do not only pertain to consoles, but also to the often idealised “open” platform that the PC scene is hailed as. The truth is that no platform is exempt from problematic issues within their self-publishing models. Valve certainly isn’t innocent.