Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Steam Greenlight: Crowd-Sourcing the Slush Pile

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 10, 2012

Valve just announced a game-changer for indies that will go live in a few weeks. Entitled Steam Greenlight, it appears to be an answer to the overwhelming number of indie games being submitted regularly for Steam release:

Steam Greenlight

So basically, we’re talking Valve crowd-sourcing their growing slush-pile. The theory is that the most popular games rise to the top of the heap where they eventually cross some threshold to get noticed by the folks in charge of adding titles to the service. And then they make the final selection.

This seems to be a better approach than having the whole thing be fully automated, and it’s a step in the right direction for Steam in relation to indies. They’ve obviously not been able to keep up, and this should help solve the problem. In theory, this program enlists the aid of the community to help them discover promising new indie games. And in many ways, it will effectively open up a new place for indies to get their games listed and hopefully noticed – whether they are on Steam or not.

So all-in-all, I count this as a reasonably good thing.

But is it a huge thing? A game-changer? The dawn of a new golden age for indies? I’m not so sure. Here are my reservations about the system, based on what limited information we currently have:

First off – I used to work for a pretty successful “Network Marketing” company, AKA multi-level marketing company.  One of the facts of life about that environment is that when you are talking about the kind of money the top distributors made – which was probably in-line with what many of the more successful indie games make on Steam – well, let’s just say people didn’t necessarily conform to what we at the company considered fair practices. They would game the ever-living crap out of whatever system was in place.  And as the company, we had to walk a fine line between protecting the system from abuse, and not pissing off our top distributors. We didn’t always err on the side of fairness.

When you are talking about the kind of revenue a game on Steam can bring versus other distribution sources, it’s a pretty big deal. Sure, you might have to sell your game for half as much on Steam, but you’ll probably sell 10x as many copies, for a net improvement of 5x revenue. Think to yourself: What would YOU do in order to win a contest that would quintuple your salary?

Now think what people with fewer scruples than you might do.

So yeah, I expect to see the system abused and exploited in all kinds of lovely ways. Policing it will be a major job for Valve, because the stakes are high. I don’t know that they are up to it. Hopefully they’ll grow into it.

Besides the personal-gain exploitation, you other kinds of community issues that will function to distort rankings. I have heard tales of XBLIG community issues where games (allegedly) get downvoted because of the developer’s failure to behave the way the community leaders want them to behave. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know – I’m not there – but things can get political when you have community control over things like this. Then you have some self-appointed vigilantes on places like Desura who will down-rate a game in protest of its price. As if all games should be knock-it-out-in-a-month platform shooters. I don’t know if a “down-vote” counts for anything (there’s a thumbs-down button in the screenshot at the above link), but it’s another potential vulnerability of the system.

Another concern is that this kind of popularity contest may hinder the more niche titles – like RPGs. Could this turn Steam into just-another-publisher churning out nothing but the low-hanging fruit of the indie scene? Nothing but FPS titles and platform-action games from now on? One of the best things about the indie scene for me has been its willingness to explore dormant game styles and experiment with new ideas that defy easy categorization. I’d hate to see the biggest platforms for indie games once again turn into a narrow genre ghetto. (I say “once again,” because it happened before with the portals that once offered a broad variery of games that eventually became “casual game portals.”)

Hopefully, Valve will protect against this problem as well. After all, if you’ve already released four platform-puzzle action games this month, the folks who really love this kind of game may be feeling a bit saturated, while the fans of sports management simulators are still waiting around with money in their pocket for something to buy. But considering the dearth of sports management simulators on Steam already, I’m not going to hold my breath for Valve to entertain the really narrow niches.  But hopefully they – and the community – will break up games by categories and look at games on a per-category basis. The very fact that they bother with indies at all speaks to their willingness to give the “little guys” a shot, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope this new system won’t overly penalize the niche titles.

So there may still be a number of barriers preventing some great games from being available on Steam. And we will all have questions regarding implementation details. But while I have some serious concerns that prevent me from declaring this a major victory for indie gaming, it still looks like a positive development. We’ll find out in a few weeks, I guess. And then keep finding out as Valve deals with the inevitable bugs and policy problems and refine the Greenlight system to something which will hopefully end up as fair as can be reasonably expected.

A lot of things won’t change. Indies will still be in charge of their own marketing, to have to try and drum up support for their games in the community.  Making a great game and doing great marketing will still be requirements.

I still worry about Steam monopolizing the indie games scene for computers. I’d like to see more / better competitors shaking things up and keeping Steam honest & hungry.


Filed Under: Biz, Indie Evangelism - Comments: 12 Comments to Read

  • PoV said,

    > I still worry about Steam monopolizing the indie games scene for computers.

    Isn’t it already too late for that? You’ve heard the screams, “You should put it on Steam”. The customer mindshare is already lost.

    The integrated Windows 8 Store is the only thing I see shaking a stick at it, but I suspect it’ll be driven by a very different set of customers.

  • Charles said,

    I’ll be able to test that soon. You could too btw, no?

  • Albert1 said,

    If I remember right, years ago you wrote about how bored you were with game portals requiring to install a client app on users’ PC in order to play the purchased games. I think this is one of the reasons Steam is monopolizing the market, even though the latter is literally swamped of competitors: they insinst on (poorly) copy’n’pasting today what Valve did pretty well yesterday. I really miss Reflexive Arcade – they were really ahead of time! These days I think GOG.com is doing pretty well – they don’t piss me off with client apps, yet I can download the games from my account anytime I want. They started distributing some indie games too, so maybe… 😉

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    @PoV: Hadn’t heard about MS making an integrated Win8 store… surely that will be illegal in the EU after all the trouble they had with integrated IE?

    Back on topic: I’m not really sure why everyone is so excited by this. I’ve even heard it being called a response to kickstarter… but it’s not even the same thing. As you’ve said, all this will be is a way for the more popular games to get on Steam (which they generally managed to do anyway, I can’t remember many people having problems).

    Maybe it will help in some way, but with all the big download services all offering indie games already, I would have thought it was easy enough for people to buy them and discuss them.

  • jwmeep said,

    Might as well ask the obvious question. Will you be trying to use Greenlight to try to get Frayed Knights on Steam?

    I know you tried originally to get FK on steam, and it was rejected for nebulous reasons only Steam knows. I also know the Frayed Knights fanbase is small, but I’d call them loyal.

  • SniperHF said,

    Your last sentence is my greatest worry for gaming right now. Not just for indies either. Indies and smaller publishers are bringing back dead genres, that’s half the battle.

    The rest will be keeping Valve/steam from becoming synonymous with PC gaming like ipod is to MP3 players. PoV might be right, it could already be too late. But I’m glad at least EA is trying, and they have the resources to do it.

  • Bad Sector said,

    Nothing but FPS titles and platform-action games from now on?

    Well that wouldn’t be a problem since indies aren’t making any FPS games 😛 (ok there are a couple but compared to platformers and puzzle games they are practically inexistent).

    In any case it depends on two things:

    • How Valve will use the results from Greenlight. Will they blindly accept the top-voted stuff or also use the up vote:down vote ratio for finding mostly good (or mostly controversial) games? I suspect that we won’t hear many details on this to avoid gaming the system, as you said

    • How easy Valve will make discovering games you might like even if you don’t know about them. I don’t hold much hope here, their store is nice but it also lacks some features (like tagging and matching preferences between users) that would help their actual income. However that would help indies not feel drowned on a sea of crappyness and manipulation from “community leaders”

  • Demiath said,

    That’s a bit of a grumpy perspective, even by my standards. Methinks we should all just Greenlight the sh**t out of the entire Frayed Knights series and be happy…

  • jwmeep said,

    >Methinks we should all just Greenlight the sh**t out of the entire Frayed Knights series and be happy…

    I sure want to.

  • Cuthalion said,

    There’s a game on Greenlight that I really want to see succeed. What can I do?

    Go tell your friends; just don’t be annoying about it.


  • Cuthalion said,

    Well, this is at least in improvement in that now you can track your progress. Before, I’ve heard (from you and others) that you just submit it and hope you hear back.

    Now at least, when people demand you put your game on Steam, you can tell them, “You go put my game on Steam!”

  • necronomicon said,

    I’m still shocked stuff like Zeboyd got so easily on Steam. Hopefully good RPG can reach Steam with this method, although I doubt it. At the end of the day it will still be a matter of knowing the right persons, not making a good game.